Interview with Father Reynaldo Rodrigo Roman Diaz on the role of the church in fostering a 'whole-of-community approach' to supporting sponsored refugees in the Italian municipality of Vicenza
Ahead of his expert intervention at The Global Compact On Refugees & The Role Of Faith-Based Organisations In Refugee Protection on February 9th 2021, Father Rey spoke to the SHARE Network about the humanitarian corridors programme operated by Caritas in the Italian municipality of Vicenza.
For more information on the Vicenza programme, please watch this short film.
SHARE Network: Many thanks for talking to the SHARE Network ahead of your intervention at The Global Compact On Refugees & The Role Of Faith-Based Organisations In Refugee Protection on February 9th. It would be great to start with something about your background and how you came to live and work in Vicenza, Italy.
Father Rey: Well I am a priest, originally from Mexico, and a member of The Society of the Divine Word. Founded in 1875, we are a missionary Congregation with around 6,000 members from all over the world, working in 80 countries on five continents. We live interculturally with other members of the Order as well as the poor and neglected. You will also find us teaching in higher education institutions and collaborating with lay people to advance the cause of peace and justice.
In terms of how I came to Italy, when I was training and also as a priest I worked in Australia, and I also visited some refugee camps in Thailand and in Costa Rica. In Costa Rica I founded the Casa de Migrantes (in Upala, Alajuela). In 2015, I was invited to work with refugees in the diocese of Vicenza under the leadership of Bishop Beniamino Pizzoli, and in 2016 to collaborate with the Latin American community in Vicenza as the Latin American chaplain. When I came to Vicenza, and aside from my regular work with the Order, I started to engage with refugees who had arrived since 2015. It was here that I began the collaboration with the humanitarian corridors programme, and started my work with Caritas Vicenza, which was due to receive refugees coming from Ethiopia.
SN: Can you tell us a bit about how Caritas Vicenza came to be involved in the programme? How does your faith and being part of an FBO inform the ways you assist refugees?
FR: From 2015, the Bishop of the Diocese of Vicenza called on all parishes and parishioners to open their doors to refugees who had started to arrive into Italy in large numbers. From then, the Caritas Vicenza Migrant Team began the task of raising awareness in the parishes and vicariates of the Diocese, on the situation of the migratory crisis and the way in which the Church could welcome people arriving in search of asylum.
The team has since used different channels to carry out advocacy, for example through conferences, special events in parishes, and awareness-raising work with NGO networks present across the territory. Our main objective is to work at the local level in order to develop a model that could be used elsewhere, for example in other dioceses in Italy, and to develop a new vision for Christian communities understanding of migration and the ways in which they can support those seeking protection. In this effort we reach out to those of other faiths, notably the Muslim community, as well as the wider community.
Really we wanted to concretise the Gospel’s call to all of us to receive refugees as our neighbours, to give them the opportunity to grow and feel at home in our territory, and to facilitate their integration. We also wanted to show that refugees can be welcomed and can successfully integrate when given the right support, despite the anti-migrant attitudes that pervade some parts of society in the north of Italy.
“What inspires you is feeling part of a caring, passionate and dedicated community. Volunteering with a sponsorship group allows you to witness how love, friendship and unity can annihilate the world’s worst tragedies.”
Sponsor's reflection from Evelyn Jones, participant at the European Resettlement Network Network conference The Role of Churches and Christian Organisations in Community-based Sponsorship Programmes of Refugees in Europe: Challenges, Opportunities & Next Steps (18-19 September 2017, Brussels).
SN: How does the programme work, in practical terms? What does Caritas do, and who do you work with to carry out your role?
FR: Caritas Vicenza previously provided housing for asylum seekers and refugees in collaboration with the municipality. It was this experience that gave us the tools, knowledge and contacts to begin our involvement in the humanitarian corridor sponsorship programme. Being organised and funded by the church, the humanitarian corridors sponsorship programme works differently in that housing is not arranged by the municipality. We instead launch a call to parishes that are interested in welcoming sponsored families or groups of people who need a place to start their lives over, and plan the acommodation based on that interest.
