A new kind of 21st century family

In Italy, foster care families are taking in migrant children for the first time.

Codi Trigger
Mohammad “Momo” El Saxed, an 18-year-old Egyptian migrant, with his foster parents in Vittuone, northern Italy.
UNICEF/UN0264488/De Luigi VII Photo
20 June 2019

VITTUONE, ITALY – Mohammad ‘Momo’ El Saxed gives a quick wave to his foster father, who’s whistling as he works in the garden. Then he cycles off down the dirt road, disappearing into the white wall of smog and fog that covers the small town of Vittuone, an industrial suburb of Milan in northern Italy.

Momo could be any other foster kid – except that he’s the very first migrant in a special programme to be placed with a foster care family.

This makes him exceptionally lucky. Momo migrated to Italy from Egypt when he was 14, spending four years in Palermo, the capital of Sicily. Many migrants, when they turn 18 years old, lose the protection and benefits they had as minors. But if you can prove that you are integrating into Italian society – speaking the language, going to school, socializing with Italians – and need extra time to complete this social inclusion, you can apply for an extension.

Momo did just that before he turned 18, and a judge granted him permission to stay until 2021, until he’s 21 years old. So he volunteered to be placed into an Italian foster family, to further his integration process.

According to data from the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, there were over 8,300 unaccompanied and separated children in Italy in March 2019. In December 2018, the Law 132 abolished humanitarian protection and limited access to services for migrants and refugees. And on 1 January 2019, about 7,500 unaccompanied minors who had turned 18 saw their social inclusion come to an abrupt halt as a result of this decree.

To help young migrants find more stability and a stronger anchor in local communities, UNICEF partnered with the Italian authorities and the Italian non-profit National Coordination of Care Communities (CNCA)’s TerreFerme project to pilot a special foster care project that pairs them with an Italian family. The project works to incorporate unaccompanied minors in the national foster care system as a standard practise. Since it has been endorsed by the key ministries and authorities, UNICEF and CNCA have been working to make the first placements with foster care families.

For Momo’s foster parents, Giovanna Barilli and Stefano Salteri, this was an intense process lasting the better part of a year. Giovanna and Stefano volunteered to be foster parents in early 2018 after a friend told them about opportunity. It’s wasn’t a major decision for them – they already hired migrant workers in their orchard and loaned their barn to a Senegalese carpenter. In the spring Giovanna and Stefano spent six weeks, every Saturday morning, going to orientation classes. By summer, they were ready to take the next step.

The aim was to make the pairing as perfect as possible. Psychological tests. Personality tests. Favourite colour. Favourite food. These were just some of the tests and questions that Stefano and Giovanna answered patiently and diligently over the course of eight months.

One day, CNCA colleagues made a home visit to Stefano and Giovanna. They had a photo of Momo and told them his story. They took photos of the couple and took a video tour of the house. The next visit involved a Skype call with Momo himself. Then came the Wednesday morning in August when they had their first face-to-face meeting in Palermo. By September, Momo was flying up to Vittuone to make the move.

They couldn’t have found a better fit. It’s only been a few months, but no outsider would know it.

Stefano has three grown children and Giovanna, two – so their extended family is quite big when they have reunions. They’re well-travelled and love to explore different cultures. The house is full of knick-knacks and other souvenirs from their adventures, from Moroccan tagines to Mexican blankets. They’re also “people people” – a few years ago, they bought an old farmhouse and renovated the upstairs as a bed and breakfast.

As waves of right-wing populism take over Europe, it’s becoming more difficult for uprooted kids to find their place. “The Italian government today is bringing up a view we don’t share,” Stefano observes. “Humans have been migrants from the start. Italians have been migrants for centuries. We know what pushes you out of your country. How difficult, how sad it is to leave your home. But apparently we forgot.”

Humans have been migrants from the start. Italians have been migrants for centuries. We know what pushes you out of your country. How difficult, how sad it is to leave your home. But apparently we forgot.

A welcome in Vittuone

Vittuone is run by a populist, right-wing government, with villagers grumbling about migrants taking jobs, so Giovanna and Stefano were pleasantly surprised by how easy it was for Momo to settle in to life there. He started school just 10 days after he arrived – even though formal enrolment had already closed.

He was accepted immediately into the local football team, which is run by the community’s Catholic parish. Then he focused on finding weekend work. His new foster parents helped him create a CV and print copies. They went around together to local restaurants. By the time they reached the third one, Momo already had two job offers.

For this is Momo’s passion. Cooking.

It’s a relatively new passion, starting only when he arrived in Italy. He had no idea how to cook and learned out of necessity at a reception centre in Palermo. “The first time [I made dinner for my housemates] it was good,” he remembers. “The second time it was even better. So then everyone said: ‘Okay, you are the cook.’”

That meshes well with Giovanna and Stefano’s lifestyle. Giovanna makes her own yogurt once a week, and they both meticulously tend to their garden and orchard. The compost box under the kitchen sink is very large to accommodate the whole family’s culinary activities.

