The humanitarian corridors took off from Syria a year ago: When integration is not a fairy tale


Michela Suglia, ANSA.IT

And they lived safe and sound ever after. This is how the fairy tale of migrants brought to Italy via the humanitarian corridors ends. Just over a year has passed since the first arrivals. And now, away from the bombs and refugee camps, they worry about grammar and finding a job so they can stay. The fairy tale has become a reality for 791 people, mainly Syrians, who so far have landed on a very special red carpet. They are men, women and children stranded by war and desperation and put back on their feet by the community of Sant’Egidio and the Federation of Protestant churches. The goal is to help 1000, with just as many visas, and to show Europe that it can be done.
The difficulty is trying to stay in reality. For many, there is no work, it is occasional or very different from what they knew how to do. Others have thrown themselves into training or university courses. The road to integration is still long.
The majority of children go to school and they are fearless. Two were in their mother’s tummy on arrival. Obaida, instead, will be born in a few days. The first to be conceived here.
They took what they had, packed it into a suitcase and grabbed the second chance that life had given them on a flight to Rome Airport. On arrival, they unpacked their suitcase and what was inside slowly began to expand, adapting itself to their new home. The humanitarian corridors project, which for the first time is managed by the Italian government, together with the community of Sant’Egidio and Waldensian Church, has helped nearly 800 migrants leave Syria and Lebanon without risking their lives in the cargo hold of a boat and with the possibility of seeking asylum. The first 93 landed on 29 February 2016 and did not expect banners and flashes at the airport.
One year later, the integration continues, but it is not a fairy tale. Welcome to a reality that is sometimes disrupted by an uncertain Italian, or that moves forward driven by motivation and age. The one thing on everyone’s mind is finding a job. It’s hard. It’s difficult to get over the idea of picking up from where you left off, before the war, as if Aleppo, Rome or Turin where different settings for the same needs and desires.
Hamza realised this. He is 29 years old and has spent almost half of it working in a pastry shop in Homs. In Rome, he attended a pizzaiolo course. “I like making bread and pizza, but if I find another job, that’s fine,” he says in his Italian filled with infinite verbs and sketchy words. Before leaving, he imagined Italy to be beautiful. “And it is,” he smiles. But there are so many, too many, people looking for work. “In Italy, there are Tunisians, Moroccans, Africans, there are lots of people – he lists them so as to make himself understood – and this is bad for work, very bad.” But he hasn’t given up hope. He can’t now that he is about to become a father again. His wife is eight months pregnant. After Rahaf, who is 2, they are having a boy. He will be named Obaida, in every aspect the son of the humanitarian corridors because he was conceived and born in Italy. “In Arabic, Obaida means strong….only strong…like this” and he raises his fists to make himself understood. Hamza is joined by his father and two brothers. One is Dyia, 12 years old, with sharp eyes and a prosthesis for the leg he lost in Syria. They all live together in an apartment close to the Pomezia town hall.

There are five people living in Mahmoud’s house in Campoleone, between Rome and Latina. His house in Homs was bigger and he painted it himself. “But this is safe,” he repeats and smiles. Issam is in the kitchen. His wife fills the mocha coffee pot again because she has discovered Italian coffee. She is working as a trainee in a canteen, which allows her to keep her veil since she is a Muslim. But the road ahead is demanding and long, she explains. For now, she is a mother.

Her three children go to school. The oldest is 11 years old and is learning judo. Mahmoud’s eyes light up when he shows me his son’s medals. Two hours for a martial art he has never practiced before. And to give his son a future, he is looking for work. For now, he has an on-call contract with Procter & Gamble. “I like it. I put caps on shampoo and soap containers. I have no problems at work.” But adds, “I have to find a permanent job – and he stumbles on the word for a long time – to live in Italy, because I have three children.”

Bread and determination also for Mirvat, with model good looks and a great desire to study. He is almost 25 years old and in Aleppo he needed to take one last exam to graduate in English literature. But the desire for a future was greater and brought him to Ferrara a few months ago. Thanks to a university scholarship, he is attending courses in modern languages and literature. He is starting from scratch. “I like it here, sometimes I have a bit of nostalgia. I miss the Arabian sweets and Aleppo. It is a city that embraces you when you enter” and his eyes melt. But the war stopped everything and leaving was the only thing to do. Even stronger than the fear of the sea.

“My family and I decided to go to Sweden where my brother lives, passing through Turkey by sea,” he says. “But at the last minute my mother decided not to risk it. However, I would have gone, even on a boat, because after living in a war for three years, we are used to losing friends and neighbours….unfortunately.” It seems to be harder getting used to having less. His family was well-off, his mother had four farms and a house in the mountain, all burned to the ground. “It’s true, they are things, only things, but I have to get used to not having them anymore.”

Satisfied, proud and sometimes incredulous to having really made it. The dream that was born in Lampedusa after the shipwreck of 3 October 2013 has become a reality thanks to them. For more than a year, the Waldensians and Catholics of Sant’Egidio have joined forces to oversee the humanitarian corridors, the project endorsed by the Italian government and still the only one in Europe. Unlike other migrants, the 791 who arrived on planes can seek asylum. So far, 79 have done so and everyone has been accepted. But the road isn’t easy.

“The project has a lot of possibilities but also a lot of problems,” explains Giulia Gori, representative for the Federation of Protestants. From her office near the Quirinale, she follows the stories and problems of those who have arrived. She now understands them completely. “The women are often more flexible, more likely to get involved and put themselves out there than the men,” she says. “It is more frustrating for the men to cope with a social-economic status that they no longer have. In their culture, they had the responsibility and honour of guiding their family.” Here they often lose themselves in an Italian word that they cannot pronounce. They get anxious.

“Of course, there is the worry that they have lost everything.” This is what Maria Quinto thinks, another guardian angel for Sant’Egidio. “Going to the refugee camps in Lebanon, where many of them come from, I got the feeling of what they went through before and after. It’s as if I, as a teacher, suddenly did not have a school anymore and therefore had to reinvent myself.” What’s more, you have to deal with the job world in Italy: not only another organisation of work or more frenetic hours but also the precarious situation and lack of jobs, especially certain types of rarer jobs. “For example, some migrants used to repair small objects,” continues Maria, “or worked as panel beaters, jobs which no longer exist in Italy due to the ease of getting replacement parts.”

Even Giulia, who staunchly defends the corridors in the name of “rediscovered” dignity, speaks clearly: “The fairy tale of easy integration supported by this extraordinary project is not true. Integration collides with different cultures, religions. Sometimes the expectations are very high by those who arrive and hope, legitimately but unrealistically, to pick up exactly where they left off in Syria. We try to tell them the truth, right from the beginning.” In addition to luck and motivation, a solution is time. Maria is sure of this. “It’s a long journey. The first year, they lay the foundations and then they continue to build.” Children are often oblivious to these efforts, they have so much more enthusiasm. “I asked one of them where he came from. He replied, “I am a little bit Italian and a little bit Syrian.” Easy, isn’t it?