Every day, in impoverished countries around the globe, the same scene plays out over and over: driven by political chaos, violence and dire poverty, desperate parents make the gut-wrenching decision to send their children -- sometimes their only children -- away, sincerely believing they will find new opportunities and a better life. Salesian missionaries are dedicated to helping these migrant children in adversity.
“We are called to do something about the requests for help from these children, who come knocking on the door of our hearts,” says Father Giovanni D’Andrea, president of the Federation of Social Services at the National Center of Salesian Works in Rome.
Such response is crucial in Italy, where a migration emergency -- much like the one faced by the United States -- is unfolding. Packed like sardines in the bowels of ships, waves of children -- from Bangladesh and Libya, from Egypt and Somalia, and dozens of countries in between -- have arrived in Sicily dreaming of a better future.
Unfortunately, this massive influx has stretched the resources of a well-intentioned, yet nevertheless unprepared, host country. Housed in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions where they languish for weeks or more, many migrant youth end up on the streets -- where they often fall victim to violence, exploitation and abuse.
Witnessing the plight of these innocent children, and understanding the constraints on existing social and economic infrastructure, the Salesians have assumed a leadership role in developing effective interventions. To this end, “Don Bosco Island” was born.
This collaborative project represents the first step toward an integrated network of Salesian services throughout Italy. It outlines a two-pronged, replicable approach: first, to receive and welcome unaccompanied youth as they arrive in Sicily; and second, to establish reception centers where these youth receive shelter, meals, medical attention, Italian lessons and assistance with their applications for asylum.
On Oct. 15, the first of these reception centers opened its doors in Catania, on the east coast of Sicily. Here, Salesian missionaries and volunteers will support as many as 80 at-risk youth as they navigate their journey toward citizenship. In addition to this direct intervention, Salesians have opened a complementary center where teachers, social workers and others can refine their intercultural skills so that they can better assist.
“These children arrive in Sicily, alone and traumatized by their trip, with no adult or even sibling to lean on,” says Father Salvatore Scarpato, a Salesian priest in Catania. “Through Don Bosco Island, they will find a welcoming and supportive family.”
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