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'You can't fake love': An inside look at how refugees in Rome and Latter-day Saints are coming together in an extraordinary way

ROME, Italy — Carrots and celery — infused with regional spices — boil in a large pot in front of Sister Anita Canfield. She speaks as she chops more vegetables inside the Latter-day Saint Charities Friendship Center located in the heart of Rome. More than a dozen refugees are participating in her cooking class.

Above them is a colorful mural of an Italian village on the wall.

On the other side of the room, a young man, Josh Perego, teaches piano to additional students wearing headsets and practicing on digital keyboards.

The crowds continue to enter and exit the center. Some have just completed Italian and English classes; others are learning to drive. Some are here to take classes that certify them to care for the elderly or to clean homes and businesses.

A Catholic Nun practices piano at St. Paul's Within the Walls Episcopal Church in Rome, Italy on Thursday, March 7, 2019. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints partners with the Catholic church to help refugees.
A Catholic Nun practices piano at St. Paul's Within the Walls Episcopal Church in Rome, Italy on Thursday, March 7, 2019. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints partners with the Catholic church to help refugees. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Housed inside the St. Paul’s Within the Walls Episcopal Church in Rome, Italy, the Friendship Center — open every weekday afternoon from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. — gives refugees in the city a place to integrate.

“They come here and they feel friendship and love,” said Elder Steve Canfield, who with his wife, was serving as Europe Area welfare specialists. “There is a sense of hope that things are going to get better.”

Latter-day Saints in Rome sponsor the classes to help refugees and promote self-reliance. Some 500 people come each week to take a class or receive other services.

Elder and Sister Canfield began their mission in Germany, where the Europe Area presidency asked them to examine what the Church — which had partnered in recent years with hundreds of organizations to assist in the world refugee crisis — should do next to help refugees.

How Latter-day Saint Charities and UNHCR have been bringing relief and comfort to refugees for nearly 30 years

The Canfields volunteered in soup kitchens, fed refugees on the streets and went into refugee camps. They talked to others offering aid. Without exception, they heard one resolve over and over again: What do refugees need most? A friend.

“They need someone to help them integrate into the country,” Sister Canfield said.

And so the Friendship Center began.

The work is just part of larger refugee efforts sponsored by Latter-day Saint Charities across the globe. The organization supports refugees by providing both immediate relief and long-term support and by working with resettlement agencies. In 2018, Latter-day Saint Charities assisted with 371 projects in 56 countries.

In the Rome Friendship Center, amid the hive of activity on a recent afternoon, a visitor arrives and is greeted by Sister Canfield. It is obvious the women are friends. “Go to English,” she tells the visitor.

Tayyab Saleem is a student who has been participating in English, Italian and computer classes at the center for five months.

Seven years ago he fled his native Pakistan and arrived in Italy with “no job, no nothing.”

“I learned of the Friendship Center,” he said. “They love everyone. There is no difference between color or religion. Our kids will be better in the future.”

A refugee attends classes at St. Paul's Within the Walls Episcopal Church in Rome, Italy, on Thursday, March 7, 2019. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints partners with the Catholic church to help refugees.
A refugee attends classes at St. Paul's Within the Walls Episcopal Church in Rome, Italy, on Thursday, March 7, 2019. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints partners with the Catholic church to help refugees. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

He is so grateful, that he regularly prays for his teachers.

As a result of the classes — and of learning both Italian and English — he got a job as a waiter at a local restaurant.

As Saleem speaks, other visitors arrive looking for assistance. Sister Canfield is quick to respond. “What is your language,” she asks a refugee who is new to the Friendship Center, trying to assess how to help.

This is the Canfields’ third mission. First and foremost they, and the other Latter-day Saints who volunteer here, want Rome’s refugees to feel like they have a friend. “You can’t fake love,” she said.

As she talks a group leaves the center to take a tour of Rome. They need to learn about their host city, she explains.

Latter-day Saint volunteers think they are teaching a language or a cooking class, she said. But the students at the center are learning to believe in themselves again.

“That is what we came to do — to teach them that they can make it,” she said.

Latter-day Saint Charities missionaries Steve and Anita Canfield talk at St. Paul's Within the Walls Episcopal Church in Rome, Italy on Thursday, March 7, 2019. TThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints partners with the Catholic church to help refugees.
Latter-day Saint Charities missionaries Steve and Anita Canfield talk at St. Paul's Within the Walls Episcopal Church in Rome, Italy on Thursday, March 7, 2019. TThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints partners with the Catholic church to help refugees. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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