A protest in support of migrants' rights in Naples, Italy. | Photo: ANSA / Ciro Fusco
M is from Cameroon. He didn’t want to have his full name in print. He has picked up some Italian but prefers to speak French. He is one of eight current teenage residents at Via Delpino, a house for unaccompanied minors in the eastern Sicilian city of Catania.
Via Delpino is one of many "first welcome centers" set up by the Italian state across the country. This one is run by the Jesuit Refugee Service, part of the Catholic church. It is meant to provide the first month of accomodation and health checks for migrants until they can be rehoused. In practice, most of the young men who are residents end up staying for a year or more. These centers provide the first element of stability for young people who have been through tough times.
M is no exception. He decided to leave Cameroon to avoid being recruited as a child soldier in the fighting which has broken out between government forces and Anglophone speaking separatists. His family was francophone in a majority anglophone area. "My dad died and my mother and little sister disappeared. I don't know where they are," he sighs sadly.
When is your birthday?
It is hard to tell how old M really is. He is tall, but shy and when he talks, he seems quite young. He has a birthday coming up but seems confused about how old he really is. When questioned, he responds, “16” but those who run the first welcome center in Catania, where he is living, say he is about to turn 16. It might seem insignificant, after all these minors have been through, to care about the day that they were born, but many of the psychologists working in this field, say that knowing your birthday is an important tool when constructing an identity. Ignorance over a birthday is just another element of the fractured experiences which most of these minors have experienced.
On arrival in Italy, those who don’t know exactly when they are born are assigned an approximate age by the authorities. Often, that date is January 1st and then a year which seems to fit the arrival’s size and evidence of maturity.
"Appearances can be deceptive," says Emanuela Consoli, a psychiatrist and director of this center for unaccompanied minor males in Catania. "From an emotional point of view, these young men are still small children. They never got the upbringing and attention that we were able to enjoy. They need to be listened to and given the attention they deserve."
She mentions this after a Bangladeshi inhabitant of the house sheepishly shows her his smashed phone screen which is now no longer working. He destroyed it in a fit of pique earlier that day because he was unable to contact his sister back in Bangladesh on her wedding day. “That is the kind of behavior you’d expect from a small child. They [often] have no affective maturity and they just destroy things,” she explains.
Emanuela and her colleague Davide Pappalardo, a psychologist, debate about how best to deal with the situation. The Bangladeshi adolescent will need a new phone but he will need to save up for it. Each inhabitant is entitled to 10 euros a week, but Consoli and her colleagues rarely give out actual cash. They put money by for the young men until they have enough to buy something they have been saving for.
The big house in Via Delpino was confiscated from the Mafia a few years ago. When it started up two years ago it was full with 25 minors in residence. The house is situated in a poor suburb of Catania, not far from the airport. The street appears deserted on arrival. At one end scrub land, at the other a road full of potholes, devoid of any markings or signage. Although the Jesuit run Centro Astalli has put in a lot of work, to brighten up the walls with murals and make the house habitable, an air of having been forgotten by the state runs through the entire neighborhood.
There are bars on the windows of every house in the street and Consoli admits that there is a high crime rate in the area. “It is fairly dangerous out here at night,” she explains. “There are drug dealers and lots of illegal deals going on.”
Despite the obvious energy that Consoli and her team have invested in the place, she is prepared that their center might be shut down in the near future. She is thinking about how to change its use so that they can welcome in vulnerable people of all types and meet the needs of the people who still need help in Sicily. Single women with children, those with physical and mental disabilities, and unaccompanied minors. The reason she fears closure, Consoli explains, is Salvini's new law. There are less and less arrivals so it follows that less and less minors are arriving too. This doesn't mean that they don't need a lot of support when they do arrive.
Consoli and her colleagues are trying to provide stability and a family atmosphere for the young men assigned to their care. Developing an understanding of money, what things cost and how to save for things is another of the challenges that Consoli expects inhabitants of the house to master. For her, it is about providing a safe, friendly environment but also one which allows young people to gradually stand on their own two feet. Although inhabitants stay with Consoli for far longer than the law actually stipulates, once they are 18 they have to move on to other centers, because the law forbids adults and minors from living in the same structure.
