'In a refugee home, right and wrong don't always go hand in hand with the law'

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
'In a refugee home, right and wrong don't always go hand in hand with the law'
Katja Meier came to Italy for a career break in an olive grove - but found herself running a refugee home. Photo: Private

“There’s a huge contrast between the love tourists and so-called ‘expats’ like me have for Tuscany, and the shock that asylum seekers have to absorb when they are told that they might have to spend several years in the Tuscan outback,” explains Katja Meier, who spent several years running a refugee centre in the Tuscan hills.


"Where I saw beauty they saw bush; where I saw peace and calm they saw boredom and lack of opportunities."

The same may apply to young Italians who grow up in rural areas, but Meier says refugees facing additional culture and language barriers were acutely aware that opportunities for work and integration would be easier in northern Europe. 

Meier, a trained actress from Switzerland who had moved to Italy to work as an olive picker, found herself running a Tuscan refugee centre in the midst of the migration crisis, and has now written a book about her experiences there.

As growing numbers of people who had risked the oversea journey arrived at Italy's shores, the women's shelter she had been volunteering at began to accommodate refugees. Since her English skills were a rare and valuable commodity in the Tuscan countryside, she was asked to oversee the running of the centre.

But despite being able to communicate with the refugees, Meier says that at the start, "they were skeptical of anything I said or did".

"They had learnt the hard way during their trip to Europe that it was best not to trust anybody," she explains.

Some of the women had been locked up and abused in Libya before managing to escape on a boat to make the dangerous oversea journey, while one of them, Hope, had been sold by her own aunt to a human trafficking ring.

Meier doesn't know what happened to Hope, whose phone number and Facebook account were deactivated after she had to leave the home. 

"The best moments are when you feel you’re able to make a difference, and it’s hard when you realize that no matter how hard you might have been trying, it didn’t change anything," she tells The Local.

Some of the time, making a difference could be something as simple as offering a listening ear, or helping arrange translators or doctors' appointments for the refugees - but other times, tasks were more difficult.

One young Gambian women asked for help travelling to join her cousin in Germany.

"This was usually a no go," says Meier, but the woman had survived a major shipwreck. More than four hundred people died when the boat she was on capsized, and all four of the family members she had travelled with were among them.

"In a situation like that, right and wrong didn’t necessarily go hand in hand with house rules and European law," says Meier.

Katja Meier's olive grove. Photo: Private

The home she worked in was one of many opened up in Tuscany's countryside since the Arab Spring, as Italy found itself on the frontline of the migrant crisis. 

"Italy really rose to the challenge, especially considering that for many years the EU just chose to look the other way," the author says.

But the subtitle of her book, 'Good intentions and hard lessons from an Italian refugee home', sums up her view of the Italian response to the crisis.

She explains: "While there were good emergency solutions - both the homes on land and the response at sea - have their limitations and shouldn’t have to become permanent ones. Now it's time for Italy and Europe to reflect and analyse the response."

The end result of her own reflection is a book, rather than an article or blog, because she wanted to be able to "tell the whole story" and have space to explore intricacies without having them misinterpreted.

"If I say ‘working with refugees can be very challenging’ my statement can be instrumentalized very easily in the current political climate - for this reason, the problems aren't always discussed very openly. But life is complex and most things worthwhile will also be challenging and difficult, this doesn’t mean we should try to avoid them," explains Meier.

Meier doesn't shy away from talking about mismanagement, day-to-day bureaucracy, or the disagreements in the centre, though she notes that many of these were inevitable in a shared living space, with groups of people from vastly different backgrounds thrown together. 

"I was relieved to be able to help - but helping always comes with expectations. You may start off as the Good Samaritan, but unless you’re a saint, sooner or later some expectations will be kicking in and there will be endless material for disappointments and misunderstandings (on both sides!)" she says.

"The fact people are at home most of the day with nothing much to do doesn’t help. There’s endless potential for arguments about cleaning, sharing, and discussions about different moral codes and acceptable behaviour, though interestingly, religion never created any problems at our refuge the few times Christians and Muslims shared the home," Meier remembers.

"If anything, discussion about religion would be with me – I’m an atheist – and several refugees insisted I should believe in God or Allah, but didn’t really care which one of the ‘two’ I’d choose.” 

Despite some challenges, she also has very fond memories of her time spent running the centre and made close friends with many of the residents. Limited public transport links in the Tuscan outback meant that every appointment at the nearest immigration or hospital resulted in a few hours in the car with the refugees, and Meier says that driving through Tuscany's famous hills often got people to open up.

"Several important scenes in the book - and some of my own fondest memories - are of our long drives cruising through the hills," she says.

Having recently published the book, Meier continues to offer help to many of the refugees she worked with at the home. She is hoping to launch educational courses for newcomers in a Tuscan farm, as well as building links with political organizations working with migrants and sex workers.

Katja Meier was born in Switzerland and has lived in Italy for nearly two decades. Trained as an actress, she worked as an olive picker, wedding planner and life coach before taking on an Italian refugee home. Katja writes for travel publications and lives with her Italian partner and their two children next to an olive grove in the Tuscan countryside. Her book, Across the Big Blue Sea, is out now.



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