Rome, Italy – In June 2018, two Italian populist parties formed a new government with an anti-immigration agenda.
Italy started turning away NGO rescue boats at sea, evicted refugees from a camp and an abandoned building in Rome, and introduced a decree that scrapped a whole category of humanitarian protection.
But the government’s far-right platform has also boosted solidarity initiatives.
NGOs that offer programmes for refugees to live with local families have reported an uptick in applications by Italians.
“Almost everyone cites the will to react to the political climate,” says Sara Consolato, spokesperson for Refugees Welcome Italy. “It seems to have had a mobilising effect.”
Participation is estimated at only a few hundred people across the country, but organisations contacted by Al Jazeera say numbers almost doubled in the second half of 2018.
Al Jazeera spoke to refugees who live or have lived with Italian families about their experiences and what they make of Italian culture.
‘I heard they were racist but I’ve only met nice people’
Blessing, 27, Nigerian refugee living near Ascoli Piceno
“I came to Italy in December 2016, and at first I stayed in a housing project in Macerata.
“I was pregnant, and I didn’t like the environment because it was kind of rough. There was no job … I needed a better life for myself.
“The Italian way of life is easy once you understand everything, but we stranieri [foreigners] often have to know someone to make it. When you look for a job, they’ll tell you ‘No, non c’è‘ [There is none] or ‘We’ll call you back’.
“I tried to reach Germany, but I was stopped and sent back.
“Then I met the family. They have helped me and my fidanzato [boyfriend] find jobs and a flat. They know Italy well, and it’s easier to hire you if the person knows who to contact if there’s a problem.
“Italians are nice people – they’re very nice people. I don’t know if I should say this, I had heard they were racist, but I’ve never come across anyone that has been bad to me. I’ve only met very nice people.
“I learned that family is very important to them: it’s dinner together, lunch together, spend time together … they always have time to stay with their families, come together, go out together to eat.
“Where I come from, when it’s time to eat, you get lunch and eat on your own. Here, you sit at this dining table and eat together as a family. I love that; it brings you closer to people.
“And I like how safe it is here. We live in a village outside town, and you can go out and come in any time you like.”
‘The way Italians eat really struck me’
Mohammed, aka “Kaba”, 21, Ivory Coast national living in Venice
“The night I was told I could stay with an Italian family in Venice, I couldn’t believe it.
“I had come to Italy as an unaccompanied migrant through Libya, where I saw horrendous things. I celebrated being alive every day, waking up and feeling that I still breathed.
“Initially, I lived in a refugee centre. It was difficult because there are many bureaucratic things and papers you must wait for, and we couldn’t study nor work.
“When I obtained my leave to remain, I was given 24 hours to vacate the centre. I felt very anxious because I didn’t know what to do. So, when we arranged a video call with the family, I got really emotional.
“The way Italians eat struck me a lot at first. I wasn’t used to sitting all together around a table – where I come from, we eat separately. This really struck me.
“Staying with a family really made me love Italy. I love how busy my days are, with work and school. I love the culture of aperitivo in Venice, meeting at a bar with friends in the afternoon, even if I don’t drink alcohol.
“Walking through the streets of Venice seemed unreal for some time. I didn’t think it possible to have a city in the lagoon like this.
“When I told friends back home that I lived in Venice, they said, ‘Oh, nice!’, but they didn’t really understand what it means to live here. It took time even to learn to move around town, but now Venice is my favourite Italian city.”
‘Italians also have superstition. I thought that was an African thing!’
Sainey, 21, refugee from The Gambia living in Bologna
“Italians are very friendly and open people, but most of them have this kind of lack of trust – they only trust someone when somebody else recommends that person.
“Somebody else has to come and say “Lui è bravo” [He’s good], and only then they start to interact with you and get to know you.
“When you’re in a community or in a refugee centre, you get out there, you see Italians, but you don’t interact with them a lot.
“You might think they don’t like people, or may even be racist, but once you get to know them you see a different side.
“After I started living in the family, wherever I went, everybody was friendly to me, everybody wanted to know about me and actually pressed on – they’re interested and even curious.
“I’ve spent Christmas with them and have been exposed to the jokes, the games, the food … Italians are traditional people, they really respect their culture, and I love that about them.
“And they have these beliefs that are very close to African beliefs. Sometimes when I sit with them someone will say: ‘Oh no, don’t do that!’ and they would explain a superstition – they have many.
“And I’m like, ‘Wow, you guys also have superstition? I thought that was an African thing!’
“I felt like I’ve just started living since I got here. Even my friends in the refugee centre noticed. When they see me, they say ‘Wow, everything has changed. You’re doing good!’.”
‘They respect me even if I’m Muslim and they’re atheists’
Ibrahim, 21, refugee from Guinea living in Palermo
“Especially in the first few months, I had a hard time integrating in Italy because I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t hang out with anyone after school.
“And when I was told that a family wanted to host me, I was afraid. I had doubts that some Italians could be intolerant.
“But they’ve been open, nice and direct from day one. They always respected me, even if I’m Muslim and they’re atheists. This taught me a lot.
“In the beginning, it was also hard not to have the freedom I had in refugee centres, where nobody checks if you come in or go out.
“But I always suspected that freedom to be a bad thing: It would lead me down a bad road. It only meant that I had no other option.
“In a family, there are rules. For example, I have to be home for lunch, unless I have very good reasons not to be.
“I had to adapt to lunches and dinners with the extended family – they were always very open, but I wasn’t used to it.
“I’ve learned I already had much in common with Sicilian culture – there is a lot of diversity here.
I really like Italy now: the climate and the nature are beautiful. Now I have a lot of friends, and they treat me like a brother.
“My experience removed any doubts I had about other peoples and cultures.”