A year ago, Alpha Diallo's life changed. The 41-year-old refugee from Guinea started an internship at Leroy Merlin, one of more than 120 companies included in the UNHCR project 'Welcome: Working for Refugee Integration'.
"They made me into a person who is useful to society. When I see some of my fellow African refugees, they are very different, because they were not as lucky as I was. And I tell them that it is never too late to learn," said Alpha Diallo, a 41-year-old Guinean who has been in Italy for almost four years.
His life changed a year ago when he started an internship in Rome at Leroy Merlin, one of 121 companies awarded by UNHCR as part of the "Welcome, Working for Refugee Integration" project.
Alpha had had a tailor's shop in Guinea and "lived well," he said, until his father died and left him land, livestock and a large farm in inheritance. A number of people from another ethnic group claimed that the land holdings of his father had been obtained illegally, leading to an intense legal battle.
Serious threats followed, and an attack left him in hospital for three weeks. "I couldn't get treatment in Guinea," he said. "I was taken to Mali and when I left the hospital, my closest friends advised me to leave the country or I would have been killed."
In Guinea, he left his wife and three daughters aged 13, ten and five as well as three brothers. He then went to Libya to work in the fields, "but they treated us like slaves," he said.
Diallo took one of the many clandestine migrant boats to Italy and landed on Lampedusa, from where he was transferred to a reception center in the eastern part of Rome.
Now, thanks to the internship, he has managed to rent a room in Torre Angela in the suburbs of the Italian capital.
'Work and training restore dignity'
"Work and training restore dignity and self esteem to those forced to leave their home countries due to war, human rights violations and persecution, enabling them to become independent and contribute to the social and economic life of the host country," said Chiara Cardoletti, the UNHCR representative for Italy, the Holy See and San Marino.
"In our seven retail outlets, we have a total of 34 interns," said Federica Ferrini, human resources head at the Roma Tiburtina Leroy Merlin shopping center.
"There are five in my store," Ferrini said. "For the most part, they bring in loads of merchandise and put it on the shelves. Alpha integrated well immediately. He carries out his tasks in a careful and scrupulous manner. He is a curious individual and now he coordinates the other interns."
Alpha is enthusiastic and grateful for the opportunity. "I am in charge of the gardening section," he said. "I have found a new work life that I want to explore, because one can work in this sector every season of the year."
'I learned to work with women'
"The internship changed me. It helped me to have relations with human beings that have a different skin color. This had never happened before. I also learned to work with women – in my country they don't work. And they are good.
"I would like to thank Federica and the sector chiefs Alessio and Anna and all my other colleagues. They are affectionate. When they greet me, some call me 'Dr.' or 'Maestro'," Diallo said.
"[The interns] have had very hard experiences, and they come here scared," human resources head Ferrini said. "But they have a great deal of desire to put themselves to the test. It is great to give [them] opportunities and also to know how to welcome diversity.
"The enrichment is reciprocal. For example, the integration of refugees helped us change the language we were using and to use fewer technical terms, to be simpler and (focus on the) essentials. After this experience, when I make selections I am now more attentive to the human aspect and not only the technical one," Ferrini added.
Diallo from Guinean, meanwhile, said he trusts his colleagues. "We have become friends. Now I can hand down this experience to others."