Guardians provide hope and support to young refugees and migrants arriving in Italy alone

Programme helps young people navigate a new life and build stronger relationships in their new communities

Ivan Mei
A refugee boy with his guardian
UNICEF/2019/Italy/Sammartino
17 December 2019

Yusupha, from Gambia, has just turned 18 years old. Faysal, from Morocco, is 19 years old. These young men from two very different countries share a common bond - they have the same Volunteer Guardian in Catania, Sicily.

Their guardian is Laura, a novelist, who has been part of the Volunteer Guardianship programme since 2017.

“It was a matter of civil engagement for me,” she says. “When we heard that many boys and girls were arriving alone from the sea, just a few kilometres from our house, we did not think twice. These boys and girls must have the same opportunities as their peers.”

Laura’s sister Mirella and her husband are also Volunteer Guardians.

“I’m a mother, my three sons are the same age of these boys, and you cannot stop thinking that they could be your sons. At the end, they are just sons: they are sons who are sons of everyone,” says Mirella.

Laura, Yusupha and Faysal
UNICEF/2019/Italy/Sammartino
Yusuf and Faysal with Laura, their Volunteer Guardian, in Catania, Sicily.

From Morocco to Sicily

The first time Laura met Faysal, he was in the hospital. Faysal, who had been in Italy for only a few months after leaving Morocco, was going through surgery after a car accident. He was alone and scared: the surgery, the bureaucratic procedures, the lawyer for his litigation - it was all too much for him. He had no adult support and little or no understanding of Italian. Laura swiftly took charge of the situation and, ever since that moment, has been at his side whenever she is needed.

Faysal shows a video he filmed during his journey across the Mediterranean Sea. He was in a small boat with 100 other people.

“From Morocco I reached Tunisia and then Libya, with everything arranged by the smugglers. Life in Libya was dangerous; people have guns and can do anything they want. I tried to reach Italy twice: the first time the Libyans took me back, the second time a huge boat saved us in the middle of the sea. I was so relieved.”

Two young men smiling
UNICEF/2019/Italy/Sammartino
Yusuf and Faysal, together in Catania, Sicily.
Laura with her sister
UNICEF/2019/Italy/Sammartino
Laura and her sister Mirella. Both women are Volunteer Guardians providing vital support for young refugees and migrants in Italy.

From Gambia to Sicily

Yusupha lives at a reception facility in Acireale, just a few kilometres from Catania

“I come from Brikama, one of the biggest cities in Gambia. I came here to study, learn a job and improve my life. I can speak five languages – English, Italian, Pular, Wolof and Mandinga.  

Yusupha attends Tourism School and is hopeful that his knowledge of so many languages will help him find a job.

Relationships key to navigating a new life

Between 2014 and 2018 more than 70,000 unaccompanied and separated refugee and migrant children arrived in Italy by sea. The vast majority of these young people were fleeing conflict and poverty and faced grave dangers before and during their journeys. They remain particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse even after arriving in Italy.

The Volunteer Guardianship programme was established to support these vulnerable young people navigate their new lives. The programme also promotes social cohesion and builds stronger relationships between young migrants and their host communities in Italy.  

"I tried to reach Italy twice: the first time the Libyans took me back, the second time a huge boat saved us in the middle of the sea.”

Faysal
Laura with Faysal
UNICEF/2019/Italy/Sammartino
Faysal with his Italian guardian Laura.

The programme is run by Regional Ombudspersons for Childhood and Adolescence, who select and train the Volunteer Guardians, while Children’s Courts match guardians and young people and monitor the support provided.  UNICEF has been supporting the programme since May 2018.

Laura and Mirella are two of more than 3,000 Guardians who are now part of the programme.

The role of a Guardian goes much further than a formal, administrative arrangement.

“Every time I have to take critical decisions, I ask her advice,” says Faysal.  

Laura remains a critical part of Yusupha and Faysal’s lives even though both have already turned 18 years old.

Approximately 60,000 of the unaccompanied and separated refugee and migrant children who arrived in Italy since 2014, including Yusupha and Faysal, have now turned 18. Although young refugees and migrants who turn 18 are no longer eligible for protective services provided to children, these young people remain vulnerable as they transition to adulthood and require support including access to education and training opportunities.

 “I could never leave them alone just because they reached the age of 18. I could never do that with my sons, so I have no reasons to do that with them,” says Laura.  

If you live in Italy and would like to become a Volunteer Guardian, please visit the website of the National Authority for childhood and adolescence, where you will find all the information you need.