Italian President Sergio Mattarella has bestowed the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic to Maria Coletti for her dedication to helping immigrant children learn Italian.
Maria Coletti was given the prestigious award in recognition of her "contribution to foster policies of peaceful coexistence and full integration" of immigrant children. Italian President Sergio Mattarella said that the activities of her association fostered "peaceful coexistence and full integration."
Coletti dedicated the award to the memory of a Malian boy who drowned in 2015 in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. The boy had a school report card from his home country sewn into his clothing.
Read more: Stumbling stones for drowned migrant boy
The Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, established in 1951, is the highest ranking honor in Italy.
'Small seeds of change'
Coletti spoke to the Italian ANSA news agency about the honor, noting that initially she couldn't believe that she was being given such a high honor. Coletti said that "the welcoming spirit is at the core of the things we do. These are things that affect society. We perhaps cannot see major results immediately but they will be there in the long term."
"I am extremely happy about the work we've done with the parents, the children, and the neighborhood associations. This work is invaluable for all of us because even a small seed can serve to inspire change, to get past that hatred, the indifference and violence in the air," the 50-year-old said.
Coletti also highlighted the fact that migrant children in Italy were treated as "de facto Italians who don't yet have the right to live and study in our country," demanding a different approach from the government.
"This is an injustice that must be resolved," she said.
Integration as homework
Coletti has served as the chairwoman of the Pisacane 0-11 association, which was set up in 2013 by the parents of children attending the school by the same name, located in one of the most multiethnic areas of the Italian capital, Rome.
The association was founded in response to the growing need to support the school with projects and activities open to the entire community. Volunteers working in the association mostly assist when it comes to teaching Italian as well as helping out with general homework for children with foreign parents who do not speak the language well.
A smile against vandalism
On the initiative of the volunteers and teachers, each year
the school holds a party on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees at the end
of September. Last year, four large banners were hung outside the school to
announce the event: one in Italian, one in Arabic, one in Bengali, and one in
The banners were left hanging all the way into Christmas season. Over Christmas, however, unknown assailants burned down the banner with the Arabic script. The Pisacane parents released a statement in response, saying that "schools teach us that one should not react with violence to violence."
"We respond with what we know how to do best: with a smile," the statement further read, highlighting that school was trying to set an "example of coexistence and peaceful and virtuous knowledge."