The urban art that integrates young immigrants in southern Italy

Jadhav *, 18, from Bangladesh, arrived in Italy 10 months ago, but is still haunted by memories of his journey across the Mediterranean Sea alongside human smugglers.

The Prosecutor’s Office warns of the “worrying” and “unjustified” criminalization of unaccompanied foreign minors

Know more

“There were 156 people in a small boat. There were women and children, ”says Jadhav in a combination of broken Italian and Bengali translated with a mobile app. “The waves were coming overboard. People were crying. There was no hope of survival.

Determined to seek a better life in Europe, Jadhav had flown to Egypt with a stopover in Dubai before arriving in Libya by land. He worked for a year in Tripoli – in a supermarket, as a welder and paving roads – where he spent eleven days in jail and was tortured and released after his parents sent ransom money.

Jadhav looks up at a huge work of art that is being painted in a corner in front of him. His eyes go glassy. “The living conditions were horrible,” he says of the Libyan prison. “Sometimes they only gave us bread and a small bottle of water all day.”

Thousands of young migrants in Italy have similar stories to tell. With the pandemic driving migration around the world, 39,000 people have arrived in the country by boat since the beginning of 2021, double the number during the same period last year. Unaccompanied minors – children and adolescents under the age of 18 who arrive without their parents – represent almost one sixth of the total. Experts predict that the chaos in Afghanistan could result in more arrivals.

The most ambitious project

Italy suffers from persistent unemployment and government resources for integration are at the limit. Faced with this situation, many newcomers to the country – the main entry point for immigrants into the European Union – face difficulties.

But a novel program is helping dozens of people forge brighter futures. Launched in 2019, the Atelier d’Arte Pubblica in the city of Matera is one of the few initiatives in Italy that uses public art to integrate newcomers. In the most ambitious project yet, Barcelona-based street artist Mohamed L’Ghacham has joined forces with immigrants in three cities in Basilicata, a rugged region in southern Italy, for three consecutive projects over 17 days. The goal was to transform a building in each town with a huge mural.

In San Chirico Raparo, L’Ghacham worked with a group of 11 unaccompanied minors housed in a local center. Although the artist painted the mural alone, he involved young immigrants in the creative process, asking them to propose objects to include in the design and teaching them to mix paint. The gradually evolving mural became a center of attention, transforming a quiet corner of a generally peaceful town and a population of just 1,000 people into a lively site.

The project organizers conducted communication exercises in small groups of young immigrants, which allowed the participants to talk about their past. Curious residents, drawn in by the spectacle, joined the conversation.

The horrors of the Mediterranean

The bright colors of the wall contrast with the tales of the participants’ dark pasts.

Nakia *, 17, left Egypt at age 10 and spent six traveling. He worked in Turkey, Greece and Bosnia-Herzegovina and crossed the Croatian-Slovenian border by truck. Sulayman *, a 15-year-old Gambian, worked in Mali and Nigeria before moving to Libya.

The North African country is infamous among immigrants because of its corrupt and brutal police. Many live in fear of arrest as they work to save money to cross by boat, which can cost 5,000 euros. Sulayman, who has been jailed four times, points to a scar where he says a guard cut his wrist. Pulling down the collar of his shirt, Jadhav shows cigarette burns from his time in prison.

To get to Italy from Libya, migrants must cross a stretch of the central Mediterranean that is between 300 and 400 kilometers long. According to the International Organization for Migration, this deadly migration route has claimed 1,114 lives so far this year.

“When you cross the Mediterranean, there are three possible outcomes,” says Sulayman, whose journey took four days. “Either you get to Italy, or the Libyans catch you, or you sink.”

Uncertain future

Once they arrive in Italy, unaccompanied minors are automatically protected until they are 18 years old. After being sent to shelters across the country, they receive language classes, legal and psychological support, and vocational training.

By reaching adulthood, many have already received international protection for one to five years, which gives them time to find formal employment and convert their residence permits into work visas. But with nearly half of southern Italy’s young population unemployed, many immigrants are forced to stay on the black market, says Stefania Congia, director of immigration and integration at the Ministry of Labor and Social Policies.

Meanwhile, housing projects are reaching their breaking point. According to the National Association of Italian Municipalities, which helps implement the system, only 5% of the spaces for unaccompanied minors are available. Hurrying to keep up with the pace of arrivals, the Interior Ministry announced the financing of 96 new housing projects for minors during July and August, expanding the existing network by two-thirds. In May, Mario Draghi, Italian Prime Minister, again called for a new and “humane” system to deal with the arrival of immigrants that encompasses the entire European Union.

Leave a mark

Urban art project organizers believe that embedding immigrants in local communities improves their employability and social well-being. Founded by Stefania Dubla, a former exhibition curator at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the initiative is taking off and will be applied beyond the confines of Basilicata throughout the next year in the regions of Emilia-Romagna, Lazio and Puglia.

L’Ghacham’s mural in San Chirico Raparo has rekindled the dusty street on which it stands. The design shows a woman standing behind an open door and a table in the foreground set for dinner. The objects selected by the unaccompanied minors – a boat, a traditional African drum and a photo of the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan – are perched on a chest of drawers.

As young immigrants and Italian children watch the mural take shape, L’Ghacham teaches some to mix paint. Others participate in an activity that involves choosing cards from a deck and talking about the words written on them. Residents leave their houses to offer fruits, coffee and limoncello (typical Italian liquor).

For Nakia, a budding artist, the project has provided creative inspiration for the design she painted on her bedroom wall. For others, the L’Ghacham mural symbolizes their entry into Italian society.

“The beauty of this program is that it brings people together,” says Karim *, 17, from Egypt. “We may not stay in San Chirico forever, but we have already made our mark.”

* Names have been changed.

Translation by Julián Cnochaert.