In Italy – one of the main recipients of refugees heading to Europe from Africa – The Salvation Army has offered the use of its l'Uliveto centre in Atena Lucana, in the south of the country, to receive and assist asylum seekers. Dr Simona Magazzù, Coordinator of The Salvation Army's work at the centre, explains what happened when the first group arrived:

The young people and adults seeking refuge in our centre share the same sense of loss, cold and hunger – though also some hope. Many of them have fears about what will happen next after they had to leave an identification centre in Agrigento, Sicily, where they had been received in September, to embark on a journey whose destination was unknown. In silence they had followed the orders of the police, taking their places on the coach that would bring them to us in Atena Lucana.

We had been waiting for them for days, obsessively reviewing every procedure, selecting and training our personnel while – calling on similar experience from 2008 – establishing contacts with the local community and police.

At 9 pm everything was ready and waiting. A large Thermos jug of tea was prepared, with a big tray covered in biscuits, placed on a table in the newly created day centre which was filled with Nigerian music. Walls were covered by paintings telling stories similar to those that would be familiar to our new residents.

One after the other, in an orderly way, they came in and had a warm drink. We gave each person a hygiene kit, some basic clothes and a telephone card before they were registered for future identification. In their rooms, each person was given a badge with his or her name and surname and l'Uliveto [Olive Grove], the name of the centre. Later we added on each badge their skills in the hope that such information would make locals aware of their abilities.

After getting acquainted with their new accommodation the asylum seekers were led to the dining hall to eat. It was moving to see people start to relax, one by one. The terror began to disappear from their eyes and faces, replaced with laughter and jokes.

In the morning everyone gathered again at the day centre. We had gathered some pallets with the idea to have our guests involved in the building of a large settee where they could sit while watching TV. In just a few minutes, four groups were created and sent to each corner of the large room. One sanded the wood, another concentrated on learning their rights and duties in Italy, another – led by a member of the group who was a tailor – drew plans to create the cover of the settee, and the last group organised an area where Italian lessons would take place. In this organized chaos, skills emerged and specific interests became evident. The rest of the morning was taken up with health checks, conducted by a local doctor.

At 1 pm everything stopped for lunch before starting again in the afternoon with the same enthusiasm. The settee was completed and, to the great satisfaction of all, set in place. Further plans were made to make the day area more comfortable for everyone. In the afternoon we were visited by a member of the Carabinieri (the police). Later, our guests were all able to call home and reassure their families of their safe arrival.

We informed our guests of the journey we would undertake together with them during this time of reciprocal respect and cooperation. We spoke of the legal, psychological, psychiatric, linguistic and relational support they will receive from us and our desire that they build positive relationships with locals in Atena Lucana. We were visited by Victor – also from Nigeria – who had been sent to l'Uliveto in 2008. We helped Victor to find a job and he is now well integrated in the area.

This was a very significant contribution, especially when Victor encouraged our new guests to be patient!

The third day started with breakfast and a meeting with a legal consultant in order to prepare for the visit of the Immigration Bureau. We will help our guests through the asylum process and provide whatever assistance they need.

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