At the parent-teacher conference at Momo’s school, his cooking teacher told Giovanna and Stefano that “Mohammad is top of the top” – and has actually recruited him to start an official apprenticeship working alongside the teacher at a restaurant three days a week. His foster parents are very proud.

Giovanna Barilli, Momo’s foster mother, keeps an eye on Momo while he prepares dinner.
UNICEF/UN0264481/De Luigi VII Photo

Vittuone didn’t meet Momo’s expectations at first. He was a bit nervous about just how provincial it was. “But I was surprised by how fast things happen here,” he says. “So much faster than Palermo. For example, in Palermo you wait for three hours at the post office and here you wait three seconds. They’re just so much more organized.”

Momo walks with his whole body, confidently, although still seems shy when sitting still. “I left Egypt because my best friend left. On the phone he told me it was paradise,” he says. “It’s not all paradise. For instance, the trip on the boat was 10 days and very dangerous. The last three days we had no food and water. At first I wasn’t scared but by the end I was. We were rescued by the coast guard.”


Vittuone means security

On his bike, Momo can get pretty much anywhere in town (or to a bus stop to take him further). He likes to spend a lot of his time at the family house, gardening with Giovanna and Stefano or doing his homework at the table while they work. But he has started to venture out on his own. Because he’s older, he’s self-sufficient – that’s good for Giovanna and Stefano, who have their own projects and encourage him to be independent. But they still push him to do his homework.

Momo plays football three times a week. He’s grown out of his childhood dream of becoming a professional footballer, but it’s still one of his obsessions. “It’s a way to socialize,” Momo explains. Then he adds with a sheepish grin: “I also play football to stay fit. Because I like to eat.”

Momo on the football field where he his team practices three times a week.
UNICEF/UN0264471/De Luigi VII Photo
Momo on the football field where he his team practices three times a week.

He’s getting through school. In Egypt, Momo never studied – he couldn’t even write in his mother tongue, Arabic. But now he can, and now he speaks Italian and is learning English. With one year left at school, his goal is to have a job and be economically independent. With that he should be able to get a work permit.


A family meal

He’s cooking. A lot – he can’t get enough of it. On the weekends, it’s work: the Saturday dinner shift and the Sunday breakfast shift. At home, he cooks to relax. But it also seems to be his way of thanking Giovanna and Stefano for taking him in. Although he’ll only go so far – even though he knows they love many cuisines, Momo stubbornly sticks to his repertoire: “I only cook Italian.”

A typical Friday night revolves around family friends coming over for dinner. Momo wields his knife with ease, chopping quickly through vegetable after vegetable. Giovanna and Stefano flit around in the background, preparing the bread basket and chatting. Momo only seems to half listen as they gently tease him. His style is a bit messy, but he sometimes remembers to wipe down surfaces before moving on. At one point, he gets a bit too confident and flips a quarter of the vegetables out of the pan. The kitchen breaks out in laughter. Funnily enough, Momo and Stefano share the same, higher-pitched laugh.

His cheeks flush as he nears the finishing line. Giovanna comes to inspect the sauce. Tastes, pauses. Then a quick nod of affirmation. Under her watchful eye, Momo begins to plate the final dish. One, two, three...seven plates. A sprinkle of garnish and a wipe around the edge of the plates. He proudly brings them to the table, still dressed in his cheery red plaid apron.

Momo shows off his culinary skills.
UNICEF/UN0264483/De Luigi VII Photo
Momo shows off his culinary skills.

They gather around the table. Momo doesn’t chime in too much, speaking mostly when Giovanna or Stefano pull him in. They’re his best friends here so far. It takes time to make friends his own age. He knows that, but it doesn’t make him miss his Palermo friends any less. Giovanna and Stefano have noticed, so for Christmas, they gave him a flight to Palermo to celebrate New Year’s Eve with his friends.

There’s a layer of parental warmth between them that’s important – Momo hadn’t had that since his arrival in Italy. “This [foster care] project is successful. You have more intimidate relationships. You have two people who care about you all the time,” Momo says. “With Stefano and Giovanna, it’s 24/7. They treat me like a son.” But there’s also a layer of realism. Momo knows that here, he has the chance to live and to live well. That with their support, he can find a solid profession where he can find work wherever they may end up.

You have more intimidate relationships. You have two people who care about you all the time. With Stefano and Giovanna, it’s 24/7. They treat me like a son.

On Giovanna and Stefano’s side, they’re content to add another member to their family and to be everyday parents again. And, of course, to be able to guide a young person as his comes of age in Italy. Stefano smiles ruefully: “What’s strange is, what we are doing should be normal.” Luckily, many families in the Milan agree. There are 40 families applying to become foster families, and in Veneto, the neighbouring region in Italy, many more. At a time when the Italian population is declining year after year, there’s even more reason to integrate these young people and revive communities.