SBS Italian

How collaborative work gave voice to a community of asylum seekers in Italy

SBS Italian

Talking Hands

Embroidery as a community work and opportunity to exchange knowledge and skills.

Published 23 January 2019 at 12:24pm
By Magica Fossati
Source: SBS

Hard-work, clever design and artisan skills are helping young asylum seekers find a place in the local community of Treviso, Italy.

Published 23 January 2019 at 12:24pm
By Magica Fossati
Source: SBS

is the name of a new social initiative in Treviso that aims to give young asylum seekers employment, dignity and a voice in their new communities.

Founder Fabrizio Urettini tells SBS Italian that Talking Hands was a response to the arrival of around 2,000 asylum seekers, who came in 2015. It started with a gym, which aimed to give the asylum seekers a chance to “reactivate” physically and mentally, and it also introduced them to a new opportunity for employment.

The idea came out of an initial dialogue with the young asylum seekers, who, Urettini says, had started “mapping their skills and desires”. That process led to them to finding a wide range of skills, as diverse as “woodwork to embroidery, from sewing to welding."

It was decided they could, with some help, essentially become their own factory, or 'opificio' in Italian.

One of the men involved in the Talking Hands project
One of the men involved in the Talking Hands project Source: courtesy of Talking Hands

The young participants of this Talking Hands project mainly come from sub-Saharan Africa, and countries such as Gambia, Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Niger. On average they are between 20 and 30 years of age, though some of them are even younger.

Some have learned certain skills during their long voyages to Italy that their Italian peers generally don’t have, Urettini notes. The young men participate with enthusiasm, pride and a strong desire to put their abilities to the test.

“For them the atelier is not just a workplace but also a home”, Urettini says, adding that “the important thing was also to make them feel responsible for the space.

"Therefore the keys to the workshop were given to them and the economic side of things is looked after by a 'banker' who is also an asylum seeker." 

On that point, Urettini says he could not have found a better accountant than someone who is so used to economising.

"To give you a point of reference, the average wage in Gambia is about 50 Euro per month," he says. Therefore for them the idea of [the business] spending even one Euro is hard... I couldn’t have found a thriftier banker!”

“Rifúgiati” are micro-spaces for children drawn by designer Matteo Zorzenoni in collaboration with Talking Hands Project
“Rifúgiati” are micro-spaces for children drawn by designer Matteo Zorzenoni in collaboration with Talking Hands Project Source: courtesy of Talking Hands

'Rifùgiati' (literally meaning, 'find refuge!') is the project that started this experience.

“The boys live here and dress like their Italian peers,” so, Urettini says, it was important to avoid overt exoticism in their designs. Rather than producing products that reflected "the iconography of ethnic handicraft”, they involved local artisans to provide production and design guidance.

For instance, in conjunction with designer Matteo Zorzenoni, Talking Hands has produced domestic micro-architectures for children.

“Kids love to hide, love to find nooks and crannies where they can create a ‘comfort zone’ for themselves and from there this series of objects was born,” says Urettini of these structural toys.

Zorzenoni helped develop the 'Take refuge!' title of the project, and also gave expressive freedom to Talking Hands' asylum seeker artisans, who decorated Zorzenoni's structures in an original and attractive way.

Talking Hands
Blue Carpet Source: courtesy of Talking Hands

Talking Hands is not an isolated case in Italy either, says Urettini. There are many similar initiatives across the country, possibly because of a proactive tradition of 'arte di arrangiarsi', where one doesn't wait for help to arrive, but gets involved to better a situation.

"Maybe it's also the welfare system that is a bit less efficient than in other countries," says Urettini of the altruistic impulse.

"The fact is that many beautiful experiences are emerging. It's a meaningful sign of a will to find answers to the problem - or the richness of the migration influx.”

As a similar example, Urettini cites '', a theatre company in Bologna entirely formed by asylum seekers, as well as Milan's '', a project for migrant women based on the work of discussion groups. The women produce t-shirts decorated with poignant messages gleaned from those discussions, which, once sold, become a source of micro-credit for those women.

“A richness of our country - alas, seldom talked about - is this not waiting for help but pulling up the sleeves and getting involved,” says Urettini.

Talking Hands
Source: courtesy of Talking Hands

But what impact has Talking Hands had on the lives of its young participants?

“In the Veneto region, work is almost a second religion," says Urettini. "If you work, you acquire a special status in the eyes of the locals.

"We saw it with our own eyes going to hardware shops," continues Urettini. "The first time [we went into a hardware store] perhaps we were looked at with suspicion, because they saw all these young men entering together, and they would have a shop assistant follow us because they thought we might steal something. The second time they would maybe ask us, ‘So, what are you doing, why are you buying all this equipment?'. The third time, the shop assistant would tell us, 'Look, someone left us a drill - it's old and they bought a new one, so I kept it for you'.

Urettini believes this work not only offers these young men an avenue of self-expression and an opportunity to get involved in local society and culture, but is also helping eliminate stereotypes about these asylum seekers.

"Work, especially in regions like Veneto where a lot of value is attached to it, provides you with a type of citizenship."

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