Refugees are welcome, sure..but then?

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Some insights and reflections written by two volunteers of the EUI Refugee Initiative, Caterina Francesca Guidi and Alberto-Horst Neidhardt.

Starting from May 2016, the European University Institute has opened its doors to a group of six asylum seekers. Aged between 18 and 32 years, our guests come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Mali, Mauritania and Sudan. The hosting project, initiated thanks to a specific agreement with the Caritas Diocesana of Florence, offers to the beneficiaries complete and free access to services previously reserved to researchers and employees of the Institute.
The asylum seekers have the opportunity to reside in some of the apartments owned by the Chapter of the Cathedral of Fiesole which have been renovated at the expense of the EUI. Conveniently, the two apartments are located within the Badia Fiesolana, that makes it possible for their residents to have easy and quick access to all other facilities, including the Library, sports facilities, communal garden, canteen (etc.). Our guests enjoy full access to the Library, have access to all the printed and multimedia material on loan. They also have the possibility to use the canteen for free at lunch.

The project has an initial term of twelve months. After this, the beneficiaries can still be part of the project under certain conditions: the participation to the initiative is subordinated to the bureaucratic procedure for the attainment of refugee status, of subsidiary protection or of other forms of international protection. The guests must also show full commitment to be part of the project.
Based on the successful experience of these last few months, our hope and our intention is to continue the project and to increase the number of beneficiaries in the near future. The main goal of this initiative is to support the integration of our guests in Italy, thanks to the provision of free courses, which are specifically aimed to foster their social and professional inclusion. These consist of Italian language classes and professional training tailored to their preferences and skills. The project in itself and the courses in particular have been launched thanks to the EUI and its broad networks with the Florentine neighborhood and owing to the participation of the academic community.

By opening shared spaces to our guests and admitting them to services which were exclusively reserved to members of the academic community, we intend not only to build a bridge to facilitate and support their social integration in the host country, but also to deepen our awareness of the global concerns and challenges that we will face for many years to come. In light of this objective, under the main Refugee Committee, composed equally by volunteering researchers and administrators, four different subcommittees are operating with specific tasks assigned to each.

The ‘Housing Subcommittee’ is responsible for the conservation and care of the real estate properties and mobile property (such as bicycles): it takes care of the maintenance of the flats and contributes to the collection of goods which might be needed by the beneficiaries. The EUI now offers two fully restored apartments with common areas for socializing, fully equipped kitchens for cooking, free internet connection so that the guests can easily communicate with their families and friends.
A second group of volunteers, the ‘Social Subcommittee’, organizes social events with the aim to foster friendships and connections between EUI staff and the beneficiaries, making sure that the residents feel an integral part of the community of the Institute. The guests have already participated in events at the Bar Fiasco, they took part in the State of the Staff, in the Coppa Pavone, in the EUI Festival of Arts and June Ball in the past months. The Subcommittee also ensures the promotion of and participation in ongoing initiatives in the city of Florence.
A third group of volunteers, called the ‘Fundraising Subcommittee’, is in charge of fundraising and of goods collections. Already in the past months, members of this Subcommittee have managed to achieve large and laudable participation of the EUI Community in various initiatives.
Last but not least, the ‘Languages Subcommittee’ provides for the organization of language classes, courses on Italian culture as well IT-classes in order to make sure that the beneficiaries can also acquire technical and computer skills as part of their experience at the EUI.

This shared model is the fruit of a common vision of stakeholders and volunteers, who put their time and personal resources at the service of this initiative intended to boost the beneficiaries’ integration. The EUI, its entire community and its resources are made available to the beneficiaries in order to ensure their successful integration and a brighter future in Italy. While we work to ensure their material independence, we also want to reinforce their personal sense of worth, their self-confidence.
It is then the responsibility of guests themselves to make the most of this opportunity. Their participation opens up possibilities but also entails duties: they must keep the apartments where they reside clean as well as buy and prepare their own food. We believe that this process is a necessary step so that any asylum seeker entering Europe can successfully integrate in a host country, and be treated as human being and part of the community, with rights and duties, instead of being mere statistics. Integrating in the host society equals becoming part of its citizenry, whereas unconditional assistance is likely to produce dependence and subordination rather than integration, participation and autonomy.

The academic world can become a victim of its own nature and goals. The attention dedicated by academics and researchers to the unprecedented challenges that we face today, among which the refugee crisis undoubtedly holds a prominent position, might be limited to specific scientific settings, to a specific time-frame. Often times, we forget that persons are not and cannot only be objects of study, and that their condition and predicaments do not end at the doorstep of our offices or libraries. We believe this project can be a great opportunity for all of us not to lose touch with reality, to move beyond the passive onlooker’s scheme and take an active part in this humanitarian emergency.
By opening the doors of the EUI, we know that we are making a modest contribution to the solution of a larger problem: our greatest hope is to start spreading some good practices in other institutional and university settings. Welcoming migrants and ensuring they are alive when they reach Europe’s coasts is not enough: we have the duty to care, to care about what happens following that and, if possible, to make it better.

We are in this together, and together we need to act in order to ameliorate and alleviate, step by step, the gravity of today’s situation. It is with this objective in mind that we have started this initiative together.

We hope that the EUI community will continue to participate fully and actively in the future in this project and, if the opportunity presents itself, to kick-start more initiatives moved by the same spirit and goals.