Bergamo, Italy – A group of about 30 men form two neat rows, hands behind their straight backs in a military-style “at ease” position.
In the corridor of a building in Bergamo, they repeat in chorus: “We are the students of the first course of the Accademia dell’Integrazione Grazie Bergamo, Thank you Bergamo”.
Then they break ranks, line up two by two and move to a larger room, where two of the students, wearing white aprons, begin serving lunch.
The “students” are asylum seekers and participating in a boot-camp style one-year programme whose explicit purpose is to integrate migrants.
The school whose name translates as Academy of Integration Thank you Bergamo, hosts 35 men aged 18 to 40, all of them, except one Pakistani, from African countries – Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Ivory Coast.
Participants attend Italian-language classes, get internships at factories in the area and have to follow a strict routine.
They also have to do community service work for free.
Bergamo is a wealthy city in northern Italy, about 50km east of Milan.
The municipality of Bergamo runs the project, in collaboration with the Catholic non-profit organisation Caritas and the local branch of Confindustria, Italy’s association of entrepreneurs.
A cooperative called Ruah oversees the school’s day-to-day activities, such as classes and meals.
Active since September 2018, the academy shares a building, once a retirement home, with the Centre for Extraordinary Hospitality, CAS, a facility that hosts regular asylum seekers.
Only one door separates the two facilities, but the atmosphere between the two organisations could not be more different.
In CAS, asylum seekers can move freely in the corridors, pass their time in their rooms, and use their smartphones as much as they please.
The academy’s students can only use their smartphones for a few hours a day. For the best part of the day, their rooms are empty, with perfectly made beds. No language other than Italian is allowed. And they look more like cadets than students.
They must always wear a uniform and have three kinds of outfits.
When they are inside, it is a blue tracksuit with the words “Grazie Bergamo” in large print on the back; the second uniform is orange, similar to waste collectors, and also bears the words “Grazie Bergamo” in large print; the third, worn in free time, is a blue shirt and grey sweater with a small school logo, which also allows them to take the city’s public transportation free of charge.
“This is not a school for everyone,” Giorgio Gori, mayor of Bergamo, told Al Jazeera.
It’s no place for slackers, he says, because participants “must respect a series of rules of cohabitation” and professional training is mandatory, “with the aim of getting them to a job”.
To get into the programme, participants must pass three interviews assessing their knowledge of Italian, the level of schooling and their ability to respect the rules.
Two are conducted by operators of the Ruah Cooperative and the last one with Christophe Sanchez, the mayor’s chief of staff, who created the academy.
Sanchez believes that Italy’s system of asylum seekers’ management is not working and attributes its failure to the fact that they have rights but few duties: “Asylum seekers can stay in bed all day and there is no legal instrument to force them to do something.”
Here is what a typical day at the school looks like: wake up at 6:30am, breakfast and Italian classes.
After lunch, the students do community work around the city, such as cleaning parks, painting schools or bringing meals to retirement homes.
After dinner, there are other classes, either maths or singing – they sing the national anthem and folk songs by Francesco De Gregori, Italy’s equivalent of Bob Dylan.
Lights are out by 10:30pm.
Students are free to leave the building during weekend days and once a week, but must return by 10pm. Being late, even by five minutes, can lead to disciplinary action.
“I am happy to be in the academy because I used to spend time sleeping, now we help the city,” says Madou, an asylum seeker from Guinea, who arrived in Italy in 2016.
“After this programme, I would like to be independent and start working,” said Khan, the Pakistani student.
He said he does not mind the discipline and likes the uniform: “It makes us all equal.”
Sanchez says that the school aims is to make the students feel “empowered”, for instance by appointing a different student as “class leader” each week.
While talking, Sanchez keeps an eye on the group, checking every detail. He reproaches a student, named Boateng, because he keeps his hands in his pocket.
Oppression or providing opportunities?
The underlying message of the academy seems to be that participants must demonstrate that they are hardworking people, that they really like Italy and are not troublemakers – in other words, that they deserve to stay.
The fact that the programme includes free-of-charge community work, not to mention the “Thank you” part in the name, gives the impression that migrants must be grateful.
Stefano Quadri, an activist from the Bergamo migrante antirazzista group, an anti-racist organisation, objects to the idea that migrants need to prove they deserve to be hosted, since asylum is a human right, and says free labour “destroys the local economy”.
A worker at the Ruah coop, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, is worried that students live in relative isolation, with little contact with locals: “Integration means inserting a person in society,” he said.
But organisers brush off criticism, saying that the programme is effective.
“We have so far done 380 hours of volunteer work and all our students understand Italian,” says Sanchez.
As for the free labour, Gori insists it is not really free: “Between food, lodging and classes, we are investing 1,000 euros ($1,115) per months on each of them, so in a way they are getting paid”.