In Bologna, established refugees pay their gratitude forward

By Amber Murakami-Fester

BOLOGNA, Italy — Refugees entering the European Union fell from its peak of one million in 2015 to under 200,000 in 2017, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. With many of these refugees coming to Italy, refugee reception centers in Bologna work to process and accommodate newcomers. Their biggest challenge is to help assimilate new migrants into Italian life.

University of Bologna student Jalal Dahdal works part-time at Lai-momo and Arca di Noe, two of several cooperatives across Bologna integrating refugees into Italian society. In addition to linguistic translation, Dahdal’s job requires explaining cultural differences to the newly arrived and dispelling “superstitions” as Dahdal puts it, migrants have of Italy, to help them feel more comfortable in their new country. Having immigrated from Syria in 2009 himself, Dahdal considers Arabic to be his mother tongue, allowing him to connect with new arrivals, sometimes just by talking with them and listening to their stories.

“Many of these people have gone through a lot,” Dahdal says. “Talking, even about nothing in particular, can help.”

The immigration crisis peaked in 2015 as conflict escalated in Syria but refugee centers in Bologna continue to see a steady stream of refugees. However, Dahdal says, migrants now come mostly from other parts of the world — Nigeria, The Gambia, Mali, Pakistan and Bangladesh — fleeing war, poverty and political unrest.

A majority of immigrants are what Dahdal calls the “dublinanti” — “the Dubliners,” nicknamed after the Dublin III Regulation. The law, enacted in 2013, requires refugees to request asylum in the country of their point of entry into the European Union. As a result, migrants who have continued on to other EU countries are often sent back to the country where they first entered the continent. Italy, Greece, and Spain receive a disproportionate share of these migrants.

Assimilating refugees is a two-step process that can take years to complete. Refugees in Bologna first arrive at Centro Mattei, a temporary reception center to the east of the city that is also a former prison. Around 300 migrants are currently housed in the facility, where they are provided with basic needs like medical attention, food and shelter in this prima accoglienza, or first reception.

After a few months, refugees go through a seconda accoglienza and are transferred to more permanent housing, which can be a less-crowded center or an apartment of their own. Refugees wait for the processing of their residency permits and work with cooperatives to acquire skills that will help them integrate into Italian life, like learning the language or completing internships to gain work experience. The seconda accoglienza often takes one or two years, Dahdal says.

Though refugees face extreme challenges when they arrive, Bologna has an active and engaged community. According to Dahdal, the Emilia-Romagnan city lives up to its historic reputation of openness. In the nine years he’s lived here, he hasn’t once been made to feel unwelcome.

At UniBo, Dahdal is writing his thesis in anthropology. He hopes to work in forensics, but he plans to stay at the cooperatives for the foreseeable future.

“There’s always more work to be done,” he says.  

Students interested in getting involved in refugee aid efforts in Bologna are encouraged to visit Lai-momo and Arca di Noè websites for more information.

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