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The House of Social Rights uses language classes to introduce migrants to Italian society.
Photo caption: Antonella Giangiacomo, one of dozens of volunteers at the House of Social Rights in Rome, reviews a grammar lesson with two migrants. (Fulvio Paolocci/GlobalPost)
ROME, Italy — Inside a grimy, two-story building nearby Rome’s main train station, Italian teacher Ersilia Secchi addresses her class: “Who washes the dishes in your house? Do you wash the dishes?” she asks a young man from China. “I don’t, my mother does,” he says. She then turns to an African man. Do you wash the dishes?” “I eat at the shelter,” he replies. “Besides, we don’t even have dishes in Africa.”
Moments like these remind Secchi that teaching her language to migrants is hardly ever just about grammar. Helping them navigate Italy is the goal and the key to her students’ survival, which in many cases already required a life-threatening journey by boat or hanging onto the undercarriage of a truck crossing the Italian border.
“If they don’t know how to say, ‘Help, I’m sick,' or 'Help, I’m hungry,’ how are they ever going to make it?” asked Secchi.
She is one of dozens of volunteers who teach Italian at Casa dei Diritti Sociali, the House of Social Rights. For the past 25 years, this local non-profit organization has taken on the job of introducing migrants to Italian society.
The language school counts on a steady stream of college students who volunteer to earn their teaching credits, as well as retired professionals from all backgrounds who have found meaning in teaching migrants.
Even with a run-down building, crowded classrooms and broken chairs, the classes thrive under a motto that holds the entire project together: “Without language, you can’t exercise your rights.” Written in bold letters above the chalkboard, students can see it everyday.
“Italian is a very complicated language,” said Secchi, who has been volunteering since she retired two years ago. “But they come here with their modest attitude and learn it — it’s fascinating.”
She insists on teaching her students basic forms of courtesy. That way, she says, they can lessen the prejudice and mistrust Italians have toward those who look different or can’t express themselves correctly.