Caritas Vicenza is responsible for coordinating the overall programme, and provides accommodation and legal and educational assistance for beneficiaries. We can say the major part of the programme in Caritas is made up of volunteers who welcome sponsored beneficiaries and help them integrate in the region. We establish groups of volunteers (12-30 people for each refugee family), who we train and coordinate with on an ongoing basis. Volunteers help beneficiaries to learn the language, integrate into the daily life of their new community and assist them in finding employment.
The Caritas Vicenza model for the programme broadly follows the steps set out below:
- Before securing accommodation for beneficiaries, we contact all parishes and vicars to check their interest in receiving a refugee family or group.
- Where a reception place is available, we send information and/ or hold meetings with the parish community to find volunteers to join the project.
- We provide new volunteers with dedicated training covering migration issues, Italian and European migration and asylum legal frameworks, intercultural work and cultural diversity, and the Christian sense of welcome. We also make sure that there are translators available to communicate with the refugees.
- A final meeting with volunteers confirms their commitment to supporting the refugee family or individuals arriving via the programme, and assigns specific roles to volunteers according to their skills and capacities (for example accounting, housekeeping, supporting language learning, and orientation into the territory).
Currently, Caritas Vicenza is responsible for four apartments housing 16 beneficiaries of the programme, and works with a group of 40 active volunteers.
SN: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work?
FR: Having a good structure in place certainly has helped us to address the many challenges brought about by the pandemic. Veneto being in the north of Italy was of course very much affected. Caritas Vicenza quickly ensured that materials (masks, disinfectants) – were available and were distributed to all vulnerable populations. Caritas operators visited the apartments 2-3 times a week and accompanied refugees to go shopping. As of June 2020, Caritas ensures that refugees are being regularly rapid tested so that they can go for job interviews. One woman started to work in a company providing laundry for hospitals, another man in a welding company. Our volunteers went very quickly online to ensure regular contact and support, using Skype and Zoom. During this period we are also preparing for new families to come who are still in Niger. They are facing great hardships. Some parishes near to Vicenza have offered two apartments for refugee families and we are starting to recruit and prepare the volunteer groups, although it is not yet clear when they can travel.
What would you say other parishes and actors interested in engaging with the humanitarian corridors programme can learn from the experience of Caritas Vicenza?
FR: The main lesson is that volunteers are vital! What is crucial is preparing them for their participation in the programme, through training, help with planning and providing information, and also acting as a mediator and source of advice and support after refugees arrive.
We also seek to engage as wide and diverse a group of volunteers as possible, to ensure we have the right skills available to support refugees, and to reflect the different contributions that - for example - older and younger people can make to supporting integration. We recruit volunteers from parish congregations, of course, but we also actively engage those from evangelical groups and persons not belonging to any faith community. The main criteria is volunteers’ willingness to be involved in the programme, and to contribute their skills and knowledge for 1-2 years after refugees arrive. Having a diverse range of volunteers also helps us to challenge xenophobic attitudes at the community level, so this is really important.
What’s also been crucial for us is the appointment of volunteers to specific roles. So we have a volunteer group coordinator, and specific tasks for all other volunteers either individually or by subgroup. Roles might include responsibility for financial management and accounting, assisting with childcare, supporting access to sports and recreational activities and so on. The way in which groups are structured and the volunteer roles that are assigned depend on what beneficiaries’ integration needs are, and organising the groups in this way has really helped us to support refugees more effectively. Since most refugees we receive are young, we have involved more and more young people, mainly to support sporting and social activities, in particular through our new partnership with Boy Scout movement at the parish level.
SN: How do you use the Global Compact on Refugees in your work at the local level? What can be done to keep the Compact relevant in responding to the needs of refugees and asylum seekers?
The commitments set out in the Global Compact on Refugees link very well to our objectives as a faith community, which is to take action to improve the lives of those affected by forced migration and ensure their safety and dignity.
The Caritas work receiving refugees in our local community ensures durable solutions for vulnerable refugees and solidarity with refugee hosting countries. Vicenza only has a population of 26.000 people. If each municipality or parish would host one or two families - the potential for expanding resettlement and sponsorships is enormous. We promote resilience and self-sufficiency of refugees. Facilitating refugee access to livelihood opportunities benefits both refugees and host communities. It also helps to have a better dialogue between the host community and refugees, which for us is about putting into practice human brotherhood to facilitate a multicultural and welcoming society.