Italy: Educate a Refugee – “Let Children Be Children”
02 July 2018
“I was sad that I did not get to say goodbye to my teachers and my friends in school because they had become my family. My teachers were like my guardians; the ones that led me through life.”
Mary was an 11 year-old girl living in Nairobi, Kenya, where she enjoyed her childhood with her two older brothers. Her greatest joy in life was being an aunt as she explains, “I was happy, I always enjoyed spending time with my little niece, feeding, changing, and playing with her.”
Mary was enrolled in school in Nairobi where her family resided at the time. “I loved my school very much. I was always top of my class. The teachers were always good to me. I enjoyed playing football and swimming with my classmates”. From school she would spend her time taking care of her niece and helping with responsibilities around the compound. On the weekends she would go out with her friends to the cinema and the park or go to the village to visit her cousins.
One night in November 2013, her life was turned upside down.
A group of thugs attacked the family home in the dead of night. As she recalls, “I was asleep only to be woken up by two men forcing the door to my room open. Next, they were standing over my bed, beating my brother senselessly demanding to know where my mother was. I was so scared for myself and for my brother. He was able to convince them to leave me alone, only for them to come back after a few minutes, take me out of the house, threaten me, and try to sexually harass me.” The ordeal lasted for about an hour and after it all her brother was terribly injured and had to be rushed to the hospital. The thugs managed to escape without arrest.
Mary’s childhood was suddenly shattered. She and her family would stay on in Kenya for the next three months, during which she lived in fear of the men returning. She only found comfort in being at school and playing with her friends.
Finally, Mary’s family moved to Italy in search of a safer life, as life back at home had become so unbearable because of all the fear and constant threats to their lives. They arrived in Italy on the 21st of January 2013 and were taken in by the Franciscan Capuchin Fathers, a congregation of priests, where they would live for the next two and a half years. The priests welcomed and supported Mary and her family by providing them shelter, food, academic support, and spiritual counseling.
Luckily with the help of Centro Astalli, the Italian arm of Jesuit Refugee Service, Mary was able to start middle school in Italy. When she first started, she was shocked to discover that no one spoke English, which was the language she had studied all her life. “When I began school it was not the way I imagined it to be. I was not the top of my class anymore because of the new language, but thanks to three friends that I made I was able to pull through those three years of middle school.”
With the support of her teachers and classmates, she was able to improve her weak points and pass middle school with high grades. Her experience studying in Italy was a bit different from studying in Nairobi. “A lot of things were very different. The method of study here is very fast paced and you need to understand things very quickly. Back in Kenya it was one step at a time. Here it is three steps at a time.” Mary found comfort in reading and going to her friends and teachers when she needed help.
Mary cites her family and the Franciscan Brothers at the college as her biggest support going through school. “…They are like my elder brothers, they always treat me with respect and they are always there to help me even in school. When I was having difficulties with my French, one of the brothers who could speak French offered to help me with my studies every evening. With his help I was able to pass my exam.”
Two and a half years later, the young, scared girl who came to Italy in search of safety has matured in to a 14-year-old adolescent who just started high school. She expects some challenges ahead. “I’ll have to work 10 times harder than I did in middle school, but I know I will cope. I’m very excited about meeting new people, making new friends and enjoying my studies.”
Mary’s dream is to become a scientist. “Science is a passion to me, I loved it since the very first time I began school. At first I didn’t know that people could become scientists. When I discovered that this was possible, I was excited because I knew I could help a lot of people. I want my research to be one that makes people happy and one that brings joy to the world.”
She intends to work hard to fulfil this dream of one day, inspiring others through her work as a scientist. Although she understands that the road ahead will not be easy, she is still hopeful that everything will work out fine.
Her message to all refugee children is not to lose hope and to continue pursuing their dreams. She asks all governments to give a chance to all refugee children to go to school as she says, “All children deserve the right to be children.”