PALERMO, Italy (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The 16-year-old Bangladeshi boy and the retired Italian social worker made an unlikely pair as they strolled though a Palermo park.
Sharing no common language, the teenager, named Sobuj, and 65-year-old Christiane Frost used Google Translate on her smartphone to figure out what the other was saying.
The oldest of five children, Sobuj, identified only by his first name, was dispatched to Europe earlier this year by his family - first on a flight to Libya and then smuggled by boat across the Mediterranean by traffickers - after his ailing father could no longer work, Frost said.
“All he wants is a job to make money to send to his family,” she said of Sobuj, who is one of more than 18,000 child migrants and refugees in the Italian government’s care who have arrived without parents or adult companions over the past several years.
Frost acts as Sobuj’s guardian, part of a new, nationwide effort in Italy to match each “unaccompanied foreign minor” with an Italian citizen who volunteers his or her support.
It is an ambitious goal in a country that has received more than 600,000 migrants and refugees in the past four years and where growing anti-immigrant sentiment is expected to feature strongly in next year’s election.
Nearly 70 percent of respondents of a recent national opinion poll said they believed Italy was host to too many immigrants.
Yet, the government is forging ahead with the guardianship program, which envisions a corps of regular Italians guiding vulnerable youngsters who arrive on Italy’s shores after a dangerous Mediterranean sea crossing.
Under the scheme, the children remain housed in government-supported centers while the guardians help enroll them in schools, obtain healthcare and help them with legal applications to stay in Italy.
Filomena Albano, who heads the national Authority for Children and Adolescents in Rome, said Italy was the first European country to formalize such a comprehensive guardianship project in law, passed in March, which includes additional protections for young unaccompanied migrants and refugees.
So far, 2,100 Italians across the country have applied to be guardians, she said in a phone interview, adding that a rigorous vetting process and training meant the program was only now starting to move forward.
“Clearly, this is just the beginning. The numbers are not there yet to give each child a guardian,” Albano said. “But I see the program allowing us to take responsibility for the future of these young people.”
Sobuj and Frost are taking part a pilot project in the Sicilian capital Palermo that has been underway since June, enrolling 40 teenagers, aged 14 to 17, from countries including Gambia, Sudan and Bangladesh.
For all its good intentions, the guardianship idea is fraught with difficulties and the pilot project is serving as an early warning system.
In addition to language barriers, guardians often find themselves stymied by bureaucracy when they try to gather information on legal proceedings or advocate for better meals at centers, said Pasquale D‘Andrea, the guarantor for children and adolescents in Palermo who oversees the pilot project.
Minors chosen for the program sometimes suddenly disappear, he said, to forge lives outside the system or to attempt to meet family in other parts of Europe.
Sabrina Avakian, chief of UNICEF’s child protection for refugee and migrant response in Italy, said in an interview that the guardianship program would benefit minors because having a local contact made it less likely they would strike out on their own, where they often face abuses by human traffickers.
“Many of these unaccompanied minors become victims of trafficking and in the case of girls, prostitution,” Avakian said. “The guardians become a point of reference that makes them less vulnerable to these things.”
The guardianship law envisions practical and bureaucratic support for the young migrants, but the less visible effect is emotional.
The guardians and their wards quickly develop strong bonds. Of the Italians, D‘Andrea said: “these are human beings with blood in their veins who feel emotions.”
In Sobuj’s case, Frost took heed of his complaints that the center served only pasta at dinner, of which he was not a fan. She now cooks for him at home once a week and prepares his favorite meal, chicken and rice.
A growing bond was evident when Patrizia Opepari, 57, the owner of a Palermo bed and breakfast, and her ward, Kawsu, 17, of Gambia, spoke of their relationship during a walk through Villa Trabia, a Palermo park.
They exchanged a smile as he recounted what she said after loaning him a bicycle: “Go slow and be careful”.
Kawsu, who attends a local high school, said his journey to Sicily lasted almost a year as he traveled alone, working odd jobs, through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria and Libya, where he was kidnapped by local militia and held in a detention center for six months.
He said his captors only released him to traffickers for the Mediterranean crossing after he convinced them his family had no money for ransom.
Opepari said she has yet to fully understand the trauma Kawsu went through so she keeps their relationship light, offering friendship and support where she can.
“I am here to give affection, security and friendship,” she said. When asked what he thinks of his guardian, Kawsu said: “She’s good. She wants to help.”
At the end of the walk, they demonstrated the special handshake they share when they say goodbye. They entwined thumbs, bumped fists and then placed their fists to their hearts.
Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, resilience and climate change. Visit www.trust.org