Josy and her family: separated by COVID-19, but united by their community

Health teams in Rome have reached vulnerable refugee and migrant children and families with vital support, even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic

12 April 2021
EU health

With co-funding from the European Union (EU) ‘Refugee and Migrant (RM) Child-Health Initiative’, health teams in Rome have reached vulnerable refugee and migrant children and families with vital support, even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions.


Our story takes place in an over-crowded building in an informal settlement on the eastern edge of Rome. Around 500 residents from all over the world – from Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Latin America – now call this building ‘home’. As many as six families live on one floor, and everyone shares bathrooms. Not surprisingly, residents greeted the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic with dismay.

"When COVID arrived here, I thought: it's over, it will spread throughout the building,” says Josehaly, known by everyone simply as Josy.  She lives here with her husband and three children Patricia, Daniel and Alexis.

“I didn't think it was possible to avoid the spread of the outbreak. Instead we have had very few cases and we owe this above all to the support received by INTERSOS and UNICEF."

Two parents and three children
Josy’s family, reunited at last after their quarantine.

Since 2017, UNICEF has supported the INTERSOS mobile health team in providing psychosocial support to vulnerable children and their families in this part of the city, taking a holistic approach to quality health care. In 2020, through funding from the Directorate General for Health (DG Health) of the EU through the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative, the mobile health team expanded its work to include COVID-19 prevention and mitigation, building on its strong connections with children and families like Josy’s.

The team helps residents to enhance their own skills and knowledge around psychosocial and physical wellbeing. It identifies the most vulnerable children and families, and refers them promptly to the health and protection services they need.

The mobile team also aims to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, with tailored support that may include psychological support, as well as referrals to the anti-trafficking network and anti-violence centres, depending on the case.


The pandemic demands a new kind of support

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it essential to expand regular support to prevent the spread of infection, particularly in over-crowded housing, where several families share a living space. In cramped environments like this, the impact of COVID-19 would be devastating for people’s emotional, as well as physical, health.

To contain the risk, the team has, therefore, gone beyond its usual medical check-ups and has provided psychosocial support to families, with a strong focus on girls and women, whether they are on their own or have children.

The team has also selected and trained volunteers from this informal settlement who work with the health authorities to coordinate the management of suspected cases of COVID-19. These volunteer health promoters have proved to be critical in raising awareness and sharing information among the families living in Josy’s building.

Boy writing in a notebook
Josy’s children do their homework while the team visits their home.

The strength of the community in a moment of great fragility

Autumn 2020 was a difficult time for residents: after having survived the first wave of the epidemic unscathed, the first cases of COVID-19 were registered among families living in the building. But this was a community that was prepared and ready for action. As a result of the work of the mobile team and the health promoters over the previous months, people already knew how to protect themselves and others against the risk of infection. They were quick to organize themselves, working in shifts to clean and disinfect all rooms. Part of the building was set aside to isolate and care for those who had tested positive for COVID-19, with action to support their emotional, as well as physical wellbeing.

The health promoters explain: "We have organized housing modules that are not only designed to keep the community safe, but also to stop loneliness overwhelming the people forced into isolation. The entire community has assisted people affected by the virus by cooking, washing clothes and offering all possible support, particularly to the children."

Woman holding a framed photograph
Josy with a photo of her children.

Patricia, Josy's eldest daughter, tests positive for COVID-19

Josy's eldest daughter, Patricia, was also the first in the family to test positive for COVID and had to be isolated. Soon after, almost all the other members of the family contracted the virus and were isolated.This situation became particularly painful for the family when Josy’s husband, who was away from Rome for work had to live separated from his loved ones for a month.

We greeted each other through the windows. It was all extremely sad.”


Today, as she looks back to that difficult time, Josy is calm and serene. But she can still remember how hard it was: her concerns about such an unpredictable illness, for her husband forced to keep his distance, for her two youngest children, and for her life, which was ‘on pause’ for an indefinite time.

“I used to call you [the INTERSOS team] a hundred times a day,” she remembers now with a smile. “The fact is, it was hard for me not to know when I could go out, because every extra day of isolation was a day without being able to work."


With the help of the mobile team, the infections were contained

Living in a crowded community during a pandemic can present great risks to people’s health and psychosocial wellbeing. However, the experience of this one building in Rome shows what can be achieved if the strength of a community that already relies on mutual help and solidarity is reinforced. And if that community is mobilized to share correct and clear information, it is possible to create a real and effective ‘rescue network’.

The collaboration between UNICEF and INTERSOS, with the support of the EU-funded ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative has actively engaged communities, preparing, informing and empowering people to take control of their own health and build their resilience in the face of the greatest public health crisis in living memory. The team has maintained a constant presence, even during the strictest lockdown, helping to build a bridge between the community and health authorities.

The results have exceeded every expectation: infections were contained and people are starting to emerge from the pandemic with a new feeling of strength, and a growing awareness of their own resilience and the power of their community. Josy can start to make plans again: her dream is to start a catering business, and then who knows ...

This story is part of the Project Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children’s Health Status in Southern and South Eastern Europe, co-funded by the Health Programme of the European Union (the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative). Its contents represent the views of the author only and are her sole responsibility; it cannot be considered to reflect the views of the European Commission and/or the Consumers, Health, Agriculture and Food Executive Agency or any other body of the European Union. The European Commission and the Agency do not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.