On the road to self-reliance with PUOI
"It's a great opportunity". Victory a 22 years old Nigerian feels she is in the right place. A trainee in a nursery school in Palermo, she juggles children, colleagues, and parents: "I have overcome my shyness", she assures. Muhammed, 34, a former bricklayer in Pakistan, has improved in Teramo: "I have acquired new techniques, I have a stable contract and I want to bring my family here too". Seydou, 23, from Ivory Coast, is a metal carpenter in a factory in Turin. He smiles as he recounts the turning point: “At the end of my internship, they hired me as an apprentice. I’ll stay here!”
A thread connects Victory, Muhammed and Seydou: the need to leave countries where they could no longer live in safety and dignity, and building a new life in Italy with the help of PUOI ("You can"). PUOI is a governmental project for the social and labour integration of holders of an international protection status and other vulnerable migrants that aims at one of the main objectives of the Global Compact: "Enhance refugee self-reliance".
Promoted by the Ministry of Labour and Social Policies and implemented by Anpal Services SPA, specialised in active labour policies, PUOI builds skills and relationships, putting in place a strong partnership between public, private, and third sector actors. The main role is assigned to the employment services: they liaise with the reception system, find the participants and prepare them to meet companies willing to host them for a field experience. An individual action plan provides each refugee with specialised employment guidance and support services (e.g. skills assessment, CV writing, job interview preparation, opportunity search, etc.) and a 6-month paid internship.
In the wake of two projects of the Ministry (Inside and Percorsi) already recognised as good practices by the European Commission, PUOI uses individual grants, integrating the national programmes of the European Social Fund and the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund to cover all measures. 6,000 euro per person pays for employment services, six months allowance to the trainee and a contribution to the host company for mentoring, recognising the commitment of all actors and encouraging participation.
Since 2019, when it was presented as a pledge to the Global Forum on Refugees, PUOI has initiated over two thousand internships. Despite the hard impact of the pandemic on the labour market in Italy, the first results are encouraging: 3 out of 4 participants got at least one contract after the end of the traineeship.
"The orientation helped me to write my CV and find a job I like - I'm very happy," says Lawal, 28, a Nigerian who had already had experience in agriculture and did an internship with PUOI in a garden centre in L'Aquila, where he is now permanently employed.
"The orientation was useful, I got my driving licence. Then I learnt a lot of things through the training, such as teamwork", says Felix, 21, from Cameroon, who built up his career in Naples in a refugee cooperative specialised in multicultural cuisine, until he became its president. His compatriot Pascale, 37, who was unable to finish her studies in economics in her homeland, gained experience in a marketing agency in Pescara: "I learned Italian better and the internship will help me find even better jobs”.
The road to self-reliance is paved with new skills, both technical and transversal, but also with contacts with other people: colleagues, clients, friends. "I have good colleagues”, "They love me", "It's a family", "They help me"... These are recurrent phrases in the focus groups that the project organises around Italy, listening to recipients, employment services, and host companies, to understand what to value and what to correct. This wealth of exchanges is difficult to achieve for refugees who are "enclosed" in the reception system, but, in this case, it is nurtured in the everyday work life.
Those relationships were a salvation even in the dark of spring 2020, when the COVID-19 emergency hit the project. Mohiyadin, 24 years old, from Somalia, found himself on the front line as a trainee in nursing home in Matera which, like the others, had closed all contact with the outside world. He worked hard to combat the loneliness of the residents: "Games, music and even video calls for them to chat with family members every day", he remembers. He has now become an operator in the residence while continuing his studies.
Lockdown and social distancing have inevitably affected complementary pathways, often interrupting them abruptly. Many traineeships had started or were about to start in companies that had to suspend operations. Driven by the need to support themselves, many sought opportunities elsewhere, leaving the project. Others, more obstinate or simply more fortunate, managed to pick up where they left off. When the lockdown began, Mamourou, 45 years old, Malian, had started his traineeship less than a month before in an office supply company near Vicenza. When the lockdown ended, he was called back to check and label the goods. Now he is employed and proud of his work: "They even gave me a flat that I share with a colleague. PUOI has made me a great person".
During the emergency, the project endeavoured to maintain relations between participants, sponsoring organisations, and host companies. In addition, it set up a complementary ad hoc intervention, with additional training hours on COVID-19 prevention and safety, and on how the pandemic has changed work. Another allowance was granted to the participants, a little help for those who were no longer receiving the allowance of the suspended traineeship.
What about the future?
The Ministry of Labour and Social Policies wants to transform PUOI into a structural offer of pathways always available for refugees and other vulnerable migrants, expanding the range of measures to be put in place. Meanwhile, the project's best testimonials continue to be its protagonists.
Sophia, a 26-year-old Nigerian mother, is raising her child alone in Padua thanks also to her work in an assembly company where she arrived with PUOI. She has a new way of seeing things: "I am happy here. Before I saw Italians as strange people, now I can live with them, work with them. Quietly, without fear”.