Teaching immigrants Italian

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Photo caption: Antonella Giangiacomo, one of dozens of volunteers at the House of Social Rights in Rome, reviews a grammar lesson with two migrants. (Fulvio Paolocci/GlobalPost)

ROME, Italy — Inside a grimy, two-story building nearby Rome’s main train station, Italian teacher Ersilia Secchi addresses her class: “Who washes the dishes in your house? Do you wash the dishes?” she asks a young man from China. “I don’t, my mother does,” he says. She then turns to an African man. Do you wash the dishes?” “I eat at the shelter,” he replies. “Besides, we don’t even have dishes in Africa.”

Moments like these remind Secchi that teaching her language to migrants is hardly ever just about grammar. Helping them navigate Italy is the goal and the key to her students’ survival, which in many cases already required a life-threatening journey by boat or hanging onto the undercarriage of a truck crossing the Italian border.

“If they don’t know how to say, ‘Help, I’m sick,' or 'Help, I’m hungry,’ how are they ever going to make it?” asked Secchi.

She is one of dozens of volunteers who teach Italian at Casa dei Diritti Sociali, the House of Social Rights. For the past 25 years, this local non-profit organization has taken on the job of introducing migrants to Italian society.

The language school counts on a steady stream of college students who volunteer to earn their teaching credits, as well as retired professionals from all backgrounds who have found meaning in teaching migrants.

Even with a run-down building, crowded classrooms and broken chairs, the classes thrive under a motto that holds the entire project together: “Without language, you can’t exercise your rights.” Written in bold letters above the chalkboard, students can see it everyday.

“Italian is a very complicated language,” said Secchi, who has been volunteering since she retired two years ago. “But they come here with their modest attitude and learn it — it’s fascinating.”

She insists on teaching her students basic forms of courtesy. That way, she says, they can lessen the prejudice and mistrust Italians have toward those who look different or can’t express themselves correctly.

Among its 60 language classes per week, the House of Social Rights offers an alphabetization class — for those immigrants who are illiterate or unfamiliar with the Latin alphabet — and two other more advanced-level groups. Unlike most Italian courses around the city, this school doesn’t follow a curriculum and classes run on an ongoing basis. This way, migrants can come and go depending on the seasonal harvests or other job opportunities.

“Those who have jobs as street vendors often ask me to teach them words like ‘zipper’ or ‘bag strap,’” said Valeria Frazzini, another volunteer who came to fulfill her teaching credential and never left. “Through my classes, I get a glimpse into their lives and their journey here.”

Recently, Frazzini wrote the Italian word for “sea” on the chalkboard. She expected students to associate it with words like summer, sun and beach. “A middle-aged woman replied, ‘sea, boat, fear,’” Frazzini said.

She says the main obstacle that keeps her students from learning Italian is connected to their previous traumas and daily worries.

Last year an immigration law called “Security Package” added on a language test as part of the application for migrants seeking long-term residency in Italy. That made the House of Social Rights job even more crucial.

“How is knowing Italian connected to national security?” asked Augusto Venanzetti, the language school’s coordinator. “Italy is becoming more and more multi-ethnic, but immigration law is very bad.”

Recently, the House of Social Rights built the first network of language schools for migrants in Rome to interact with the Italian government as one unified front. The school gave life to a network of 26 volunteer-run language schools for migrants, which include global Catholic charities such as Caritas and Sant’ Egidio, as well as evangelical churches and leftist associations.

“We made a small miracle happen,” said Venanzetti, “and now we are talking about how to create a synergy within our different identities.”

The House of Social Rights runs on annual local government funds and European Union help for special projects. But even with its army of volunteer teachers, the organization is forced to turn migrants away because of limited classroom space.

“If we could expand, we would double the number of students,” said Venanzetti. “They need our help to pass the language test.”