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In Italy, Training War Refugees To Preserve Antiquities

The rubble of Palmyra after Syrian regime forces took the site back from ISIS
The rubble of Palmyra after Syrian regime forces took the site back from ISIS
Fabrizio Assandri

TURIN — Refugees have come to Italy from all across war-torn Iraq and Syria, from the monasteries of Mosul to the Assyrian villages of the Khabur valley and the Christian churches of the Nineveh plains. Among the millions now languishing in refugee camps are people from all walks of life, including government bureaucrats, university professors, archaeologists, and museum curators who saw artworks and monuments destroyed in war.

With that in mind, the Italian government is introducing a program that allows a small number of asylum seekers to take advanced courses on protecting cultural heritage sites from attack, weather damage and antiquities smuggling. The hope is that refugees will later be able to return to their home countries and help rebuild damaged cultural sites.

Launched by Project X-Team, a collaborative effort between the Polytechnic University of Turin and several universities and institutes in Turin and Venice, the program seeks to build an "educational corridor" for asylum seekers in Italy.

The program is just one of many such projects the government has launched to help educate refugees. To date, Italy is the only country to follow through on a European Parliament proposal that universities in member states provide online courses so that refugees can continue their studies if they return to their home countries. "This makes us proud," says Italy's Education Minister Stefania Giannini, .

The pilot project will begin in September with 50 students from war-torn countries. The students will primarily be Syrian refugees in Italy, as well as some at camps in Jordan and Lebanon. The intensive courses on artistic and cultural heritage will last eight months and be held first in the northwestern Italian region of Piedmont and later in a monastery in Veneto, in the northeast.

Under siege

The destructive reach of the Islamic State (ISIS) goes far beyond the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. "There's a cultural genocide going on in the Middle East designed to destroy works of art," says one of the program organizers.

Marco Gilli, rector of the Polytechnic University of Turin, says the courses will focus on interdisciplinary themes, from architecture to information technology and materials science. There will also be classes on cartography, museum archiving and drone surveillance techniques. Business incubators are involved in the program as well, helping to create jobs and give refugees the prospect of a safe return home.

The 1.5 million euro project still faces a few hurdles, including bureaucratic issues over how to verify applicants' education levels. The Polytechnic University of Turin accepts refugees that can't provide proof of a school diploma, on the condition that the university receives a guarantee from their home country or the Italian Education Ministry before they graduate.

Romano Borchiellini, one of the professors at the school, says the program is a bridge to the post-war future. "The armed forces must defend historical sites," he says. "But the experts we're training will supervise and rebuild them."

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