This is what I saw when I visited a refugee center in Italy

Walking through Casa Suraya, a silent building in the gray suburban outskirts of Milan, I could feel the weight of the stories behind the refugees’ shy eyes. Still, the children smiled playfully, bringing levity to the density of hardship.

ESTIEM members volunteer at Casa Suraya. Photo credit: Michele Pedron

ESTIEM members volunteer at Casa Suraya. Photo credit: Michele Pedron

When I heard about a student-organized trip to Casa Suraya, a refugee housing center, I immediately felt compelled to cover the event. I wanted to show millennials around the world what I would see and hopefully move them to feel the way I knew I would feel.

We were a group of around 20 millennials representing nine countries. At a small assembly, the Deputy Mayor of Milan, Anna Scavuzzo, explained the city’s commitment to helping refugees.

Between January and September 2016, over 22,000 migrants passed through Milan, and 4,000 are spread among the city’s 16 available centers, including Casa Suraya. But the number of unaccompanied minors is shocking. Since the start of 2016, 2,000 unaccompanied minors have passed through Milan. Half of them are less than 17 years old.

Casa Suraya houses 100 refugees. Though it is a large and isolated building, the adjacent Christian convent and a public high school spread a feeling of tenderness and hope. The inside looked like a dismissed school and although the structure seemed old, all the areas we visited were orderly and clean. After all, the building is owned by a congregation of nuns.

The ground floor had a wide corridor with white marble pavements and large windows connecting the entrance, a large eating area, and the outside courtyard. The eating area accommodated many wooden tables where refugees had their meals. Given the lack of space and cooking equipment, food is brought in from other places and stored in refrigerators. Each pre-cooked meal is sealed in a plastic plate and distributed during meal times.

The upper floors were mostly dedicated bedrooms, with a smattering of small recreational areas housing state-of-the-art televisions and a few couches — donated from Milan. We also came across a tiny classroom with an old, bulky computer, where refugees learn Italian. Though these areas were relatively well-furnished, the inside of the building was cold, an indication of the center’s modest means.

The basement was a storage space with a main corridor and interconnected rooms. The most spacious one was a communal closet, filled with racks of neatly folded clothing organized by size. When inhabitants needed to change they could retrieve something that they liked in the right size. All the other rooms were devoted to primary goods like sanitary products for different ages and genders, as well as mattresses, sheets and blankets. The corridor was temporarily filled with boxes of toys, clothing, blankets and products that, like everything else in the basement, were donated by the people of Milan.

But we weren’t only there for a tour. After a visit through the building, the dedicated volunteers of Casa Suraya divided us into three groups, each devoted to one of three activities: cleaning the basketball court covered in leaves, rearranging the clothing room and organizing the storage area where primary personal goods were kept.

Erik Sudati emphasized the importance of offering volunteer help, noting that the building’s caretakers spend most of their time taking care of more immediate needs.

“One can only imagine the amount of things to do when running a three-story building hosting 100 people,” said Erik Sudati, President of ESTIEM LG Milano. He planned the trip to promote sustainable business.

But Casa Suraya’s need for more workers was not the most important reason to volunteer. “Casa Suraya is not a museum and refugees don’t need our pity,” Sudati said. “They are proud and dignified people who are in need. We were there to lend a hand.”

We were engaged in these chores for a few hours and although our contribution to the welfare of refugees was modest, the conversation it created was important. We were all asking the simplest and most urging question: What can we Europeans do to help refugees? Some solutions were quickly blurted out: “Why don’t we all support the resolution of this crisis? And not just financially but with equipment, manpower and intelligence,” or “why doesn’t each municipality in Europe take one family — that would be enough!”

After this conversation, several members said that they wished their country was doing more. None of us mentioned keeping refugees at our borders, returning them to their countries, or leaving them in Turkey, let alone the prospect of building walls.

Earlier, I came across two young women sitting by a window. They barely talked and seemed pensive. Their hands wrapped tightly around their phones, the only remaining link to their families. Smiling at them, I wished that us Europeans would find the courage to create a solution to the refugee crisis, so that they may find hope in us and the strength in themselves to build their future on our land, their new home.

I left the building in the deepest of silence — the disarming silence that selflessness and empathy demand.

Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV
Photography credit: Michele Pedron/ESTIEM LG Milan

Video editing credit: Andrea Carsana/GYV