Donnerstag, 19. November 2015

Visiting the highly specialized center for unaccompanied minors in Ragusa

On April 13th, 2015, a highly specialized center for unaccompanied minor refugees opened in Ragusa. It is maintained by the cooperative “Together for life”. We visited the center located in the former Hotel Rafael, in the main street close to the cathedral. The building consists of several floors and is also equipped with a porch and a patio facing a small alley where many of the young people living here assembled today, because of the sunny weather. I’m welcomed by the employees and the manager, who immediately agrees to explain the situation of the center to me.

The center is allowed to take in 37 minors and, at the moment, is fully booked. The minors mainly hail from francophone countries such as Mali, Senegal, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast yet there are also young men from Nigeria, Gambia, and Egypt. The average age is 17, but there are also younger people yet none younger than 14. All of them arrived on or later than September, 12. “The law allows for a 90 day stay, which has been respected up until now,” the manager explains. “This, however, does not mean that they haven’t begun procedures or that they tried to integrate and assimilate the teenagers.” Then, we speak about the specific problems of the first reception of minor refugees, especially the question of guardianship. “The court in Catania told me that the files concerning the minors who arrived until September, 12, have almost been worked through. This means that our minors are next, because they arrived on that day. Fortunately, this procedure, which has been agreed to by the court in Catania, enables that the minors can be temporarily put under the structure’s care. This means that we were able to have those who wanted to apply for international protection fill in the form C3 beforehand and, thus, we were able to send them to school. In the case of the minors from Egypt, however, we have to wait for the court to appoint a legal guardian.” Then, we talk about the difficulties of this procedure, which brings on the risk of elongating the period of time until an employee can become a guardian. This can possibly hurt the fair-mindedness of the guardian which, however, is crucial for the protection of the minor. The person in charge agrees that this procedure can only be used to the advantage of the minors and only to provide the bare minimum until a fitting guardian is appointed. This, he points out, is how it has been done until now. The minors come to the center from different parts of Sicily, mainly from Augusta, Catania, or the nearby harbor Pozzallo. Among those who have been brought to other facilities, there are some who stayed in Ragusa and visit the center now and then such as today. There are three employees, two guards, two lawyers, a psychologist, a vocational adviser, and two interpreters who speak French and Arabic working in the center. All employees, however, speak English and French fluently. In emergencies they call other interpreters to communicate with the minors. Once a week, a doctor visits the center to care for those minors who already have documents. The employees of Save The Children visit often to simply talk to the minors, but they also offered a workshop for the employees that will take place in the next months. The minors get a monthly allowance as well as phone cards. The meals, however, are provided by an external catering service and the cooks increasingly try to discuss the meal plan with the residents of the center. When we talked to the minors no one complained about this.

We are sitting in the center’s main office and our conversation is often interrupted by minors who either just want to say hello or want to ask something. The relationship between staff and minors seems to be relaxed and trusting. Afterwards, we walk around the center: there are 23 bedrooms, all with a bathroom and two bunk beds, but there are never more than three beds occupied. Besides the offices, there are common rooms and a large living room with a patio, where dinner is severed and, for example, some minors have Italian class. “One of the first things we try to accomplish is to get the kids into school,” one staff member tells me. “The youngest one goes to primary school and was welcomed so warmly that we all, him included, were very surprised. He is invited for dinner at his friends’ houses on Sundays and got to know a lot of families this way. That is why we try very hard that he can stay in Ragusa after he has left the center and doesn’t have to go somewhere else, where he has to start over again.”

All of the teenagers seem to enjoy school, although only 20 of the ones older than 16 had the chance to take evening classes. Some of them also study on their own on the patio where I meet some of them the next morning. The common room is a place to listen to music and practice with the interpreters, especially for those speaking Arabic, or, as in my case, to simply find someone to have a conversation with. “It got a lot easier for me since having my cell phone,” O. tells me, “also because I haven’t been here for long and don’t know anyone in the city. That’s why I talk to my friends and family who are in the Netherlands, England and all over Europe. They encouraged me when I decided to leave my country. In my country, you don’t have the same sort of safety as in Europe. When you are on the street all kinds of things can happen to you and no one protects you.” A. who sits next to his friend agrees with this: “It’s true. Here, we are fine. And I want to stay in Italy. In my country, in Guinea, I went to university, that’s why I can speak seven languages, among them French and English. But I couldn’t stay there any longer, so I went on a voyage that took me two years and eight months. I worked very hard in Algeria and tried to reach Spain via Morocco but didn’t succeed and therefore had to travel through Libya.” Like A. a lot of teenagers don’t want to talk about their stay in Libya from which some of them carry visible signs on their bodies. “For us it is still amazing to see how much these teenagers change in ten days,” one employee tells me. “You can even see it clearly on photos, that we later need for their documents. Only after a couple of days their faces become the face of a teenager again. The suffering and tiredness that hardened their faces during their voyage gives way to friendly faces.” This is one of the reasons why it is important for the staff to help the teenagers convey how hard their situation truly is and thus convince the commission that protection and future safety is necessary, so that they can give the minors the support a center like this should provide.

The liveliest are a couple of Egyptian minors who run from one room to the other and listen to music on their cell phone. “A lot of them go outside and meet with fellow countrymen to play soccer on a nearby playground. We now asked for permission to use a second playground at the end of the street, but the whole thing moves slowly and you got to be very patient,” the head of the center adds. M. shows me some drawings on the wall: “In Gambia I drew a lot of cloth and clothing. That’s what I want to do here as well. I met a lot of Americans and Britons who came to my city to learn the techniques I use. That is why I’m optimistic that I can succeed and that my drawings and clothing will be valued in Italy as well. In my home country I am sadly no longer allowed to work in my vocation.” We wish him many projects in the future and that he may have a lot of patience. Surely not being alone anymore is in itself a form of progress. M. continues: “I am sure that your chances get better the more optimistic you are in the search for them.” We cannot help but agree with him.

Lucia Borghi
Borderline Sicilia Onlus

Translation: Annika Schadewaldt