One of the stops of our route brought us to Padova, a city situated in the Veneto region, centre-north of Italy, where we met Michaela Chirvasa, the founder and president of Valide Alternative per l’Integrazione (Valid Alternatives for Integration). The organisation was founded in 2013 in Padua, by Michaela and her closest friends and relatives to help people of foreign countries in their integration process in the Italian culture and society, promoting a welcoming climate and dialogue between immigrants and the local population.

We held with her an interview about her work, her motivations to get involved in the community, the developments of the association through the years and some reflections about the future.

Michaela, how did Valide Alternative per l’Integrazione start? Where did the idea come from and how has it developed?

At the age of 23, after completing a bachelor degree in Journalism in my own country, Romania, I moved to Italy and I arrived in Padua. I got personally involved in volunteering in the city of Padua as a way of giving back to the community all the help and support I had found along my way, while settling here. A few years after though, I decided to start a new organization because I was not satisfied with the formal/rigid ways some cooperatives carried out their work.

I believe volunteering should be spontaneous, a way of giving purpose to your own life by helping out other people. Keeping these values in mind and with the goal of sharing the support received very close in my heart, in 2013 with the help of a close group of friends, I began the journey of founding Valide Alternative per l’Integrazione, with the aim of helping mobile and migrant citizens while creating a safe space for expression and for mutual listening and understanding.

The first year of life for the organization wasn’t as smooth as expected. We encountered many difficulties in finding support from institutions, even to find a place to hold our meetings in.

A few months after its establishment, we managed to connect with a students’ organizations operating in Padova, who hosted us for a few years in their headquarters.

Some of the students joined the association as volunteers and the numbers of the organization started growing. From an initial small number of people attending the meetings, mostly from the Romanian community, we saw an increasing engagement by the citizens or students living in Padua and the team is currently made of around 15 volunteers. 

What kind of activities do the organisation carry out?

At the beginning, our activities were focused more on technical support to incoming citizens, especially Romanians, but through the years and thanks to the growing number of volunteers, the breadth of their activities grew, as well as the outreach of new members of the community.

As many more refugees and asylum seekers got in touch and involved with our organization, we saw that, besides practical tools and help with daily issues, people needed a more radical and deep support. One of the most urgent and important matter we realised was needed, was a space of listening and understanding. That is how the idea of creating meetings of self-narration where people gathered and shared ideas, fears, experiences around a topic. This safe meeting represented a unique occasion to address simple yet dense matters (such as “What is home to you?”, “What is love”, etc) in a safe way, within a group of people that come from different countries and may or may not have undergone the same experiences. This specific type of activity stems from the need of hosting a space where newcomers can freely express themselves, be listened to and be embraced, since there is a very high need of stimulating intercultural dialogues.

Besides this, the association holds language training courses at different levels of Italian (as it is one of the first requests migrant citizens have made themselves), computer literacy courses and resume writing sessions. 

How is the Organisation perceived by the public institutions and which are the most challenging aspects of your work?

In recent years, the organization has gained the trust of public institutions and we are now enlisted as point of reference for newcomers by the Municipality of Padua. We are glad our work is recognised and enhanced.

As for the organisation itself,  of the struggles that Valide Alternative has faced in the past is the high turnover in people involved, since everything is on a volunteer basis. However, we believe that the volunteering component is a very precious one in the organisational culture: one of the biggest efforts is the challenge to emphasize the human capital, finding strategies to lead the organization in a horizontal and participatory way, so that every volunteer can be proactive, express their point of view and suggest new activities, but is also aware of the struggles the organization might face. A big part of my work is concentrated in creating this participatory environment and make everybody feel part of the project.

I believe that only through transparency and shared coordination it is possible to create a deep connection between the people and to ensure continuity to the organization.

Why it’s called “Valide Alternative per l’Integrazione” (Valid Alternatives for Integration)?

The name “Valide Alternative per l’Integrazione” gathers two components: “valid” for the accuracy and reliability we carry out this project with (and also because we wanted a name that could work in Romanian); and “alternatives” to express the flexibility and the adaptability of the organization.