Refugees working in the gardens of the Caserta royal palace grounds. Credit: Francesco Tedesco/ANSA
Refugees working in the gardens of the Caserta royal palace grounds. Credit: Francesco Tedesco/ANSA

As part of a reception program in Italy, four African refugees are interning as gardeners at one of the largest palaces erected in Europe during the 18th century.

''When two years ago I fled Nigeria, I would never have imagined that I would be working in such a wonderful place as the Caserta royal palace,'' said 21-year-old Odigia Bright. The young Nigerian fled from Boko Haram and arrived in Italy as a political refugee. 

Odigia and three other African refugees intern as gardeners in the park of Caserta royal palace, one of the largest royal residencies worldwide and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. They help those tasked with maintenance activities of the immense green areas of 'Italy's Versailles'. The internship is part of Italy's 'Accolti e Attivi' ('Welcomed and Active') program.

Odigia is Catholic and his father used to teach at the University of Mubi in Nigeria's federal state of Adamawa. Four years ago, Mubi was destroyed by Boko Haram extremists and Odigia's father was killed because of his religion. Odigia then fled to Libya, where he was arrested twice before managing to leave on a boat that subsequently sunk a few kilometers from the Italian coast. He was saved by the Italian Navy. 

His story is similar to those of the other refugees that work with him: Victor Hezekiah, Ouro Nini Adom Gado and Amodou Tanou. 

Amodou Tanou, 33, comes from Ivory Coast, where his father and brother were killed for their involvement in politics. He left a wife and three children behind who he hopes to bring to Italy. Victor Hezekiah, 31, is a Christian Nigerian who fled his home country and arrived in Italy only after 8 months in Libya. Ouro Nini Adom Gado, 31, is instead from Togo and worked as a welder before fleeing due to his backing of an opposition party and the violence that he suffered for it.

Invaluable help for park maintenance 

The internship at the Caserta royal palace started on March 28 and will run until June. Part of the expenses are reimbursed by the protection service for asylum seekers and refugees (SPRAR), which seeks to provide professional integration for refugees in Italy.

''The contribution of these intern-refugees will be invaluable", site director Mauro Felicori said. "Palazzo Vanvitelliano acts as a trailblazer and I hope that other museums can contribute to the integration and welcome of those fleeing war and conflict. Only by transferring knowledge and skills to them can we contribute to the human growth of refugees that through this will become our fellow citizens,'' 

An example to be followed 

"Victor, Bright, Nini and Amadou,'' the head of ARCI in Caserta, Angelo Ferrillo, said, ''are proof of a new way to understand reception. The results of their work will be visible to everyone, to the tourists and citizens who flock to a UNESCO World Heritage site. We must move beyond simply the providing of food and lodgings and move on to information, accompaniment, assistance and orientation. This is possible only through the creation of individual paths and socio-economic routes with the dignity of work. We are thus not talking about volunteers. We are talking about trainee gardeners at the service of a community that has offered them a new outlook on life.'' 

''Caserta,'' interior ministry undersecretary Domenico Manzione said, ''stands out for having set up once of the most important SPRARs at the national level. Some of the best Italian bodies in the reception and integration sector are operating here. Associations and individuals are working here to bring down barriers of distrust and racism.''

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