“This is a welcoming community with a great sense of hospitality,” said councillor Carmelina Labruzzo, welcoming the cities of Madrid and Riga to Cesena, where they had gathered to make progress on migrant integration. Cesena has several non-profit organisations working closely with migrants, and the city is looking to strengthen ties with these groups to streamline integration efforts.
The city has already gotten off on the right foot by mapping all the volunteering associations in its territory.
One such organisation is the Foreigner’s centre, which works with volunteers to run projects for young and homeless people, providing healthcare and other services for minors and foreigners. Another is the Intercultural Centre, which hosts groups like ‘MoviMenti,’ which focuses on gender issues, for instance through a sewing workshop. This workshop is not just about stitching together clothes, but about stitching together communities, and it is seen as a safe social space for otherwise marginalised women.
The current political climate, however, can create difficulties for the running of the centre. National funding has seen dramatic cuts, which means that fewer people can be employed to run the centre, and because legislation frequently goes through changes, internal structures have to be updated repeatedly.
At local level, care has to be taken to respect the different philosophies of all the actors that the city wants to work with. That means keeping focused on the wellbeing of migrants, without having to accord entirely on the methods. Some groups working with migrants are religious, others are political; when you’re working together you have to put all of that aside and keep your shared goal in sight.
For the Centre for Peace, which houses many of these associations, history can bring society together, not because we all share one history, but because all of our histories contain lessons about the value of community, and the horror than can emerge from persecuting the marginalised. The centre promotes EU citizenship through an understanding of history, from oppression of minorities during World War II to collectives forming during the war that divided former Yugoslavia.
For the ‘Street Lawyers’, law is the great equaliser, and they work tirelessly to make sure that homeless and vulnerable people are adequately represented. The group proudly touts its status as at once the largest law firm in Italy and the one with the lowest income. The organisation can run thanks to the tireless work of volunteers, mostly lawyers but also doctors and other professionals.
With the complex and shifting legal landscape mentioned above, this group is a huge boon to the city, and is working closely with Cesena to ensure that people can access the right to register with the city, and therefore to receive basic services and start the integration process.
Trade unions are also on board through a group called ‘welcoming community’ which was born when Cesena decided to stop ghettoisation by housing migrants equally throughout the city. When a small protest manifested in one of the communities there was a massive counterreaction which resulted in this group. One of their key activities is working with the municipality to ensure that no one is in a position to have to sleep rough on the street, an issue also worked on by the group ‘Street unit’ or Via delle Stelle. Another is providing professional training so that migrants can enter the labour market. When the need for more welders was identified in the local economy, this group was ready to train and introduce newcomers to the trade.
Religious institutions also have a part to play, for example San Vincenzo, an international Catholic organisation for the promotion of human dignity. In their centre they work with families of migrants and locals that are at risk of poverty, including homework support for students, safe spaces for discussion and consultation, and group trips to other cities.
Why do volunteers get involved in these programmes? According to Lucia, a local volunteer for the Foreigner’s Centre (ASP), an important factor for her was getting concrete experience that could pave the way to later employment.
Having studies anthropology and the legal environment of reception centres, volunteering gave her the practical opportunity to accompany migrants, assist them, and understand the context that she hopes to work in in the future. At ASP, Lucia is treated as a partner of the association, and the practical training that they provide is both an enticement and a necessity for working effectively.
Volunteering is a major boon, both locally and nationally, including for GDP. The national volunteer services centre has identified migrants as a major potential resource if they are given the opportunity to become more socially active through volunteering.
Reaching out to migrants and helping them to understand these opportunities can be a challenge though. A lot of the information is spread migrant-to-migrant by word of mouth, which means that standard communication activities are much less important than providing really rewarding experiences that get potential volunteers interested.
Migrants mainly get involved in social assistance services, cultural and educational activities, and research by the city found that migrants feel that they become more active citizens through volunteering. For many understaffed volunteering associations, migrants offer a lot of untapped potential – a situation that Cesena is working to exploit.
Cesena will need to develop an official recognition of volunteers’ contribution to the local integration strategy of the city through the support of councillors, migrant and neighbourhood associations and NGOs and university. Cesena wants to have a co-design process to draft the benchmarks and develop their action plan. They will actively involve all relevant stakeholders.