Italianostranieri: why learning and teaching a foreign language for refugees is a form of CARE

Hello all, my name is Franca, I come from Italy.

About me… philosopher, interested in post-structuralism, new ways to do international cooperation, passionate about Geopolitics and China-Africa relations. I’ve worked a lot with refugees, doing legal orientation, helping them to find houses, jobs, but also writing projects to get funds to create new spaces of inclusion.

For me it’s interesting to see how many edgeryders are interested in migration or refugee issues and what are the connections to spring up from the many well known problems of working with refugees. I think that it’s possible to underline some key issues when talking about care in this context .

  1. Helping Relationships vs Peer Relationships
  2. Know your rights vs Rights as a cage
  3. Intercultural problems and Empathy
  4. Inclusiveness in our society/community: avoid ideological and too theoretical approach

A little bit about my experience: In particular I would like to speak about my working period during the so called “North  Africa Emergency” for 3 years. It was a really hard situation for our (Italian) reception system. We were in the paradoxical situation to tell them: “you are an asylum seeker, you HAVE to be an asylum seeker, if you want to have any chances to stay in Europe”.

In effect after the Arab Spring Revolution (2011) everything changed. A lot of people that came from Horn of Africa or from other Sub Saharian regions and were in Libya for work decided to come in Europe. Gaddafi’s death meant the end of every agreement “Petrol vs Migrants” that Italian Government had signed with Berlusconi in 2009 (for more details, this Guardian article). So you’d have more asylum seekers in Europe, but also different routes, different countries of origin, different reasons to leave their countries.

In 2011 asylum seekers in Italy were more than 40.000 (4 times more than 2010, Eurostat) and Italy became the fourth country for the number of claims submitted, mainly from Nigeria,Tunisia, Ghana and Mali. Most of them have lived for many years in Libya, illiterate in their own native language, living in segregated conditions of work or in the terrible detention centers.

The history is long and I’ don’t want to become boring, but only to say that it’s not possible to speak about refugees in general when trying to be of real help. We have to think about the countries where we are and where they come from (for example 90% of Syrian refugees that arrived in Italy decided not to ask asylum here, but in other north EU countries), the migration routes, the particular war conditions, but also the economical ones…

For all these reasons it was hard to prepare asylum seekers during North Africa Emergency because they came here for Lybian crisis and most didn’t leave their countries for reasons of “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” (Geneva Convention) or for war crisis in their countries (subsidiary protection). And so it was difficult to explain them that formally they have to be asylum seekers, that we need to find these elements in their stories. How could we help them? I usually do some group or individual meetings to inform them about procedures, about what does it mean to ask asylum and I prepare them for the Audition. How to help them to underline important elements in their stories, not lying… A lot of also ethical questions…(Legislation vs Reality)

A relation of care: teaching a foreign language

The relations between us is a relation of help. Sometimes you can help someone too much.

The question is more to create opportunities for people to be really active (refugees as #nospectators). There are language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, different contexts of life, different expectations.

In this complex and nonlinear context of work that I would like to start from the first point: the challenge to learn a new language, the language of the recipient country. It could be difficult and, in some situations, also impossible, like a WALL.

This could be because learning a language means that you accept to be in a country, you decide to start again your life. For a lot of vulnerable people that are victims of violence (in their countries of origin or during the migration travel) it could become a catalyst of bed experiences.

So learning a language becomes the first step to say: “I’m here. I would like to take part in this new society and new community.”

For all these reasons we needed to share knowledge and experiences about “how to teach in more effective way?”, we needed to create a community - or better to create a space for a community of italian schools! So we started with:

It is a platform of the Municipality of Milan to help foreigners find a school of Italian; there are a lot of problems to find the right schools, also because there are a lot of schools but not connected.

We saw that there is this tendency to work alone, providing a service but without  sharing knowledge, critical points… We knew people that attend 3 different classes, for months,  but they couldn’t speak Italian!

