Technology transforms migrants’ lives in Italy

Today, on World Refugee Day, we join the world in focusing on the global refugee crisis, sharing stories to help raise awareness of the challenges facing millions of people around the world – people like Mohamed, a refugee from Sierra Leone, who has been living in Italy for one and a half years.

An aspiring pharmacist, he previously studied medicine until he was forced out of school after his father passed away. After reaching his uncle in Libya, with his mother and four younger sisters, he was once again forced to leave his family and travel to Italy on his own.

An increasing number of refugees and migrants need international protection, fleeing war, violence and persecution, and this is echoed in the numbers recorded in Italy. Last year, more than 180,000 refugees arrived in Italy by sea alone, with, sadly four percent of total asylum requests coming from unaccompanied minors.

Overcoming the language barrier is one of the many major problems faced by the majority of migrants. While Mohamed was a well-educated person when he first entered the country, his inability to speak Italian confidently was a huge challenge as he tried to settle into local life.

Enter Fondazione Mondo Digitale (FMD), an Italian non-profit committed to establishing an inclusive knowledge-based society through innovation, education and shared values to benefit all citizens, regardless of background.

FMD is involved in a number of projects offering from digital literacy training initiatives for the elderly to technology sessions for aspiring entrepreneurs. As a key FMD partner, Microsoft has been providing support to ensure these activities reach as many people as possible through its networks and partnerships.

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Helping migrants and refugees integrate into society is one of five areas FMD concentrates on and this aligns with the Europe 2020 initiative. This has been a focus area for the non-profit since 2006, when it launched its Double Code project for unaccompanied minors, which assists a more seamless integration process – including those in need of political asylum in Italy – through the use of technology.

Since then, the non-profit has been involved in a number of initiatives and projects. One example is the Digital Bridge program which assists the e-inclusion of both the Saharawi and Cameroun communities. For both communities, FMD offers educational programs for the training of technicians, teachers and students, as well as initiatives that promote inter-school exchange and the creation of a portal for community development.

In some refugee camps, such as the Pietralata first refugee reception center, FMD organises a local internet café, where it coordinates activities, offering PCs connected to the Internet, professional courses, guides to attending a multimedia Italian course, as well as courses in becoming a “digital communicator”.

The role of the café is to support integration within the Rome community, as well as help build relationships between refugees and families in the nation from which they have fled from.

Last year, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), launched a global awareness campaign on World Refugee Day. Comunità di Sant’Egidio, Techsoup Italia, FMD and Microsoft supported this with “Technology for Solidarity”, a two-day, multi-city event in Rome and Catania, dedicated to social integration.

This included conferences, digital labs for inclusion and a football game for refugees and migrants together with students from the local high school.

This year once again, Microsoft, in partnership with FMD and UNHCR, organized the 8th edition of  the “Io ci sono” (“I’m here”) trophy, a solidarity football match that took place in five Italian cities: Rome, Naples, Catania, Messina and Milan.

In the Rome and Milan teams, groups of Microsoft employees joined an overall group of 200 participants consisting of refugees, students, employees and journalists, who all took the field in honour of UNHCR’s Stand for Refugees campaign.

This initiative closes two years of the projects RefuGIS and Co-Host, both of which promoted skills development. These skills included Italian as a second language, civics, culture, digital literacy and coding lessons. These opportunities helped the social integration of asylum seekers, refugees, and vulnerable immigrants in order to strengthen their integration processes into their new country.

Students of selected high schools are trained and prepared to become tutors and facilitators of immigrants and refugees by Microsoft, while practicing their soft skills. More than 2,000 refugees and 1,300 students have benefited at various levels from the training program and its resources.

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At the University of Catania, 30 young school students taught 60 refugees the basics of IT. As an attendee of one of these workshops, Mohamed spoke of his experience, “Learning Italian with FMD has given me the confidence as I start a new life here. Being able to speak with local people and feel a part of something means a lot to me.”

“In my country I had never used a computer. Here, I met a new friend, Martina, who taught me to surf the web, use Wikipedia, search for news and work, and play football video games. Not only am I able to communicate with those who live far from us, but I’m also able to make new friends and find a job more easily.”

For teenager Francesco, one of many Italian student volunteers, technology has the power to help refugees connect with a new environment. “Technology is a universal language for communicating with one another. In my opinion, integration means being together with no prejudice on language, culture or religion.”

These events have attracted huge participation, but FMD is only just starting. Alfonso Molina, Scientific Director of FMD, believes we need to “decide what type of individuals we want to be and how we wish to live, in what type of country.”

“We can choose to relinquish our duty to help those who suffer and have to abandon their countries, or we can choose to provide our best collective effort, face all challenges, and open a new route for hope.”

Providing migrants and refugees in Italy with access to workshops, new skills and new friends, FMD is helping many more people to feel hopeful.