How young people in Sicily are changing the migration narrative
Young migrants learning to navigate education, inclusion, employment and more
Many of the young migrants and refugees who arrived in Italy recently are 16 or 17 years old, and many undertook a harrowing journey across the Mediterranean alone. Many of these young people are now in Sicily, which hosts around 29 per cent of all refugees and migrants (over 40 per cent in 2018).
They have come from different countries, and for different reasons, but they share one dream: they all want to start a new life. However, they find themselves on an island that already has Italy’s highest youth unemployment rate (54 per cent)1 and one of the highest rates (over 38 per cent)2 of boys and girls who are not in education, employment or training (the so-called NEET).
That is where the UNICEF-supported UPSHIFT initiative comes in. Launched in 2018 to build skills and create opportunities for the most disadvantaged young people, UPSHIFT in Italy helps adolescents develop skills and reach their full potential. Together with UNICEF’s implementing partner, Junior Achievement (JA) Italia – UPSHIFT is being implemented in three Sicilian provinces: Palermo, Agrigento and Catania.
One of its unique characteristics is its focus on all young people who need support – whether they are Italians, refugees or migrants. Another is its focus on innovation to drive social development. To date, 150 young people have taken part in workshops to learn how to start businesses that combine innovative ideas with social impact. They start by exploring the problems in the communities where they live, work together to find creative and winning solutions and then launch their ideas as innovative start-ups.
One such idea from the latest round of UPSHIFT workshops is Celiacus. Developed by young people in Catania, this catering service offers gluten-free food inspired by both African and Italian culinary traditions.
Yet another idea aims to revitalise traditional and fast-disappearing skills and involves several generations: at the Grandma Lab, grandmothers knit sweaters that are then sold online. The proceeds go to charities for African local communities and disadvantaged groups across Italy.
In Palermo, young refugee girls proposed Children Moto Fun, an electric car that will travel around the city and stop in different neighbourhoods, providing both Italian and African games to bring families and communities together.
Patience, Efe, Gabriella and Pekra are four Nigerian refugee girls living in a small town in Sicily. They arrived two years ago, and have only just begun to settle in, become familiar with Italian life and carve out their own space in their new country.
They are adjusting well to their new lives but find one thing hard to understand: “Too often we see families spending so little time together – they say – children stay on the sofa, watching TV or they just play video games while they could spend more time together with their parents or friends.”
Their viewpoint is often linked to their difficult past, and to the reasons they left their countries of origin. Sometimes it was because they faced serious family problems, sometimes their lives were at risk, in some cases they left because they had no opportunities in the future.
For the past few months, the girls have been involved in the UPSHIFT initiative. And this is where their idea of ‘Children Moto Fun’ was born: an electric car that will go around Palermo city, stopping in different neighbourhoods and at play centres, packed with traditional Italian and African games that will bring families together, and show children how to have fun with each other.
“We would like to bring families together”, says Gabriella, communication manager for the group, “and we would like to do it with games that are part of our cultural tradition and those of the country hosting us.”
The project answers the need for socialization and team games, but it goes further: creating the conditions for social inclusion and for a change in mindsets and stories about migration.
“Beyond the direct objective of our proposal,” says Patience, “we would like to let people know who we are, to share our cultural heritage, to let people understand that we would like to give back, in a positive way, the welcome we received when we arrived.”
We are not here just to take something from the place where we live, but to give something to society, we are young people, strong, with good ideas.
For adolescent migrants and refugees, UPSHIFT has also been about gaining self-respect and self-confidence, about learning to navigate the business environment that surrounds them, and becoming part of the economic development of their host country by joining its work force. More importantly, UPSHIFT has enabled them to understand and interact with communities that are very different to their communities back home and to increase their sense of belonging.
As Daouda, from Ivory Coast, says “we are not here just to take something from the place where we live, but to give something to society, we are young people, strong, with good ideas.”
In this sense UPSHIFT is also changing the narrative on migration because the young migrants and refugees involved are not just vulnerable people or beneficiaries of the programme but active members of their communities, contributing with their unique set of skills and values to the socio-economic life, laying the foundations of a more inclusive society in Italy.
1 Eurostat, Unemployment in the EU regions
2 Istat, NEET