UPSHIFT: Shifting gear in response to COVID-19

Youth skills building programme goes online in Italy in response to global pandemic

Angela Hawke
15 April 2020

“I like online lessons – it gives me the idea that things are going ahead as usual and it is easier for me because I also need to look after my family here"

UPSHIFT is all about unleashing the skills, creativity and energy of young Italians, refugees and migrants to find workable solutions to local problems. This UNICEF-supported social entrepreneurship programme, launched in 2018 in partnership with JA (Junior Achievement) Italia, promotes dialogue among young people from different countries and cultural backgrounds to enhance the skills development and social inclusion of vulnerable groups. Starting with an initial pilot in the three Sicilian provinces of Palermo, Agrigento and Catania, the initiative has been replicated in Rome since 2019 with the support of the Migrant and Refugee Fund of the Council of Europe Development Bank.

UPSHIFT migrants
UNICEF/Saturnino 2020
Three young migrants discuss their ideas at an UPSHIFT session before the COVID-19 made such gatherings impossible.

Teams of young people are trained to develop their own entrepreneurial ideas, which have included a range of projects from the design of mobile apps to promote inter-cultural dialogue to the provision of tailored services for young people.

UPSHIFTERS in action

Haladar and the power of art to connect

Haladar Shakil, aged 17 from Bangladesh, arrived in Italy in 2015 with his mother and two brothers to join his father. He attends high school, and says that Italian culture has become part of his identity. But he is also inspired by the intricate wood inlays of Bengali handicrafts. This motivated him to join UPSHIFT’s ‘Skilled Hands’ network, which connects migrant artisans. As a young artist himself, he sees this as a way to promote social inclusion through art. Haladar says that many countries are often known for their migration story. His dream is to highlight another story: the positive aspects of different cultures. "I would like to create an international network connecting artists from all around the world,” he says, “a database to let people know the beauty of our countries."

Luftur and a place to call home

Luftur, age 21, comes from Bangladesh. "When I arrived in Italy with my family, we faced a lot of difficulties when looking for an accommodation,” she recalls. “Many people did not want to rent to migrants or have them as neighbours, so we often had to pack up, looking for another place.” But she also remembers the kind people her family met during those early days. They were the inspiration for ‘Sweet Home’, an app that connects young migrants and refugees with conscientious people who are offering accommodations – with no bias, no matter who the newly arrived migrants are or where they are from.

"In my group, we are all migrants, from different countries,” she says. “Every one of us has a similar experience behind us, but we still trust this community that now is home." The group members speak five different languages between them, ​​and want to break down linguistic, legal, and social barriers to the socio-economic inclusion of young migrants and refugees.

‘A’ and how to make a new start in a new country

‘A’ arrived in Italy four years ago as a refugee from China, forced to leave her country by religious persecution. She talks a lot about the challenges she faced and the loneliness she encountered upon arriving in a country where she was a stranger. She did not know how to look for a job or how to build her new life. Through UPSHIFT, she decided to create an international consulting agency to provide information and orientation for those wanting to start a business in Italy. From the very start of her participation, ‘A’ showed leadership and great enthusiasm. "I'm fine here,” she says. “I like what I do, but above, all I feel free." (name changed at the speaker’s request)


As COVID-19 made it impossible to meet in person, UPSHIFT changed direction to maintain continuity and enhance its content through online educational courses. These allow participants to continue their projects, strengthen their skills and retain everything they have already learned. As Amanda, an Upshifter, explains: “I think the most important is going ahead and not to Iose what we learned so far. This is a good exercise, helping us to not lose our Italian, our contact with other people and to never stop on our educational path.”

Three main programmes are now available online and have been updated for full and effective distance learning after thorough testing by UPSHIFT trainers through virtual classes:

  • Upshift incubation: students acquire the skills needed to transform their ideas into social start-up enterprises, from how to build a business model,  to customer interviews and how to pitch the products or services they intend to offer. By adapting the programme, teachers can offer online professional skills and contents to their students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Mygrants: using a micro-learning approach (2,300 repeatable quiz modules), this platform complements the incubation classes and provides students with a range of hard and soft skills both in their personal and professional life, including financial literacy and language skills.
  • Entrepreneurial skills pass: an international qualification that students can add to their CV and use to pursue further education, enter the world of work or start their own business.

Alongside the UPSHIFT programme for Italian, migrant and refugee students in catch up schools, the number of young people using the platform developed by JA Italia for Italian students in regular schools has risen since the COVID-19 outbreak, and the online tools developed by JA in response to COVID-19 are now available from all JA offices worldwide.

JA Italia’s trainers have been impressed by the way UPSHIFT students have risen to the challenge of the pandemic. As one commented:

“From the first day I gave the students online lessons, I realised that it is actually working! The migrant refugee students participated and interacted as long as my colleague and I were online. Now we have to make sure they understand that this is a precious time to stay connected among themselves as well, and that they can stay online when we leave, just to be together, chat and exchange ideas. I also had the opportunity to contact individually about 10 students: above all, I was struck by their serenity and peace of mind while facing this tragic moment (maybe fatalism?) and a need to share their thoughts and reflections… in all our conversations, they were happy to share their personal stories, even starting from a simple ‘how are you?’”


UPSHIFT is a UNICEF programme approach designed to support future opportunities for life and livelihood for the most marginalized and vulnerable youth. UPSHIFT is currently active in 23 different countries around the world through UNICEF programmes and the content is open sourced for other organisations to use:

UNICEF works with adolescents and young people across the Europe and Central Asia Region, with a strong focus on those from marginalized groups, including refugees and migrants. We are using innovative approaches to amplify their voices through U-Report on the Move and unleash their entrepreneurial skills to benefit their host communities through UPSHIFT.

UNICEF is expanding this work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, striving to stop the spread of the disease and protect the most vulnerable against its impact by building on effective initiatives that are already in place. We are appealing for $38 million for the Europe and Central Asia Region to support this expansion as part of UNICEF’s Global Humanitarian Action for Children (HAC) for COVID-19 response.