Francesco and Modou

UNICEF-supported mentorship programme is helping refugee and migrant children in Sicily

A white and a black boy
Refugees Welcome Italia
18 February 2021

In 2020, over 34,000 refugees and migrants arrived on the shores of Sicily after surviving a perilous journey from Africa.  Of these 4,600 were children who travelled alone without family or support networks to help them. A UNICEF-supported mentorship programme is changing their situation by connecting – and transforming – lives.

Francesco is a lawyer who lives between Palermo and Pioppo, a small village in Sicily, South of Italy.  Modou arrived in Sicily from Gambia three years ago when he was 17 years old.

“In the beginning, I knew Modou as a shy and frightened young man. But I soon had the feeling that we would make a good team. And I was not wrong!” said Francesco.

Francesco thanks the mentorship programme run by Refugees Welcome Italia for bringing their lives together. The mentorship programme was launched by UNICEF and Refugees Welcome Italia, in collaboration with the Municipality of Palermo in 2019. The programme is supported by Latter-day Saint Charities.

A boy next to a horse
Refugees Welcome Italia

Through the mentorship programme, mentors are matched with young refugees and migrants who arrived in Italy as unaccompanied minors. Mentors provide advice, emotional support. Many mentors, like Francesco, also share their social and professional resources. For Francesco, the experience has been inspiring.

Francesco and Modou first met in February 2020, and since then, a special relationship was born.  The lawyer explained how it all began for him.

“I had been thinking about all these young boys and girls arriving in Sicily, alone, without a familiar face they could rely on. I put myself in their shoes, and I imagined feeling overwhelmed by confusion and loneliness,” said Francesco.

“One day, I read a news article about this mentorship programme called ‘Side by side: citizens and young migrants together’. For me, it clicked. I had spare time. I wanted to help.”

When Modou arrived in Sicily as a child without parents or family friends, he was given a place to stay at the reception facility for unaccompanied children. When he turned 18, he moved to a reception centre for adults. Today, the 20-year-old shares a flat with friends.

Two men
Refugees Welcome Italia

Modou heard about the mentorship programme through his Italian language teacher. “I thought it could be a good opportunity for me. I was going through a hard time, I felt confused about my prospects in Italy. I wanted to get a job and become independent. But I felt like I needed someone by my side to talk to, and who would listen.”

Modou didn’t hide how hard it was for him to take the first step to join the mentorship programme. He explained, “I am a shy person, and I need time to open up.”

“But Francesco and I immediately found common ground. He made me feel at ease. He is a very easy-going, empathetic person,” continued Modou.

Despite the age difference between them, Modou and Francesco built a good relationship based on mutual trust. “Here in Italy, my parents are not with me, and I learned I could count on Francesco. He makes me feel safe,” said Modou.

“Modou and I meet regularly and we are in touch almost every day,” said Francesco. “Over lunch or dinner, I have gotten to know him. His past wasn’t easy. He certainly misses his family.”

Francesco realized that Modou’s main concern was finding a job. Francesco introduced him to the owner of an equestrian centre, where he has proven to be an excellent staff member, earning everybody’s trust.

About his working experience Modou said, “I am learning a lot and I am also discovering a new world. I have never before had the chance to see horses so up close. They are fascinating animals, and taking care of them makes me feel good.”

Old man
Refugees Welcome Italia

Modou is hopeful when he talked about his life ahead, “I would like to become a riding instructor one day. I believe that, with diligence and dedication, I may succeed.”

In Pioppo, everybody knows and loves Modou. He has become a good friend of Francesco’s son, Gianluca, who is closer to his age, and with whom shares his passion for horses.

“Modou has gone through experiences that have marked him. I am glad to see that he is now more self-confident. He believes again in the possibility of a better future,” said Francesco, proud of how far Modou has come.

Francesco would like more people to know about the experiences of young people like Modou. He explained, “There is a lot of misinformation about refugee and migration issues. Being aware of what children like Modou endure when they travel alone through Libya or survive the crossing by sea – I say without exaggeration that it is a life lesson.”   

In ten months since their first connection, Modou and Francesco achieved an important goal: Modou has found his smile again.

Modou summarized, “Francesco helped me a lot. I used to have lots of sad thoughts. In ten months, I feel that knowing Francesco has helped me to change. I feel happy. I have grown up. My life is now very different. I would like to remain in Palermo. I finally feel at home, here.”