That said, many former inhabitants keep in touch with Consoli and regularly pop by for lunch or dinner, like Simplice, who is now studying at university. Until he is able to move into student accommodation, he has been allowed to stay upstairs in the unoccupied part of the house and joins the group for lunch, smiling and confident, with perfect Italian.
Consoli expects the young men to go to school every day; she signs them up for music lessons, tennis lessons, gardening, or theatre groups, depending on their interest. If they want to go out, they are allowed, but they have to return for all meal times. They have to clean up after themselves, wash their own clothes and keep their bedrooms clean and tidy. They also have to tell her who they are meeting and how long they will be gone for, “just like any parent would expect,” adds Consoli.
That doesn’t stop some of them absconding entirely, admits Consoli sadly. “Eritreans and Somalis don’t really stop here." They tend to want to join relatives or friends in northern Europe and leave as soon as they are well enough after the crossing.
Whilst she’s talking, Emanuela sits on a bench in the courtyard in the winter sun. She rolls a cigarette and rubs her dog Otto’s head. He’s a black Labrador, calm and loyal and accompanies Emanuela every day to the house in Via Delpino. He brings another element of ‘family’ to this disparate gathering of adolescents from various parts of the world.
Back inside the house, the sound of snoring snakes its way through thinly partitioned rooms as Consoli conducts a tour. Bunk beds are placed around the walls in some rooms, single institutional beds in others. The washrooms are one long line of showers and sinks. Everything is spotlessly clean and smells of bleach. In the small kitchen, an Italian cook serves up plates of pasta, omelet, bread and salad for everyone who is coming for lunch.
Consoli explains how much a house like this costs to run. She has nine case workers, "there's me as the coordinator, a psychologist, two educationalists, three night watchmen, two social workers, a cook and a cleaner." Just paying everyone’s wages costs between 11,000 to 12,000 euros per month; the state provides them with just 45 euros per adolescent per day. "This is not the kind of business where you can get rich," she jokes, adding that luckily that is not her aim. She has worked briefly in other centers where the organizers were trying to cream a profit and she quickly left.
"It's a bit messy at the moment," Consoli calls over her shoulder whilst calling the young men for lunch; "the guys get up at six am for school. They have to take two buses to get there so it takes quite a long time."
"Taking a nap after lunch is part of our [Sicilian] culture; it shows they have integrated well," jokes Davide Pappalardo, when asked about whether or not some of the inhabitants might be exhibiting signs of depression by taking to their beds in the middle of the day. Joking apart, Pappalardo thinks it is important that the young men in their care have an element of free choice in their day. "Being capricious is part of being a teenager," he says, "so when one moans about wanting a different colored pair of trainers instead of the ones we are offering them, we celebrate that."
"We are not trying to re-create a childhood for them. What we want to do is give them the conditions to create an adolescence for themselves," Pappalardo adds. As the resident psychologist, he notes that although some might show signs of depression, more of the young men in his care struggle with their attention spans and can often be hyperactive. He says if he had been through even a tenth of what many of the young men had been through he’d need years of psychoanalysis to sort it all out.
Dreaming of a brighter future
M keeps quiet about exactly what happened to him during his four month stay in Libya, but he admits that he was tortured whilst in an unofficial prison. His captors tried to extract money from his family, but since he didn’t have anyone, they were largely unsuccessful. It is likely that he would have languished there for much longer but someone blew open the prison and M and his fellow inmates managed to escape.
Before reaching Libya, he’d already journeyed for a couple of months through Nigeria, Niger, Algeria and Libya “Everyone was scared,” he admits, before looking away, waiting for the next question.
Part of Pappalardo and Consoli’s work is to allow the kids in their care to start to dream again, despite the experiences they have been through. It seems it is working. M was glad when he arrived in Italy, “there were doctors, I felt like I was finally safe, they gave us something to eat,” he remembers.
Finally he smiles. “I want to stay in Italy and I would like to study.” He becomes animated when talking about his dream: to study aeronautical engineering or aero-mechanics in Catania. “I want to fly, that is my dream; to be a pilot, or a mechanic for planes. I just want to work with planes, I love them,” he enthuses. When asked if he has ever been on a plane, he shakes his head, “no, but maybe, if I go to that school I could fly on a plane through them!”