A guardian’s tale from Sicily

Volunteer legal guardians protect and support refugee and migrant children navigate a new life

Codi Trigger
Sidi Soukoula (17) poses with his legal guardian Bernarda ‘Benni’ Monaco in Palermo, Italy.
UNICEF/UN0264457/De Luigi VII Photo
24 June 2019

A lawyer. A police captain. A retired social worker.

These three professional women are some of the first volunteer guardians for young migrants in Italy. They’re living up to everyone’s expectations, but nobody expected how much they would exceed them.

As of February 2019, there were over 400 unaccompanied children in Palermo, the capital of Sicily. In 2017, the Zampa law in Italy gave the National Authority for Children and Adolescents the mandate to train volunteer guardians for children who have migrated on their own to Italy. The city appoints each child a volunteer guardian – a local person who will know and care about the child. In partnership, UNICEF created a special support unit to serve as a technical resource centre and training hub for the guardians in Palermo. The guardians make sure the child is protected in all aspects of life, from legal processes to school enrolment to doctor visits. As per April 2019, 265 children benefited from 195 volunteer guardians supported by the unit.

Often, the guardian is the only local person who has a constant and trusting relationship with the child. Many of them, like these women, are building more than just relationships on paper.

 

The lawyer

Sidi Soukoula (17) poses with his legal guardian Bernarda ‘Benni’ Monaco in Palermo, Italy.
UNICEF/UN0264457/De Luigi VII Photo
Sidi Soukoula (17) poses with his legal guardian Bernarda ‘Benni’ Monaco in Palermo, Italy.

She had enough going on; she simply didn’t have the time to take on another project. That’s what Bernarda Monaco, a lawyer practicing family law known as ‘Benni’, replied when her colleagues told her about the guardianship project. But they persisted, and she eventually agreed.

Benni is the guardian of 17-year-old Sidi. Sidi came to Italy on his own from Mali. “When we first met, for me it was terrible,” she laughs. Sidi didn’t speak any Italian, and Benni spoke no French.

The second time wasn’t much better. Benni came prepared, bringing along her husband who speaks French. They went for pizza; but it turns out Sidi is not much of a pizza fan. So, Sidi and Benni shared the pizza, and they’ve been fast friends ever since. They garden together, cook together, walk Benni’s dogs together. Now Sidi speaks fluent Italian.

“Trust in these guys,” Benni says emphatically. “They are very good people. Sidi is very honest. He’s one of my own.” Sidi feels the same way. “It’s like I’m her son,” he says.

 

The police captain

Marie Ahikpa (15), left, Maria Letizia Barone (centre) and Kadiatou Camara (16) pose for a photo in Palermo, Italy.
UNICEF/UN0264460/De Luigi VII Photo
Marie Ahikpa (15), left, Maria Letizia Barone (centre) and Kadiatou Camara (16) pose for a photo in Palermo, Italy.

A police captain from Palermo, Maria Letizia Barone found out about the programme through her daughter. While studying at university, Maria’s daughter wanted to become a guardian, but she was too young by a couple of years. So, Maria Letizia decided to volunteer. “It’s the same as seeing a positive pregnancy test,” she laughs. “You’re excited and scared at the same time.”

She’s the guardian of a young woman from the Ivory Coast, Marie (17). Marie has a best friend, Kadiatou, whom she met in Palermo through Facebook in a group for young migrants. They’ve been inseparable ever since. Marie even brought Kadiatou to her first meeting with Maria Letizia – and every other one since. Their bond is so strong that Maria Letizia, Marie’s legal guardian, is now becoming Kadiatou’s guardian as well. They all go to parties together, and go to the countryside together.

“The three of us are always together,” Maria Letizia says proudly, describing their relationship. As an afterthought, she warns: “I talk a lot.” The girls giggle.

 

The retired social worker

Christiane Frost, one of the legal guardians for migrant minors in Palermo, Sicily.
UNICEF/UN0264458/De Luigi VII Photo
Christiane Frost, one of the legal guardians for migrant minors in Palermo, Sicily.

Although Christiane Frost is from Frankfurt, Germany, she’s lived in Palermo for 40 years. Now retired, she spent her career as a social worker for immigrants. She’s the guardian of a Bangladeshi boy. Their first meeting was tough because they couldn’t speak the same language. But Christiane forged on. “I knew I had to help him with the bureaucratic things,” she says. “And this I could do.”

They’ve now built a rapport. They dine together and go to birthday parties together. But he will soon be turning 18, so Christiane will no longer be legally bound to him. But she doesn’t see it that way. “When they’re 18, they’re not ready to be alone yet,” she points out. “Of course, I won’t abandon him from one day to the next.”

Another thing is certain for Christiane: she’s ready to be a legal guardian again. She has already volunteered for when the time comes.