Villaggio La Brocchi has taken an innovative approach to integration. Its goal is to help new arrivals join the local community, through a number of initiatives, including a choir and an intercultural library.
On a brisk January day, three of Villaggio La Brocchi’s residents, bundled in winter jackets, stand on the side of the winding road. Just outside a small comune of 18,300 people called Borgo San Lorenzo, in Tuscany, the recently-arrived migrants wait for the regional bus to take them into town for their Italian language classes.
Home to 38 refugee families, Villaggio La Brocchi is an old villa that has been repurposed as a “progetto accoglienza,” a welcome project, nestled in a valley between Florence and the Apennine mountains.
As part of the Italian Interior Ministry’s Protection System for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (SPRAR), Villaggio La Brocchi, and its three partner houses throughout the region, host families of recently-arrived refugees from countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, and Afghanistan.
From providing legal and healthcare support to newly-arrived refugees to language classes, employment training, and on-site daycare services for the 27 children spread out amongst the four locations, Villaggio La Brocchi offers a multifaceted approach to integrating its residents into the local community.
"We try to offer a diverse and distinctive approach to integration," says the president of the project, Luigi Andreini. "In a place like Cara di Mineo, it’s very hard if you have 2000 people to find particular and specific integration interventions that suit everyone. If you receive 2000 people all at once, you treat the situation like an emergency," he says.
The picturesque Villaggio La Brocchi can be seen as the photo negative of refugee camps like Cara di Mineo, one of Europe’s largest which houses upwards of 2,000 people, in the south of Italy. Instead of wire fences, Villaggio La Brocchi is surrounded by a small forest of tall trees and a courtyard with a playground for the children at the centre. The sprawling estate also houses a restaurant, Ethnos, which is headed by chef Sara Tagi, a refugee from Ethiopia, and a guest house, La Tinaia, which offers hospitality services for conferences.
Part of SPRAR’s mandate, as a network of local institutions that implement reception projects for migrants, is working in cooperation with civil society and going beyond providing room and board for migrants to offer social support, as well as the development of programs that promote integration "as a two way street."
"Not only at Villaggio La Brocchi, but in general in small situations where you receive small numbers of migrants, you can provide a different type of response to the issue," says Andreini. "For example, we go to schools – from elementary to college – in the local community to talk about migration. We also do capacity building – we train people on the themes of migration and integration," he says. The point is to "connect the two communities" through initiatives like a community choir, in which the residents mingle with Borgo San Lorenzo locals, and a peace education and intercultural documentation library.
Villaggio La Brocchi has been operating for 26 years and has welcomed families from 42 different countries. In the past, those who were received at Villaggio La Brocchi migrated for reasons related to improving their economic and living conditions, says Andreini. Since 2015, war and conflict have been the primary impetus for migrants to leave their homes. "The person who arrives in Italy is never the same as the person who began their voyage, as they’ve experienced immense trauma," says Andreini.
The project’s innovative initiatives are not only an answer to fostering integration as a two-way street, but also as tools for migrants to deal with the trauma they’ve experienced. "In the project we receive people with psychological problems as well as physical problems," says Pasi.
"So we find people with HIV, and sometimes cancer. We try to work with the residents to help them understand that in Italy these things can be treated," she says. In addition to employment training and education staff, there’s also an on-site clinical psychologist who assists the residents and implements initiatives like a weekly mindfulness-based stress relief meditation group.
At the heart of Villaggio La Brocchi’s ethos is ensuring that the residents themselves are empowered to take the steps they need to move forward. "We try to walk with them, and not do the work for them," says Pasi. "We try to help them find the right way to go — which is their way: the way they want, not the one we want for them."