Giving is never a one way stream

Volunteering easily evokes the benefits for those who get it, and stereotypically, migrants are more often pictured at the receiving end rather than giving. But is that true? And what about the advantages for the ones doing the volunteering?

As more and more people come to live in Turin, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, students and others find ways to become part of the city. These ‘New Turinese’ devote themselves to volunteering as an opportunity to get to know the city better, to find community, learn about the city’s history and tradition, as well as share their own.

Volunteering as a way in for newcomers

“I live in the Barriera district, which has a lot of potential,” says Giacomo, a volunteer. “I wanted to contribute to the district life, and volunteering has really helped me unlock the key to the district.” The Barriera di Milano, historically a working-class district, is today one of Turin’s most multicultural districts undergoing important urban planning changes. “Feeling useful, I entered this community and I have learned a lot about the district too. There’s a lot of solidarity,” adds Giacomo.

Volunteering has really helped me unlock the key to the district
— Giacomo, Volunteer

Hong Li, one of the volunteers in Turin, used a Chinese proverb to describe his experience: “Giving roses, the fragrance stays on your hand”. Helping people will benefit you. The benefit is not only about receiving gratitude, or personal satisfaction, most participants mention that volunteering has helped them find a community. It has helped them exchange with other cultures and open their horizons, or learn more about the environment they live in.

For example, 27 years old Leyla is a volunteer with ‘Giovani per Torino’ (GxT), Young People for Turin, and decided to volunteer during a European festival years ago: “It’s an opportunity to feel as a part of Turin, to meet other young people, coming from other realities, other countries”. GxT specifically connects young people with event organisers to volunteer in cultural or sport events and can count on 6,400 volunteers of which 800 are foreigners coming from 86 different countries. Even during the pandemic, the project managed to organise 13 activities around art and culture, and invited volunteers to participate in Covid-prevention activities such as mask distributions.

Feeling at home and creating family ties

A reason for some participants to make the first steps towards volunteering can be a shared interest. “It was nice to spend my time with these people, as a small family that takes care of the green space in the city of Turin,” says Darya Khachukayea, volunteer at ‘Torino Spazio Pubblico’, Turin Public Space. Projects such as Turin Public Space promote volunteering as a way of taking care of urban public spaces. While the actions carried out by volunteers bring obvious benefits to the city and its residents at large, they are also a moment of social gathering and exchange for the volunteers.

“We are not just volunteering, we are like family and friends,” says Gino, volunteer at Turin Public Space. And with around 1,200 active volunteers in 2020, coming from all over the world, it makes for a big family indeed! The project has found that the community not only participated in the requalification of the public space but build social bonds while doing so. By working together on taking care of their shared space, people build a sense of community that also increases the levels of security in the city.

For some second generation migrants like Sukrina, volunteering gave them an opportunity to explore their multicultural identity. “I can use my culture,” says Sukrina, Food Wave ambassador. “I always found it difficult to reconciliate my two cultures in Italy, and the fact that I can use the language that I’ve been speaking at home also outside with other people of the city, makes me happy because I can help people living here.”

I can use my culture
— Sukrina, Food Wave Ambassador

Moving with times

Turin has developed invaluable knowledge and expertise around migration and integration, which they shared on a peer learning visit organised within the VALUES project. From the internal migration flows of the 50s due to its importance as an industrial centre, to the recent international migration, the city has been at the forefront of integration policies. In the 80s, Turin opened the first specific office for foreigners in Italy, and it later opened the first Intercultural centre in Italy managed by a local authority.

In keeping with this tradition, Turin has put together the ‘Portineria di Comunità’, Community Concierge, in the Porta Palazzo area. The Porta palazzo square is a meeting place for migrants and has historical importance for the city, so it was the perfect place to set up a community project.

With 200 participants from different backgrounds, and almost as many volunteers, also coming from different contexts, this European funded project listened to the needs of residents and enterprises and set up services to meet them. The Community Concierge can help facilitating contact with the public administration, for example with filling in residents permits, or taking care of small services, like food deliveries or reparations.

“These activities have helped us better integrate,” says El Hadji Sow, one of the volunteers. “We learn the language and create a personal social network.” Migrants are one of groups taking advantage of the services, and they also make up a significant part of the volunteers.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the project expanded its offer. For example, El Hadji Sow has offered his computer skills, as he has a degree in computer science, and started helping people to work from home as well as helping children with their homework. “If they had a bad connection or poor digital skills, I would help them,” says Sow. The Community Concierge has become a reference for the neighbourhood and has created stronger ties within the community.

A tradition that shows in the numbers

The Piemonte region counts to date 3,480 Non-Governmental Organisations with people involved in volunteering, and it’s estimated that about 12.5% of Turin inhabitants are participating in volunteering activities. As a good example of the city’s commitment to volunteering, Vol.To, Turin’s volunteer support centre, includes 158 member organisations and a network of more than 1,300 associations. In 2020, more than 120,000 people participated in volunteering events organised by the centre. Vol.To promotes volunteering, trains volunteers, and matches demand and offer for volunteering services in the metropolitan city.

“Being part of this association has helped me socialise with other people, and to share my own culture,” says Jerome de Leon Rosales, from the Philippines Cultural Association of Piemonte. Turin is an example that proves that volunteering is a real opportunity for inclusion, it makes participants feel like they are being part of the community. A feeling that has become all the more important during the pandemic, which has made people vulnerable to isolation.

Little means, big network

“I stopped working during the pandemic because markets were closed, but I’m not used to staying home all day, so I decided to do some volunteering,” says Omar, one of the volunteers, originally from Gambia. “The volunteer group is very mixed, there are seniors, students, Italians and foreigners, but they all share the desire to do something to help. People who lost their job have it really hard.”

The health crisis has also hit some districts particularly hard. All existing social inequalities were exacerbated by a lack of labour opportunities and the loss of income. To face the issue local associations, social actors and international associations decided to put together their limited means to make the most of them. ‘Torino Plurale’, Plural Turin, was born in March 2020 and connected over 30 local and community organisations who pledged to share information and resources.

The platform is only the starting point, from there, several projects have seen the light. For example, the associations came together to organise a food distribution and face food shortage in the districts. “Some people, to whom we delivered their food boxes, came to help us, and this has created a very strong network between us and the families,” says Jacques, an Educator and volunteer.

This has created a very strong network between us and the families
— Jacques, Educator and Volunteer

The advantage of relying on a whole network of associations is clear when one considers that for the food distribution project one organisation collected the food, another one contributed with the delivery van, a third was in charge of managing the volunteers etc.

For the moment, the organisations involved in Torino Plurale have committed to working together until the end of 2021 via a signed convention and a framework agreement. The City of Turin is also involved in the network as a coordinator and has funded some of its activities. Given its success, the city is looking at making Torino Plurale a permanent network.

“First there was school, then volunteering and now work. Maybe one day there will be family and I’ll have it all because Italy is my country,” as one of the migrant volunteers puts it. The volunteering experience can evidently become an essential step in making a new place yours and in really feeling at home. That’s the true power of volunteering.

Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer
in numbers:
  • 3,480 Non-Governmental Organisations

    in the The Piemonte region with people involved in volunteering
  • 12.5% of Turin inhabitants

    are participating in volunteering activities