Bright murals adorn the walls at the Centro Astalli in Catania | Photo: Emma Wallis
Bright murals adorn the walls at the Centro Astalli in Catania | Photo: Emma Wallis

The Jesuit Refugee Service is part of a network of religious, state and charitable organizations providing services for refugees and migrants across Italy. Every day from 4-7pm the Centro Astalli in Catania opens its doors to provide a safe haven, medical and legal services; and an Italian school, for those in need.

On a narrow street, just off the main road which winds along Catania’s seafront, not far from the central station is the Centro Astalli. Its glass doors open at 4 pm every day and scrawled on the pink walls that surround the stone arch in the old building are welcoming graffiti in various languages. The center is run by the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Catholic Church. However, on the night I visit the center,  all the people at work are lay people: volunteers who spend their afternoons and evenings welcoming a constant stream of people looking for some help. There are doctors, social workers, lawyers and teachers.

There are murals in some of the rooms, painted by the many children who attend the center to learn Italian, or to get help with their homework in afterschool clubs, while their parents learn Italian or are at work. After they’ve finished their homework, they play a game of tag, weaving in among the groups of mostly West African men waiting in reception for legal advice or a medical checkup.Free medicines available for those who need them at the Centro Astalli  Photo Emma Wallis

'I am all alone'

Aboubakar Touré is one of them, from Senegal. He speaks in halting French and is hoping to speak to the lawyer, because he has just received a rejection for his asylum claim. He doesn’t want to pose for a photo and keeps his eyes on the floor for most of the conversation. He’s staying at Cara di Mineo, the camp for refugees and asylum seekers about an hour’s drive outside the center of town, much longer if you have to rely on public transport.

Touré is dressed in new looking basketball trainers and low slung jeans which expose his underpants at the back. Everything is neat and clean, yet he can barely read or write and doesn't know his actual birthdate because he was abandoned by his parents at a young age. He whispers answers nervously while keeping an eye on the queue for the lawyer.

"I'm 23 years old and I've been in Catania for nearly a year. I came here because I need a new lawyer. I need papers so I can work. I just want to work, but for that I need a lawyer."The reception desk at the Centro Astalli Catania  Photo Emma Wallis

He says he likes Sicily and wants to stay here. Why did you come here? I ask. "Because I was all alone in Senegal; when I slept, I was alone, when I ate, I was alone, when I wanted to buy something, I was alone, when I was ill, I was alone."

‘I just want to work’

He said his parents disappeared when he was very young and he doesn't really know what happened to them; they could be dead he thinks. On his temporary identification card, the authorities have said he was born on January 1 and turned him into a 23-year-old. He looks much younger and is slight. He doesn’t mind what kind of work he does, as long as he can work. He hopes that one day he can learn a trade, a mechanic or a tailor he says. It appears he doesn’t mind what it is as long as he obtains the right to stay. "I want a life like everyone else, that’s all I want," he adds simply.

He says he worked his way along the route from Senegal, leaving the country "a long time ago." Libya is something he doesn’t like to think about. "There is a lot of trouble there," he explains. In Libya too, he found himself alone. Before getting up to leave and see the lawyer, he makes one final plea: “If they don’t help me here, then I can’t understand anything. Without the papers, I have no future."

Close up of You are safe poster  Photo Emma Wallis

Medicine for all

The Centro Astalli provides medicine and sanitary products to migrants as well. Foreigners in Italy get a temorary health card, the STP, which only covers essential medical needs. Everything else like medication for skin infections, colds and flu, they are asked to pay for themselves. "That’s where we step in," says Elvira Iovino, a small blonde woman in a red padded jerkin and the current president of the Centro Astalli, conducting me on a tour of the center. 

She takes me into the small surgery, with a desk, chairs, a couch and cupboards full of donated medicines which the center gives out to those in need. "Even for us Italians, these medicines are often only available if you pay for them. Perhaps you need some cream for hemorrhoids or a cut, cough syrup, it could cost you eight, nine or ten euros, they just don’t have that kind of money, so we provide these things here."

Learning letters

How to learn Italian at the Centro Astalli for those who cant read or write  Photo Emma Wallis

Next, we visit the school room. People from the Horn of Africa, the Arab world, Sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia are sitting around tables. The teachers slowly repeat Italian phonetics and write the letters on a board, asking questions and encouraging conversation. Under Italy's new immigration decree, everyone will have to obtain a B1 level of Italian in order to stay. "What makes it harder is that many of them don’t know how to read or write, or have to learn Italian letters before they can even start learning," explains Iovino.

One of those at the table is Adama Gueye from Senegal. Unlike many of the others here, she arrived on an airplane, not the boat. She was able to join her husband who made the journey ahead of her, also by plane and already has a job. She is keen to learn Italian so that she too can enter the job market. She has been in Sicily for two years so far. "People are nice here, I love it," she says. "It's difficult to get a job here though without understanding the language. But still, it is good here."Learning sounds and words at the Centro Astalli Catania  Photo Emma Wallis

Adama Gueye worked in the restaurant trade in Senegal and hopes to transfer her skills here. Her favorite food in Senegal is chicken, rice and onion sauce, but she thinks Italian cooking is healthier, using less oil, and she wants to learn how to make lasagne once she improves her Italian. “In Senegal, we couldn’t earn enough, here the salaries are better and we hope to be able to earn more so we can help our parents. There are lots of Senegalese people here in Catania. We feel at home here, people are nice," she adds smiling.

Support for those in prison

The center recently started up a service for migrants and refugees in prison. They visit as a point of contact for the migrants, who often have no one to turn to once they are incarcerated. "They need everything from us, from underwear to clothes, towels, everything." Apart from their material needs the center also tries to make them feel less isolated.

There are about 15 minors in a special center and about 130 foreign adults currently in prison in Catania, explains Iovino. "In prison, you are only allowed to call a landline. Most of the migrants and refugees only have cellphone contacts; which means that they lose all contact with those they know when they are imprisoned. We make sure that they have a number they can call and people who can come here to use the landlines and talk to their friends, so that they don’t feel so abandoned. That is a big problem for them.”

800 arrivals each year

Iovino explains that, on average, about 800 new people arrive in their center in Catania each year. Some stay around for a year, some longer and many continue to visit the doctor or drop in to greet old friends, even after they no longer need the support the center offers. The volunteers at the center treat each person with kindness and respect, greeting the regulars and making sure new faces are welcomed and supported. 

A poster on the wall in the Centro Astalli Catania  Photo Emma Wallis

‘A marvelous journey’

There are Astalli Centers throughout Italy; the one in Catania was set up in 1999. Iovino has been volunteering there since the beginning and gradually worked her way up to becoming president. "At the beginning, most of the migration we saw were people coming from the East: First Albania, then Afghanistan, Pakistan and later Syria and the Maghreb, Tunisia and Morocco. Most of them were coming for economic reasons, to work. Then things changed completely. More and more Sub-Saharan Africans started coming, the Horn of Africa and West Africa." There are so many reasons for fleeing their countries, poverty, war, a lack of human rights, or access to education or health care, she explains.

Demonstration in support of migrants and refugees in Catania Sicily 191118  Photo Emma Wallis

The volunteers are motivated by the richness of the relationships and the cultural exchanges that are created in the place. "The relationships that we create here are extraordinary. They tell us about their different cultures and there is a reciprocal affection and respect," Iovino says before rushing off to make sure that everyone has been adequately attended and provided with some kind of support. As one of the poster's on the wall suggests, the center is seeking to provide a safe space for all.


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