This summer, I worked as a French and Italian teacher for adult refugees at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center in Rome, Italy. The JNRC is a day center where 250 refugees and asylum-seekers gather each weekday to eat breakfast, receive essential items such as toothbrushes and socks, and take advantage of the free classes, legal assistance, résumé workshops, and leisure activities provided. My role was to teach daily language classes for students at varying levels of fluency and to create a curriculum that can be used by future volunteer French teachers.
Because of Italy’s geographic position, Rome is a city at the forefront of Europe’s refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands of men and women fleeing violence or extreme poverty arrive at Italian ports each year, hoping for asylum in Italy or for a chance to travel on to other European countries. As a language teacher, in addition to preparing lessons about grammar and vocabulary, one of my primary roles was to help students understand the cultures into which they hoped to integrate, whether in Italy or in a French-speaking country. To do this, I had to rely on my experiences growing up in an Italian-American family and studying abroad in Paris.
At a time when countries all over the world are dealing with the potential economic and security repercussions of accepting the influx of refugees fleeing violence in Syria and elsewhere, I was able to spend the summer immersed in the human aspect of this issue that is often forgotten in our political discourse. I am so grateful to have had this work funded by a Wallenberg Summer Travel Award, a grant that was established in the spirit of Raoul Wallenberg’s work issuing protective passports for Jews in Budapest during World War II. I think that the JNRC’s work with refugees in Rome constitutes a somewhat similar humanitarian effort in a different global context.