“For me it is important to have someone I can rely on, supporting me, even from a distance”
The ‘Side by side’ mentorship programme connects young refugees and migrants to the support and services they need
Giuseppe, aged 65, and Lamin aged 20, come from very different countries, cultures and backgrounds. Now they have been brought together through a mentorship scheme in Italy, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 lockdown.
Lamin was in his late teens when he arrived in Italy at the end of a long journey from Gambia – like 80 per cent of refugee and migrant children who travel alone. And like every refugee and migrant, he lost the special protection he received as a child as soon as he turned 18. But while Lamin and thousands like him are now officially adults, they still need intensive support as they navigate their new lives in their new country.
That is why, in 2019, UNICEF and Refugees Welcome Italia, in collaboration with the Municipality of Palermo, launched ‘Side by side: Citizens, young migrants and refugees together,’ which connects young people like Lamin to Italian mentors. These volunteer mentors are trained to listen to and offer support and guidance to refugees and migrants, helping them to integrate into their new communities and strengthen their social support networks. Things were going well, with 50 girls and boys who arrived in Italy as unaccompanied refugees matched with mentors through an intensive selection process.
Then COVID-19 arrived.
While many mentors and mentees had already met, the question was: how to connect those who had already been matched but who hadn’t met each other in person?
“We were determined to maintain the continuity of this initiative,” says Roberta Giunta of Refugees Welcome Italy. “In uncertain times like these, there is a risk that these adolescents will feel even more alone and bewildered. The solution was to organize online meetings between some mentors and mentees, starting with Giuseppe and Lamin.”
At first, everyone had their doubts about whether this could work – but there was no other option.
“When I joined the project, I expected to meet my mentor in person,” says Lamin. “I was really excited, but, at the same time, a bit frightened, because I'm quite shy with people I don't know. When I knew that I would have to meet him online because of the Covid19 emergency, I was even more concerned. Even though I knew that Refugees Welcome workers would join the meeting, I was still afraid of feeling uncomfortable, not knowing what to say. I often use video calls to talk to friends and family in my country. But it is not the same with someone you've never seen before.”
Giuseppe had similar concerns. “When I decided to join this programme as mentor, I couldn’t wait to start and, of course, I assumed that I would get to know my future mentee in person. So when I agreed to meet him online, I was quite skeptical. I am a bit old-fashioned, and I think that personal relationships cannot be replaced by ‘virtual’ ones,” he said.
All doubts were swept aside during the first online meeting between Lamin and Giuseppe, as Lamin recalls. “As soon as Giuseppe showed up, my fears disappeared. He is an extremely open person who knows how to put others at ease. Giuseppe is an Italian teacher for foreign students, and it is clear he is pretty good with young people from different cultural backgrounds. He is familiar with it.”
Giuseppe’s reaction was the same. “Against all my expectations, the meeting with Lamin was really good: there was an immediate harmony. He is a smart boy, with many interests and goals. I really hope I can support him in reaching them.”
Ever since that first online meeting, the two have been chatting each day, telling each other about their lives in lockdown and trying to find a way in which Lamin can balance his two priorities: finding a job so he can keep his residence permit, which is expiring, while continuing with his studies – perhaps in the evening.
“For me it is important to have someone I can rely on, supporting me, even from a distance,” says Lamin. “Because I have so many concerns, I am confused. Knowing Giuseppe on WhatsApp is not so strange. Everything is very spontaneous. I think we will have no problem continuing to get to know each other this way.”
Looking ahead, Giuseppe says, “We always say goodbye and hope that the quarantine will end soon, so we can meet in person.”
Refugees Welcome Italia is organizing more online meetings between mentors and mentees who have not met in person, together with child protection specialists from UNICEF and social workers from Refugees Welcome. Meanwhile, those who had met in person before the lockdown are now communicating online – and often.
UNICEF is urging local and national officials in Italy to ensure that all unaccompanied and separated refugee and migrant children – including those turning 18 – have access to training, education and employment opportunities and that their rights are protected. UNICEF is also promoting the proper implementation of existing legislation and standards that are meant to protect every refugee and migrant child in Italy.
UNICEF and Refugees Welcome Italy are seeing the clear benefits of the ‘Side by side’ initiative as a promising practice. “This mentorship programme is the first of its kind in Italy,” says Anna Riatti, UNICEF Country Coordinator, Refugee and Migrant Response. “It builds on the good results of the guardianship programme and aims to ensure continued care for those who arrived here as unaccompanied children, even though they are now, officially, adults. It is vital to strengthen the informal relationships and the civic engagement of Italians citizens that are crucial to help them find their own pathways in this country.”