Arriving in Italy nearly five months ago, I felt confident and proud to be returning to the country, and region – Friuli Venezia Giulia – where my grandparents emigrated from just 60 years ago. When Umberto and Maria Stolfo said goodbye to Friuli to start a new life in the United States, the Fulbright Program was just 10 years old. I’m certain that the last thing on their mind was the possibility that one day their grandson would return to Italy while serving as a cultural ambassador between their native land and their adopted home. On second thought, perhaps that is exactly what they were thinking.
In a year in which the Fulbright Program celebrated its 70th anniversary, I began my Fulbright journey to Trieste, Italy – the capital city of the region in which my grandparents were born and raised. I am here to assess how political situations impact refugee policy-making at the local level and to highlight the human consequences that ensue. Without a doubt, the journey they made as Italian immigrants to America ultimately paved the way for me to have this Fulbright experience. I am able to use this good fortune to work every day with people arriving from across the world with the hope that Italy might just be the adopted home that will allow them to create a future so bright that their children and grandchildren might never know the suffering that stems from war, terror and oppression.
During the Fulbright Orientation in Rome, officials from the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Consulate in Milan connected me with the American Corner of Trieste, which provides weekly English courses for refugees. They welcomed me with open arms allowing me to sit in on the courses, assisting if needed, but more than anything they gave me an opportunity to meet, listen to and build relationships with refugees that have some of the most incredible stories to share. Men and women who have risked much, suffered often, yet continue to forge ahead. The most common journey shared with me is not the tragic Mediterranean Sea route so often reported on the nightly news, but the lesser-known “Rotta Balcanica”, that consists of migration from the Middle East into Europe via land routes that involves crossing more than 10 national borders in some cases before settling in Trieste.
Although just the beginning of my Fulbright experience, I’ve been given opportunities to genuinely understand the lives and struggles of people that I never imagined I would even meet. I look forward in this upcoming year to fostering even greater understanding between my host nation and the people coming from far and wide to share in the hope that it has to offer. Just as my grandparents sought a better life in America for their family 60 years ago, I hope that by returning to Italy with Fulbright I too can make a small difference, one day at a time, in the lives of people who need it most around me.
Umberto Speranza is a 2016-17 Fulbright U.S. Student researching the impact of politics on Europe’s migration crisis in Trieste Italy.