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Volunteers Offer Italian Language Lessons To Young Migrants

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: The migrants that have been traveling to Europe include large numbers of unaccompanied minors. In Italy, one of the major front-line countries, regional governments are tasked with providing food, housing and education for the young people fleeing war and poverty. And as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, there are also many volunteers who are pitching in to help them get a fresh start.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: On two afternoons a week, dozens of teenagers from places like Afghanistan, Egypt and Nigeria crowd into this public high school in a Roman middle-class neighborhood. Forty volunteers - mostly retirees - are here to give the new arrivals Italian language lessons one on one.

ISMAIL: Ismail.

DELIA: Delia.

POGGIOLI: Ismail and volunteer Delia join other students and teachers in eight large, noisy classrooms. Italy has strict privacy laws to protect minors, making direct access difficult. So we listen in as the students read from their textbooks.

FUDU YUSHAW: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: Fudu Yushaw from Togo is one of the best. He's been here two years and is no longer a minor.

YUSHAW: I want to learn Italian language first before I find a job.

POGGIOLI: The language school for migrants project was started by writer Eraldo Affinati. There are branches throughout Italy. Lessons are free. There are no grades and no red tape. The key, he says, is establishing a human relationship.

ERALDO AFFINATI: (Through interpreter) It's not enough to provide food and lodging. If we really want to integrate them, we must teach them the language. Then they can find work. Otherwise, they'll remain outsiders with all the negative consequences that implies.

POGGIOLI: Volunteer teacher Silvia Dina is a retired Alitalia flight stewardess. The policy, she says, is not to ask these kids about their perilous sea crossings or mistreatment by human traffickers.

SILVIA DINA: We know all of them have a very dramatic past - families starving, very poor people, country in wars. That's enough for us.

POGGIOLI: But many kids open up, and by spending a few hours a week with them, Dina says she's learned so much about the tragedies afflicting their worlds.

DINA: You know from their histories, from their behaviors, from their silences also, and you have a deeper consciousness of the other part of the world.

POGGIOLI: It's hard to get exact data on unaccompanied minors in Italy. Large numbers, especially from Egypt, are sent by their families to work in the underground economy in fruit and vegetable markets and in restaurants.

Regional officials may be looking the other way. Providing food and lodging for each migrant minor in a shelter or foster home costs about a $100 a day. Here at the high school, artist Egle de Richemont has been volunteering four hours a week since the start of the year. Making a charitable donation, she says, would've been the easy way out.

EGLE DE RICHEMONT: Instead, if you dedicate yourself to these people and these people feel that the people in the country they have come to are willing to help them, I think that must be very important for them.

POGGIOLI: These volunteers are aware their contribution is modest compared to the magnitude of the migrant crisis. But they say it's one effort that tries to counter the growing trend in some parts of Europe to raise drawbridges and fence off borders. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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