“Being a refugee in another country means restart, from another point of start,” Francesca Cuomo, a social worker for refugee NGO, Centro Astalli explains. “And this is very difficult for a person, for an adult, even for a younger boy or girl.”

Since Italy’s right-wing coalition came into power in June last year, the controversial laws they have passed restricting immigration and asylum seekers, has made this restart more difficult, but this hasn’t stopped locals and asylum seekers from sharing their lives with each other.

Italy, a country filled with a distinct culture, recognisable the world over. It is pizza and pasta, gelato and family, religion and relics, an ancient empire. It is a country that protects its cultural identity, and Italian people are very protective of this culture. It’s this strong cultural identity that helped start breeding a concern of immigrants and asylum seekers throughout Italy. Few countries have a culture, and an identity, as discernible as Italy’s, so how do those enter the country have any chances to fit in to this identity?

Italy is one of Europe’s ‘hot spots’ for asylum seeker arrivals, its border with the Mediterranean Sea makes it possible for migrants to arrive from several different sea routes. This ease of arrival has made Italy aware of the number of migrants who could come into the country, leading it to create strict laws for asylum seekers and refugees.

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Since the coalition came into power after last year’s elections, the co-vice president, Matteo Salvini has become famous for his anti-immigrant, anti-asylum seeker stance. Recently, Salvini has pushed through a law removing humanitarian protections as a permit for residence, a law known as ‘Salvini’s Law’. This law makes it harder for asylum seekers to live in Italy, and means there will be more rejections of asylum applications in Italy. Salvini has also blamed migrants for Italy’s problems, like high unemployment and crime rates, while ignoring issues like organised crime that contribute heavily to these rates. This fearmongering has bred a strong anti-migrant attitude throughout Italian society, but there are still many NGOs and individuals who reject this, choosing to embrace asylum seekers and refugees, and these people’s lives and identities become intertwined.

Most asylum seekers arriving in Italy land in Sicily, in the south. The island has three processing centres, and many different camps for asylum seekers and refugees to live. These camps are often underfunded, and overcrowded, with the government demolishing many deemed unfit to live in across the country. When he aged out of the centre and support provided for minors, Ismael Adams was destined for one of these camps.

“They tell me that if I got to eighteen years, I couldn’t stay where I was anymore…If you’re eighteen years old they must transfer you to another camp,” Ismael said.

“And because that other camp is not Catania, it’s outside Catania. And I don’t like to go there because that camp, they don’t treat people so good there…I don’t want to go there because there’s just bush there and they don’t treat people well.”

Ismael is 20 years old, and originally from Ghana. He came to Italy alone, and hopes to play football, despite knowing how unrealistic that is, and how much competition he faces in Italy. Thanks to Refugees Welcome, he didn’t have to move to a camp, and now lives with his mum and dad, in the suburbs on the edge of Catania, in Sicily.

Becoming family

When you walk into the Sapienza–Messina house, you see a home. Filled with knickknacks and collectibles, the couch strewn with decorative pillows the living room is centred by a large grand piano. The thing that makes the house feel most like a home is the loving and welcoming people inside it. Mario and Marcella greet everyone warmly, and their genuine smiles make everyone who sees them happy. This trait is shared by Ismael Adams, the couple’s son, who they met 7 months ago. Mario and Marcella saw an ad in their local paper for Refugees Welcome, and with the couple’s 3 children all living away for university, they decided to give the program a try. The couple met Ismael, and two weeks later, he moved in on a six month contract. They renewed this contract in March, and bought some goats, that they care for together. Marcella is on the board of a local arts community, and since he came to live with them, Ismael has become involved, singing, acting, and playing the drums, things he hadn’t done previously.

The family love each other, and this sentiment is shared by the extended family and friends.


“We didn’t have any problems with friends or family. They accepted him, they were very interested to know him in deep,” Marcella says.

“Our family was very curious, also the smallest one, the nephews and nieces,” she says.

Even though the family love each other, Mario and Marcella were still nervous before they met Ismael, because of the Italian media’s anti-immigration rhetoric.

“We were very doubtful in the beginning, because we read a lot of bad news in the newspaper and saw on social media in general. But we were ready to meet a person from another part of the world and know him in depth,” said Marcella.

This understanding and willingness to look past the opinions that are presented hasn’t stretched to all Italians though; with the Sapienza-Messina’s saying things have become harder since Salvini’s law was passed.

“We notice differences after the Salvini decree. People are more suspicious, they look at black people with suspect. Also like some years ago, they just were more available to smile at a black person, like in front of a traffic lights or just being stopped in a queue. Instead, now they don’t want to mix with them,” Mario says.

“They are like, me and black? I stay in this part, and black people are in another part. So maybe after the Salvini decree, things have changed,” he says.

Even though the government is perpetuating this negative image, it hasn’t deterred Ismael, Mario, and Marcella from being a family.

Keep going on

Francesca Cuomo from Centro Astalli, believes that even though Salvini has made things more difficult for refugees and asylum seekers, those supporting them need to push through.

“It’s changed many things. First of all, the reception is changed, as for the protection, even it’s changing. We don’t have any more human protection here in Italy… we have other forms of protection, and people who have humanitarian protection, in this moment have more problems than other people, than other refugees,”” she says.

”The situation is different from the past, and we go on. We go on absolutely, and we try to go on every day for refugees and sick migrants. It’s not easy,” Francesca says.

Centro Astalli is the Italian arm of the international Jesuit Rescue Services, or JRS, an international Christian NGO that has provided support for refugees and asylum seekers for decades. Francesca works with schools, teaching acceptance and awareness to students and teachers, as well as providing any needed support for the refugee and asylum seeker students. This work, she says, is important as, “It is not an easy task for a refugee being included into our society, even into Italian society. It’s a work that goes day by day. But, it’s possible, it’s absolutely possible, and we work for this goal.”

Francesca Cuomo talks about Centro Astalli’s work at their headquarters in Rome. Photo by Lilly McKenzie

The JRS is just one of the organisations in Italy fighting to keep providing services for refugees and asylum seekers. Welcome Refugees, the program that linked Ismael Adams with Mario and Marcella, in other EU countries receives federal funding so Refugees Welcome can help subsidise the cost for families hosting; but in Italy, families pay solely out of pocket.

This puts a struggle on these families, as well as added pressure on Welcome Refugees to be able to find housing for refugees and asylum seekers. NGOs like this are necessary to keep refugees and asylum seekers out of the poorly maintained camps, which could be torn down by the government at any point. Many refugees and asylum seekers need these camps, or the support of NGO for housing, as finding legal employment in Italy can be very difficult, and this makes affording rent almost impossible for asylum seekers. Francesca says finding work is the biggest struggle for refugees in Italy.

“Working is not easy, and a person, a migrant, a refugee, has more problems than an Italian for searching for work here. Even the language, but I think work is the most difficult thing at this moment in Italy.”

Moving forward

As laws around asylum seekers and refugees remain uncertain, and anti-immigrant sentiment grows stronger, families, friends, and supporters continue to work for integration and acceptance, of all identities. When asked if she thinks this is possible, Francesca says, “I believe yes. I believe yes because we experiment this thing every day in the school…with the future of Italy. In another world, it’s possible.”

Mario and Marcella’s comments translated by Carla Pisi from Refugees Welcome.