A newly-released app, Benvenuti ABC, aims to teach migrant and refugee children some basic Italian and English, allowing for better communication between new arrivals and volunteers.
“Italy is at the frontier of the migration crisis, and in Italy you really need to speak Italian,” explained Paolo Giovine, CEO of digital publishing company PubCoder, which created Benvenuti ABC.
“The questions that refugees have are urgent – they might need to ask for food, blankets or medicine.”
The app teaches children words by showing animated drawings – 'a' is for 'acqua' (water), 'aeroplano' (aeroplane) and 'amico' (friend) – and written translations of the word in Italian, English and Arabic. Audio is provided for the first two languages, but not for Arabic due to the varied pronunciation in different dialects.
The idea for Benvenuti ABC came from one of Giovine's friends, who had created a German app (Das WillkommensABC) which helped refugees to learn German, and was used in Cologne's refugee camps. It was clear that there was a need for something similar in Italy.
“When I started out, I didn't know that one in three migrant arrivals is a child,” Giovine told The Local. “When children don't speak the local language, it can be tough for volunteers to welcome them and make them feel safe.”
Having decided to provide the technology for the product for free, the team launched a call to illustrators to contribute an image to the book.
In the end, over 120 artists submitted pictures, but Giovine says he wasn't surprised to see such strong support for the project. He believes that “Italy has always been a country of immigration, a melting pot of cultures with a deep history of welcoming”.
Benvenuti ABC can be downloaded as an app for IOS or Android devices, or browsed online. Initially, it was made available only to volunteers with Migrantes Foundation – Italy's biggest charity organization working with migrants – to assess how well it worked, but now it is freely available and has been downloaded hundreds of times.
Giovine says he has been contacted by several schools where the app has proved useful for welcoming migrant students, and has already received suggestions for how they can expand the app.
“We're now collaborating with a school to create a Chinese version, so that we can also help the huge and growing Chinese community in Italy. And if we have requests for another language, or requests to add more Arabic words, we can do that.”
As well as serving the immediate purpose of facilitating communication between new arrivals and native Italians, Giovine hopes that the app will encourage further initiatives by demonstrating how easy it is to create technological solutions to problems.
He also hopes to draw attention to the problems faced by migrants in integrating and communicating in Italy.
“Some people simply don't pay attention [to the migrant crisis]; others seem to live in fear of an unspecified invasion,” he said. “In fact, migration isn't a risk, but an opportunity. Migrant children of today could be our best scientists; their insights will save even those who try to keep them out.”