So we decided to open our website to every school, private, public, run by volunteers, by NGOs.

It’s not simple to help, to take care of someone. It’s a relation full of responsibilities, and good intentions often aren’t enough. We noticed also some schools that are so active in helping their students, helping them in legal stuff or finding jobs… But all these activities could be dangerous, create a bubble, a dependence relation, mixed with ideological thoughts …

Your students are not yours.

To create a community we realized  real life meetings between teachers and schoolmakers. Every school has the possibility to post directly activities, news. So everyone can have an always updated map of time classes, levels, locations etc; But also a moment of exchange between teachers, methods and materials. The teachers all together wrote also an handbook for teachers (in Italian only). We also created an e-learning database to help people to find free resources on internet and a lot of videos (in 5 languages) to explain Laws. Education system…

I’ve been asked what projects I think can really make a difference: Projects that work on the concept of resilience, avoid that people identify themselves with their own pain.

We saw a lot of people that 5 or 6 months after their arrival start to fade, to turn off. During the first months you hope that your rights became effective, job, home… But nothing happens. Your life becomes full of complaints.

A very interesting school that is part of the community is for example, Asnada. It’s a Montessori/Experimental school. The idea is to teach in a different way. Helping people to use this new language not as a “stranger” language. Usually you start to have 2 languages: the native one that is the language of feelings and relationships and a second language that is the language of bureaucracy. The idea is to teach a language that helps you to construct your new identity, “create your new life here in a new language”.

So the lessons became a workshop where we, all together, construct the language, with different ways, methods (arts, music, plays…) and also being a community.

So in my opinion it’s really important to be able to find new ways to take care, creating effective spaces of meeting, of real exchange.

Work on resilience, opening workshops where people can create something (for ex. FabLabs, Makerspaces…) using open technologies (like Raspberry Pi) could become new ways to take care of people in really big troubles, with strong vulnerabilities and help them to start again.

Maybe Opencare, Edgeryders community could be the right place where to start!!

What do you think?

Something which escaped my mind

I am wondering if the community would have gotten better if it was organised by the groups in question instead of the municipality.

When talking about Italianostranieri you mentioned that it was useful as a coordination tool for schools - to help them come together and share knowledge. So they probably got better at teaching the language (not sure if you measured results?)

But did it become easier to learn a language, from the point of view of struggling foreigners? Do you have a story from the other side too, @Franca?



Sorry for my late reply!

The question if it could be better to be self-organized it’s a well-known question for us. It could be easier for some extents, but at the end we understood that it’s really important to have a “neutral” coordinator, that it’s not a service provider of Italian courses.  The coordinator is the Immigration Office of the City of Milan and so a service that tries to help migrants in general, in many ways (jobs, social benefits, reception centers…). So this view is interesting because permits to have an holistic view of the person. But the question remains open…

There is a kind of self-organized network of schools, “Scuole senza Permesso” (“Schools without documents”), but it represents only a particular kind of schools.

And yes, a lot of teachers testify that it’s really useful for their job to be in contact with other schools, teachers and approaches, but it’s not so easy to register the results of an improvement in the quality of teaching. This is because you need to have data about the situation before and after, in order to register the gap and there are a lot of other factors that can influence your way of teaching.

For all these reasons what I could say it’s that there are refugees and asylum seekers happy to have had an Italian class also in August (because of Italianostranieri Community), but it’s not so simple to measure the improvement in the quality of teaching and I think also that it’s a long-term effect…but for sure it could be great to work on it…

Another way is learning the language of their destination

I see, well can’t say I’m surprised it’s difficult to measure, especially if people are transiting.

You may know of this already, it seems different services for refugees would start offering spontaneous language classes like this Baobab centre in Rome, which I’ve come across in another article. Basically you’d have German volunteers teaching people transiting via Roma some basic language in order to be better prepared by the time they reach Germany: she was saying that “teaching them German (or anything else, really) gives meaning to the time they spend here.” I found it ingenious and practical. The original reference is here.