Often referred to as “The Eternal City,” Rome is a place rich in history and diversity. During my semester abroad at Temple Rome, I completed an internship at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center (JNRC), where I had the opportunity to meet many of the refugees who now reside in the city. Seeing the important and impactful work the center conducts for its guests, I decided to utilize my Global Green Grant to support the guests who helped with the center’s “Refugee Integration Through Care of Creation” initiative. Through this initiative, I not only became aware of the ways in which sustainability was linked to the refugee crisis but also the ways in which sustainability efforts could be utilized to support the refugee community in Rome.
The JNRC partners with organizations called Retake Roma and ItaliaHello in activities in this initiative. Through such activities, Retake Roma, for example, seeks to “promote the beauty, livability, and urban regeneration of Rome.” With the grant, I was able to purchase bus/metro tickets for refugees who also received food vouchers when they took part in these initiatives. Such tickets not only serve to promote the city’s vast transportation system of metros and buses but are vital for the refugees living in the city. Mauro Bifculo, Project Coordinator at the JNRC, explains, “many of our guests live all across Rome and in centers outside of Rome. Such tickets provide them with greater mobility and allow them to access the JNRC and its services easily.” Speaking further with him, I learned more about the benefits of the JNRC Works program. After taking part in a certain number of projects, he can provide the refugees with an attestation of participation in the activities, which is beneficial for their asylum cases as they can demonstrate how they are integrating themselves into the country.
I took part in a street cleanup with the JNRC and Retake Roma and found it to be an enriching experience. Our cleanup consisted of two tasks: repainting part of the exterior of an elementary school covered in graffiti and picking up the garbage around the school area. Repainting the school exterior was important from a psychological perspective as beautifying the neighborhood provides the residents with pride, incentivizing them to help keep the area clean. Furthermore, by discouraging random graffiti, we hope to reduce the need for chemical cleaners containing environmentally toxic ingredients. As I was picking up trash from the street, one of the most common items that I saw were used cigarette butts. Noted as the most common littered item worldwide, cigarette butts are not biodegradable. They are often made of a plastic filter of cellulose acetate, which does not degrade. Since they contain toxic chemicals such as nicotine and arsenic, they harm wildlife as they make their way to soil and water sources. Seeing many cigarette butts made me realize how such a small piece of garbage can soon add up to unimaginable quantities over time. Often in our society, we are very disconnected from what happens to our trash after throwing it away. I believe street cleanups like the one I participated in with Retake Roma help motivate people to believe that they can do their part in keeping the environment clean.
Furthermore, part of the grant was able to go towards the purchase of Crepe Myrtle trees that will be planted as part of a plan to freshen up the outdoor area of the JNRC. Bifculo explains, “this outdoor area is planned to be another space that our guests can utilize and enjoy and where our entire community can gather together.” Not only do Crepe Myrtles have beautiful flower blooms, but they also have a variety of benefits for the environment. They work great in urban landscapes like Rome as they have a root system that is shallow but fibrous, preventing them from damaging concrete. Along with being drought tolerant once they are established, Crepe Myrtles are great for the local ecosystem. Birds such as finches and cardinals are attracted to their seeds, and bees are attracted to the nectar and pollen of their flowers. With their potential to increase the biodiversity of their environment, they have the potential to improve the stability of their environment, especially when faced with unexpected challenges from the climate.
After interning at the JNRC, I began to see the problems that refugees face in a new light. Arriving in a new land, refugees face the troubles of having to find work, housing, and learning a new language while dealing with past traumatic experiences. During this project, I saw how environmental sustainability could be shaped to help groups such as refugees integrate themselves into a new country and also create an area where they can relax. As Bifculo puts it, “the JNRC seeks to both help our guests become independent and confident while also providing a space where they feel safe and can interact with others socially.”
I would like to thank the JNRC, Temple University’s Office of Sustainability, Education Abroad, and Temple Rome for all the guidance they have provided me and for supporting me in my project. This grant has allowed me to explore what it means to be a responsible and environmentally conscious global citizen abroad.