A new beginning for Mamajang

Through the foster care programme, UNICEF aims to ensure a safe family environment for all unaccompanied and separated migrant children.

A boy and his foster grandmother chat as they serve tagliatelle al ragù for the family lunch.
19 November 2021

Mamajang and his foster grandma Maria are preparing lunch, shoulder to shoulder teasing each other as they cook. Mamajang would like grandma to add some spices from his home country of the Gambia to her pasta, but she laughs and sticks to her traditional recipe. They’ve formed a special bond. “He and I really get along. Yesterday he asked me: ‘Do you love me Grandma?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I love you a lot. And you?’ ‘Me too’ he said,” smiling.

Mamajang’s foster parents, Mauro and Desjrè join them in the kitchen of their apartment in Montecchio Maggiore, a medieval town in the north-eastern Italian countryside, where they all sit down for the family lunch of tagliatelle al ragù. “Mamajang really trusts his foster grandma. The other day he asked for advice on what to wear, otherwise he wouldn't leave the house,” Desjrè recounts.

But before moving to Montecchio, Mamajang’s life was very different.  In 2016, 13-year-old Mamajang became one of the thousands of unaccompanied and separated migrant children that escaped conflicts and poverty in their home countries.  Hoping for better opportunities, he made the perilous journey to Italy. He travelled across western Africa, across the Sahara Desert, and into Libya.

Mamajang, 18, arrived in Italy from the Gambia in 2016 as an unaccompanied child. Today he is an integrated member of his Italian foster family and their community in Montecchio Maggiore. Nearly 5,000 unaccompanied and separated children arrived in Italy by boat in 2020. In 2021, the number is expected to be much higher.

Libya was the hardest stopover, as well as the last before reaching Sicily, one of the main entry points into Europe. “Many people in Libya get captured and detained, beaten up, or are forced to do very hard work for little money. Many try to come to Europe – some succeed, and some don’t. Many die while trying to come here. I consider myself extremely lucky to be here today,” he said.

When he arrived in Palermo, Sicily’s largest city, he was placed in a reception center for unaccompanied and separated children like himself, where he spent almost two years. “I thought I would never manage to learn Italian, it was a very different and unknown language to me”. At the advice of another Gambian boy, Mamajang mixed with Egyptian youth and kids from other places. “We were forced to use Italian as a common language otherwise we wouldn’t understand each other.”

“There’s a big difference between living in a reception center and with a family. When you’re in the center you do what you want because there are many people and the support is not just for you but for everyone. You do what you want, and when you’re 18, you leave. It’s temporary and no one worries about your future,” he explains. Here, instead, they make you feel at home, you go to school you feel protected. They really help you.”

In 2019, through the Terreferme programme, implemented in the framework of the preparatory action for the EU Child Guarantee to safeguard vulnerable children, he was matched with a foster family. He moved to a small village in Northern Italy to live with Desjrè and Mauro.

Back in 2018, before they married, Desjrè had seen a flyer on a bulletin board in the town center, looking for foster families for unaccompanied migrant children. She brought it home and showed it to Mauro. “A loved one once told us that with all good things in life you act first, think later.” Desjrè recalls. That’s exactly what they did, attending the first meeting together, listening to the stories and becoming convinced that the UNICEF-supported fostering program was the right path for them.

As of September 2021, there were over 9,600 unaccompanied migrant children in Italy.  Today, the EU Child Guarantee is piloting this foster family programme in Italy to support the inclusion of young migrants like Mamajang, by providing them with a safe family environment. The pilot is testing and scaling up work which began in 2018, with the ‘Terreferme’ project developing a solid network of foster families, supported by UNICEF and Coordinamento Nazionale delle Comunità di Accoglienza (CNCA), an Italian network of reception and care communities which supports social well-being.

Family lunch
The family lunch. Desjrè, Mamajang’s foster mother, talks about the foster care programme , “I think the biggest challenge is finding a place for unaccompanied minors in every sense: finding a place where they can stay physically but also where they feel loved.”

“At first you feel like you're starting a new life but after a while you realize all is good, you start meeting friends and invite them over to play or to go out together,” says Mamajang. “Now I understand how things work. It was also my first time going to secondary school and there were a lot of subjects. I had a hard time. Now it’s going well.”

Alongside the subjects from the curriculum, Mamajang is learning French and Chinese and dreams of becoming a pilot. “That’s a huge dream. I need to finish school first and then I’ll decide. For now I just study.”

Mamajang also receives support from Angelina, the social worker assigned to the family, who meets Mamajang and his parents every couple of weeks. For example, she talks to them individually and connects them with the support services offering legal advice, education and healthcare.

Although Mamajang feels very accepted and integrated in the community, there are still challenges to being foster parents to a teenage boy; challenges that Desjrè and Mauro never have to face alone. “There’s a whole network of support, like other families, guardians, and social services. We’re all walking this path together towards a single goal where there’s Mamajang’s love for us and the other kids’ love for the other families. There’s a really strong emotional return.”

A refugee boy with his foster mother (left) and a social worker
Mamajang sits with his foster mother (left) Desjrè and Angelina, their Case Manager of CNCA, for their weekly meeting. Angelina supports Mamajang and his foster family and helps Mamajane integrate successfully in the community.

There is also a cultural exchange, and it’s mainly through food that Mamajang was able to express who he is and share more intimate moments. In April, he celebrated Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, with a big dinner he cooked by himself, for his foster family. “It was not as big as back home. It’s not like in the Gambia where everyone is Muslim. But we still had a lot of fun,” Mamajang said.

As Mamajang and Grandma Maria wash the dishes together after the family meal, Mauro reflects, “I’ve always had the idea that from these situations you’re the one giving and that you don’t get anything back” Mauro comments. “But instead we’ve received a lot in many ways and it’s a great joy.

boys walking around the neighbourhood in Italy
Integration within the community is an important goal for the foster family pilot programme. Mamajang is outgoing and has a lot of friends in the neighbourhood.

Lessons learned from Mamajang’s experience will contribute to strengthening these specialized foster care models in the mainstream childcare system in Italy, as well as provide valuable information to support the skills of frontline workers. Additionally, the documentation of good practices on foster care will support legislation and the scale-up within the national system. The European Child Guarantee, which was adopted unanimously by the Council in June 2021, aims to prevent and combat social exclusion by guaranteeing the access of children in need to a set of key services: early childhood education and care. education (including school-based activities) healthcare.