A by-product of the dramatic rise in the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe is soaring demand for a relatively new kind of humanitarian professional: the cultural mediator.
As the first point of contact the refugees have on arrival, cultural mediators play a crucial role: translating, informing and generally acting as go-betweens with the local authorities. They advise migrants about their rights and the services available in their new country. They also explain the cultural differences they need to be aware of as they navigate life in a foreign land, all the while relaying vital information back to aid workers.
In Italy, in particular, there is increasing demand from humanitarian organisations for people who can act as these “bridges” with migrants and refugees. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, recently advertised positions in Sicily, and universities in southern Italy have started offering Masters degrees in the field.
The University of Catania describes its one-year course as “a training of experts in counselling and advising in the domains of civil rights, migration and language-cultural mediation”.
Speaking the right language
Of the nearly 600,000 migrants and refugees who have crossed the Mediterranean by boat this year, 137,000 have landed in Italy – making it the second major point of arrival after Greece.
One of the first major obstacles Italian authorities face in receiving the new arrivals is language. “This is the biggest problem today in Italy regarding hosting refugees: the lack of communication,” Senegalese cultural mediator Moussa Mbaye told IRIN.
Since 2011, Mbaye has worked as a cultural mediator at the biggest centre for asylum seekers in Italy – CARA Mineo in Sicily. The centre hosts around 3,000 asylum seekers, some of whom have been waiting for more than a year for their claims to be determined. In the meantime, their movements are restricted, they cannot work, and they receive a modest daily allowance of 2.50 euros to buy food and other basics in Mineo – a town of 5,000 residents 60 kilometres from Catania.
After 16 months in Mineo, Salomon, a 25-year-old Nigerian, had just received a negative response to his asylum request.
“How come they expect young men not to work or to be able to meet friends outside in the night for one year? Nobody speaks English, only the cultural mediators,” he told IRIN.
Helping people integrate
Mbaye often acts as the go-between, translating and explaining the asylum seekers’ concerns to the authorities and vice versa. “It was easier to gain the trust of Italians working there than of the West Africans, because most of them don’t know what cultural mediators do or tend to be more suspicious,” he said.
For him, the role of cultural mediation is a vital one for facilitating migrants’ integration into Italian society, particularly as they try to access crucial public services like healthcare.
“The right to health is assured in the Italian Constitution to everybody on Italian soil, but it is hard to find public hospital doctors able to speak English or French here,” said Andrea Bellardinelli, Italy coordinator for the medical NGO Emergency.
To tackle the problem, the organisation has been lobbying the Italian health ministry and other government departments responsible for the welfare of refugees and migrants to hire more translators and cultural mediators.
“Cultural mediators are crucial,” Bellardinelli told IRIN. “They are a vital link between patients and doctors. There are different approaches to medicine and health treatment in the West and in the East. What we consider the heart, other cultures believe is the stomach.”
Since July, the NGO has offered first aid to refugees and migrants rescued by the Italian coastguard and brought to the Sicilian ports of Catania and Augusta. They use mobile clinics, where doctors and cultural mediator teams are available to help new arrivals 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
It helps if the teams include immigrants from the same countries or regions that the refugees are coming from. Emergency’s teams at Sicilian ports include a Syrian, a Moroccan, and an Eritrean.
They assist medical staff in providing first aid and giving the refugees basic information on how the Italian health system works. “Our mission is to be a bridge between doctors and patients,” Khalid Boujir, the Moroccan mediator for Emergency, told IRIN. ”This is important not only for the first aid, but also later for those refugees’ lives and integration in Italy. Being healthy is crucial to being able to have a job, for example.”
The more refugees can relate to the cultural mediators, the more effective they can be. Salima Karroum left Latakia in Syria when she was 18 and moved to Italy, where her mother is from. Now she is helping Syrian people coming from her native region who are arriving in Sicily.
"To be able to embrace these families is a very strong experience for me,” she told IRIN. “It has been years since I left Syria and to see so many lives destroyed, so many people arriving in Europe; children, women, elders – it is shocking. There is an immense pain and an immense joy for me in receiving them.”
Besides information on how to access the Italian health system, cultural mediators also inform refugees about their rights in Europe.
“People arriving here in Italy don’t realise they have rights even if they don’t have documents,” Ahmad Al Rousan, from Médecins Sans Frontières in Rome, told IRIN. “They have the right to a doctor. They have the right to terminate a pregnancy. They don’t need to accept violence anymore.”
Rousan acts as cultural mediator for an MSF project that is providing psychological first aid (PFA) to asylum seekers in the volunteer-run Baobab Centre, and a neighbouring transit camp run by the Italian Red Cross at Tiburtina train station in Rome.
Most of the people in both places are Nigerians, Eritreans and Sudanese who came to Italy via Libya and are now making their way to northern Europe. Many experienced beatings, kidnappings and rape on their journeys to Italy. “Everyone I met here saw someone die. Be it in the desert during their way to reach Libya or in the Mediterranean Sea,” said Rousan.
MSF’s psychological first aid team organises group sessions where refugees can share experiences, ask questions, reflect on their memories and start to overcome their trauma.
“Cultural mediators are very important to help us understand things that are not spoken by the refugees, like fears, beliefs, and thoughts that are part of one’s culture,” said psychotherapist Lilian Pizzi, who works with Rousan in Rome.
Pizzi told IRIN that refugees rarely talk about their experiences of sexual violence during group sessions, but that she and Rousan provide them with private counselling.
“When they talk to us, it helps them understand what happened to them, so that they can reflect on their memories and think about a new future,” said Rousan.
Film by Ricci Shryock