SEPTEMBER 22, 2014
Over the past few years, Italy has surpassed Greece as the principal gateway for undocumented immigration into the European Union. In fact, a recent report from EU border agency Frontex found that during the first quarter of 2014, half of the entire continent's detected illegal border crossings came through the Italian seacoast.
It's no accident, then, that this July, Boston College School of Social Work Associate Professor Westy Egmont convened a cohort of 13 BC Social Work graduate students in four Italian cities, as part of a course designed to tackle the challenges of immigrant integration. "Italy is the Texas/Arizona of Europe, in that it bears a disproportionate level of responsibility for the continent's undocumented," explains Egmont. "Currently, the country is host to 13 migrant camps, and large flows of irregular migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. There are, of course, a variety of agencies serving these populations, and we were fortunate to learn from several of them during our time in Italy."
Over the course of two weeks, the class visited with social workers, academics, and government officials in Venice, Verona, Milan, and Rome. They also met with U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Boston College alum Ken Hackett. "This trip provided us with a great opportunity to see first hand some of the efforts being made to integrate refugee populations into Italian life,” says BC Social Work student Kaitlin Porter. "We spoke with people who are on the ground, doing the actual work necessary to make the transition to a new country a smoother process."
While in Rome, the class visited a women's shelter run by the Jesuit Refugee Service, where new arrivals were allowed to stay for up to six months while establishing themselves in their new home. At the Coges Società Cooperativa Sociale (Co.Ge.S) in Venice, students were introduced to a program training immigrant youth to make pizza, as a means to secure steady employment. (A 2013 report from ABC News found that more than 6,000 skilled pizza makers were needed in the country, and that, by and large, Italians were unwilling to do the work). By several accounts, the pizza at Co.Ge.S was the best the BC cohort tasted during their time in Italy.
Students also met with some of the refugees receiving services, in order to gain a sense of their stories of migration. Many are unaccompanied minors (mostly boys between the ages of 14-17) who have come almost unfathomable distances. At the Centro Studi Immigrazione (CESTIM) in Verona, students were introduced to a summer program for recent young arrivals to the country. While here, they heard from one 17-year-old boy who had walked all the way from Pakistan, crossing six borders in the process, and who was detained several times throughout his journey.
"It was a profound experience for our students to hear the personal story of a young man's journey, and the physical risks associated with traveling across Asia Minor in search of a better life," says Egmont. "And then, to also know that there are communities in Italy working very hard to provide universal services to all people seeking refugee services, no matter their background. This is certainly relevant to our current situation here in the United States."
These first-hand experiences have already left a deep impact on Egmont's students. Global practice concentration student Ann Bolling says that seeing how different agencies in Italy function, and how systems differ in the U.S., will help to inform her own work moving forward, as she seeks to advocate for those living at the margins of society in countries across the world. The course has helped another student, Ana Medina Rodriguez, to narrow down her own professional aspirations — she is now more sure than ever that after graduation she wants to work with undocumented youth.
Academics also provided a unique perspective on the state of immigrant integration in Italy, and some of the differences between the two countries (in short, students learned that Italy creates better policies around the concept of immigrant integration, while the U.S. provides more actual social services on the ground). At the Ca' Foscari University of Venice, students listened intently to lectures from leading voices in the field organized by the director of the school's social work program, Professor Pietro Basso.
"It was a real pleasure for us to meet with the students at Boston College," says Basso. "Our impressions of the group were very good, and we engaged in a true exchange of ideas on the theme of immigrant integration. The situations in the U.S. and Europe are, at the same time, both different and not-so-different, and we have a main issue in common: that immigrants hope to be accepted in our countries, yet our societies are not so ready to accept these new citizens.
"I hope that this meeting should not be the last between our universities, but instead, the beginning of an exchange over time designed to better address this fundamental problem."
The constant sharing of ideas is what largely defined the trip. Egmont recalls one particularly striking moment when the cohort toured the tombs beneath St. Peter's Basilica. As they approached Peter's tomb, he thought of the apostle's role in the founding of the Church, and how his students were, in this moment, able to somehow share in a piece of history so central to the development of Western civilization, and its spread to communities across the globe.
"For 2,000 years, Christians, as missionaries and migrants alike, have exchanged ideas with new populations while at the same time, they've been forced to reflect on their own assumptions," he says.
"We were fortunate to be able to have a remarkable experience of encountering our own culture, our shared hopes, and challenges and to learn together in Italy, and I feel confident that, as these students graduate from BC and go into careers in social work, they will continue to be open to the kind of dialogue needed to make our world a more accepting place."
On September 16, students from "SCWK 7719 Immigrant Integration: A Comparative Study of U.S. & Italian Policies & Services" will share findings from the course at the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants.
Professor Westy Egmont leads the the Immigrant Integration Lab (IIL), an applied research lab exploring the intersection of social work, social policy, and immigrant inclusion. We invite you to learn more about the Immigrant Integration Lab at BC Social Work.