Imagine having to flee your homeland because of violence, lack of resources or human rights violations. Now add a global pandemic. An incredibly difficult journey under any circumstances, the spread of Covid-19 has forced many refugees into even more vulnerable and harmful conditions. As refugees arrive, reception centers can only take one person at a time. Many refugees may have pre-existing conditions and await approval for asylum in overcrowded camps. If approved, they must then be in quarantine for 14 days.
I recently attended a Zoom meeting with a volunteer from the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center (JNRC) as a part of the Cultural Identity and Envoy Program. This center supports refugees and asylum seekers to navigate and integrate into Roman society, but JNRC currently cannot offer their services because of the current circumstances. This center has tried to develop a holistic approach to helping refugees. From their nutritious breakfast program on Monday through Saturdays to offering Italian and English classes, this center is a very important resource for many refugees. It is composed of 65 staff members and 61 volunteer members. Among the staff and volunteers are a nutritionist, a licensed therapist, social worker and volunteer lawyers, to name a few.
Something that stood out to me is that the JNRC included mental health into their resources by providing licensed therapy sessions. I found this very intriguing as sometimes people may prioritize the physical necessities (food, water and shelter) and overlook the importance of mental health resources. To focus on both the mind and body shows me that this center really cares about the needs of refugees and all of their wellbeing. I think it is still a work in progress in understanding the importance of mental health, but I’m starting to see my generation grasp a better understanding of it. My time throughout college has taught me that taking care of my mental health can have positive effects on my physical wellbeing and vice versa. It is especially important during this time that refugees have access to mental health care, and also for society to continue the exploration of mental health more broadly. There is still a lot of stigma surrounding the topic, and I can only feel a glimmer of hope when I see centers taking the time to show awareness.
After listening to the guest speaker, it made me think back to when I first came to Italy and then (just two months later) learned that the Temple Rome program had ended. I had come to Italy for this study abroad program knowing very little Italian. Although I had the privilege to learn it over the time, there wasn’t this urgency to learn the language because I was only going to stay in Italy temporarily. Refugees have to learn the language within 6 months after receiving their legal documents, on top of dealing with the trauma from their journey. Learning that I had to leave quickly was not only stressful but made me process so many emotions at once. But I was also privileged with the proper resources to get home safely. The guest speaker and many other refugees have had to deal with the major stressors of leaving their homes and not having the proper resources to sustain themselves sufficiently.
As the U.S. continues to close its borders, I can only think about the many refugees and others that were hoping to seek asylum here. Listening to the guest speaker and the work done by JNRC gave me even more admiration and respect for them. They’re often not given respect, yet they continue to be resilient individuals in the face of adversity.