Henry Stepney - Refugee Project in Italy
Why I decided to volunteer in Italy
I decided to volunteer in Italy because I felt that the UK wasn’t doing enough to help refugees and I didn’t want to simply donate to a charity. I wanted to provide direct assistance and make a positive impact in their lives. Furthermore, I have been contemplating a career in teaching and the project provided me the opportunity to teach English to the refugees. This gave me valuable experience and sparked a greater interest to teach after my placement in Camini, Italy. The project also provided a form of escape from the monotonous work I’d be doing at home. Having finished my first year of university, I had a long summer ahead of me which I would have spent working in my local pub, but that wasn’t something that appealed to me. I decided it’d be more productive and more adventurous of me if I spent my time volunteering for a good cause.
My first impressions of Camini
After getting off the bus in the coastal town of Monasterace, I was greeted by my supervisor who would drive me the fifteen minutes or so to the small town of Camini. The town is situated in the Italian hills and to get to it, you have to navigate this winding, single carriage road. Camini itself is incredibly isolated, but that is where its charm comes in. Yes, the nearest supermarket is twenty to thirty minutes away, as is the nearest ATM, but the positive side to its isolated location is that everyone will say “ciao” to you when you walk past, and everyone will try to have a conversation with you; even if you can’t speak Italian and they can’t speak English. The relationships between the locals, volunteers, and the refugees were incredibly strong.
Working in the nursery
The working hours at the Italian project are such that you choose one activity in the morning, and then another for the evening. For me, I chose to work in the nursery during the morning almost every day. From 10 am-12 pm, I was playing with children that ranged from 18 months to 6 years of age. Two hours of energetic children who had very different ideas of what ‘fun’ was is surprisingly tiring, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I almost cried when I had to say goodbye to them on my last day.
The minor centre
The unaccompanied minors were all boys mostly from West African countries such as Sierra Leone, Senegal etc. though there were some from Pakistan. They would be placed in a special home where they were given chores to help maintain their living space as well as go to school during term time. On one particular evening, we were asked to go and prepare a meal. After a few games of football on a dirt pitch, we all sat down together to eat this meal. It was the first time that these boys had eaten together. The boys usually divided themselves depending on their religion but for one night all of that was put aside. African drums, dancing and a fantastic meal made for one of the most special, unique nights of my life.
Without a doubt, this was my favourite activity during my placement! I chose to plan and deliver two lessons of English a week to a group of adults, a mixture of locals and refugees. Perhaps it was the fact that the students were so receptive to and eager to learn that made this activity so enjoyable; either way, it has inspired me to get a TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) qualification so I can pursue this as a career once I finish university.
Fit-walking was a bi-weekly activity that involved walking a 5km circular route. This was by far the best way to get to know the refugees at the project as you were naturally drawn into conversation with the other people fit-walking. Fit-walking did its best to include everyone from children to the elderly. Whilst some would turn up in professional running gear, I’d usually wear a t-shirt and some converse shoes. The main reason why I enjoyed this activity so much was because of the stunning views you got as the sun came down over the Italian hills. The view never got old!
Free time and weekends
At weekends we’d often go to the beach, it was great to get some time away and chill under the sun. Spending about six and a half hours there might seem like a while, but the time flew past. The water was at a perfect temperature that one could easily spend hours just floating. Just off the beach was a small café that made a delicious tomato spaghetti. Saturday evenings were often spent playing football with the kids at a football school that the project had organised. Two-hour sessions where the first hour was essentially a boot camp to get the kids in shape which they loved.
Sundays were far more relaxed, however, my roommate and I would put on a few films and just take it easy for the day.
In Camini, we lived in two houses with all the other volunteers. The main house was given to the male volunteers whilst the smaller house, named the Blue House, was given to the female volunteers. That being said, there wasn’t a divide between boys and girls as we used the main house as a social space. The main house itself had three bedrooms, which could accommodate up to seven people, and one bathroom. The best feature was its huge lounge and kitchen space. It was so large that we would convert half of it into a classroom, fitted with an old-school blackboard. We didn’t cook at the house, instead, the project provided two freshly cooked meals a day (lunch and dinner) at the refugee project centre. Breakfast was usually pretty basic, consisting of biscuits and coffee.
This was an incredible experience! I have learned so much about the world and people. The positivity of the people there despite their circumstance was infectious and gave me pure joy that I hadn’t experienced in such a long time. I would strongly recommend anybody with a passion for caring, teaching, and adventure to volunteer at this placement, I couldn’t have asked for a better four weeks in Camini. Deciding on a future career took four weeks, something I couldn’t do after fourteen years of school and a year of university.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.