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Teaching immigrants Italian

The House of Social Rights uses language classes to introduce migrants to Italian society.

Among its 60 language classes per week, the House of Social Rights offers an alphabetization class — for those immigrants who are illiterate or unfamiliar with the Latin alphabet — and two other more advanced-level groups. Unlike most Italian courses around the city, this school doesn’t follow a curriculum and classes run on an ongoing basis. This way, migrants can come and go depending on the seasonal harvests or other job opportunities.

“Those who have jobs as street vendors often ask me to teach them words like ‘zipper’ or ‘bag strap,’” said Valeria Frazzini, another volunteer who came to fulfill her teaching credential and never left. “Through my classes, I get a glimpse into their lives and their journey here.”

Recently, Frazzini wrote the Italian word for “sea” on the chalkboard. She expected students to associate it with words like summer, sun and beach. “A middle-aged woman replied, ‘sea, boat, fear,’” Frazzini said.

She says the main obstacle that keeps her students from learning Italian is connected to their previous traumas and daily worries.

Last year an immigration law called “Security Package” added on a language test as part of the application for migrants seeking long-term residency in Italy. That made the House of Social Rights job even more crucial.

“How is knowing Italian connected to national security?” asked Augusto Venanzetti, the language school’s coordinator. “Italy is becoming more and more multi-ethnic, but immigration law is very bad.”

Recently, the House of Social Rights built the first network of language schools for migrants in Rome to interact with the Italian government as one unified front. The school gave life to a network of 26 volunteer-run language schools for migrants, which include global Catholic charities such as Caritas and Sant’ Egidio, as well as evangelical churches and leftist associations.

“We made a small miracle happen,” said Venanzetti, “and now we are talking about how to create a synergy within our different identities.”

The House of Social Rights runs on annual local government funds and European Union help for special projects. But even with its army of volunteer teachers, the organization is forced to turn migrants away because of limited classroom space.

“If we could expand, we would double the number of students,” said Venanzetti. “They need our help to pass the language test.”