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Migrants and social workers at Casa Betania with nuns from the religious community. Salvador Salas
A city centre refuge for asylum seekers
Feature

A city centre refuge for asylum seekers

Casa Betania has now been helping migrants in Malaga for a year. It's not just a place to sleep and eat, it is where they prepare for a new life

Cristina Vallejo

Friday, 19 January 2024, 13:56

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'Malaga city centre has more than just tourist flats, there are also places like this one," says social educator Michel Bustillo as he opens the door of a building that goes unnoticed in a prime location in the city; just one minute from Calle Larios, it is in Plaza de las Flores, a square packed with busy terraces. The building is Casa Betania, an oasis for fifteen migrants, most of whom are awaiting the resolution of their application for asylum and international protection. They have fled conflict and violent situations where their lives were threatened, or authoritarian regimes that further darken prospects in some of the most precarious economies on the planet.

The house has four floors, a couple of balconies with magnificent views of the square, interior courtyards that give it a unique beauty and single rooms to accommodate youngsters between 18 and 25 years old who were brought here by the Spanish Ministry of Inclusion, which is responsible for funding the project.

Residents with coordinator María Fuentes.
Residents with coordinator María Fuentes. Salvador Salas

Bustillo is proud of the dose of diversity given to the city centre by the house, which has just completed its first year and has already benefited 23 young people. But he is also proud of the "very decent" physical space offered to each young person, which favours their wellbeing, but also their self-esteem, by having their own room where they enjoy privacy after suffering long sea crossings in overcrowded boats, or having gone through other types of centre with collective dormitories.

This building was the former training house for novices who joined the Esclavas del Divino Corazón (Slaves of the Divine Heart), a religious order. In fact, right next door to Casa Betania is the school of that congregation. Some of the nuns, such as María Fuentes, coordinator of the religious community, help the educators in their work with the youngsters.

María Rojano helps them learn Spanish.
María Rojano helps them learn Spanish. Salvador Salas

María Rojano has a very special role; a retired teacher from the congregation, at 92 years of age she teaches them Spanish and geography, as well as mending their clothes from time to time. She exudes tenderness. And the young men return it with hugs and affection.

Comfortable atmosphere

The Casa Betania project is shared between La Merced foundation, which provides its expert knowledge of the migration process, and the religious community, which provides the physical space - with the chapel stripped of its Catholic symbolism and converted into an inter-religious hall. The whole team, joined by twenty volunteers, witness how the young migrants' countenance changes, how the sadness, mistrust and uneasiness fade away and how they relax and even regain hope.

This is helped by the cordial atmosphere created in the house, which ends up being a family, or more like a flat shared with friends - they have a corkboard with a rota for the housework and cooking.

Sara García and Michel Bustillo are the two educators working with the project.
Sara García and Michel Bustillo are the two educators working with the project. Salvador Salas

But all of Casa Betania's residents are just passing through: asylum seekers arrive, and eventually have to leave, regardless of whether their request is denied or when it is approved. Sara García, another social educator at the centre, says that no one leaves the house with nowhere to go; they ensure they have a roof over their heads and financial support: "People leave with a job and a home," she says.

The main ingredient for their next step to an integrated life in Malaga, or elsewhere in Spain, is education: "This is not just a place to sleep and eat, they have to learn," says García. They are taught how to do CVs, they do mock job interviews and volunteers help find training courses. In addition to learning and perfecting their Spanish, they learn English and take advantage of chamber of commerce programmes, such as cooking, bricklaying... But there are also those who take Spanish secondary school exams or go on to university.

Salvador Salas

Soufian (Morocco)

'I want to help other people in my situation'

Soufian, 24, comes from Agadir in Morocco. He left his country in 2022 with his uncle, fleeing compulsory military service and the penalty associated with not doing it, which includes a fine and prison.

He got on a boat with 54 other people heading for the Canary Islands, a three-day frightening crossing that cost him 3,000 euros. From the Canaries he was taken to Madrid, where he applied for international protection, and then he was referred to Malaga, to Casa Betania, where he has been for ten months.

Despite having done three years of a law degree in his home country, in Malaga Soufian is studying a vocational training course in social integration as well as working in a restaurant kitchen. "I'm going to continue studying because I'd like to help people who are in the same situation as me," he says.

Luis (Colombia)

'I want to keep the feeling of peace I have here'

Salvador Salas

Luis, 25, fled the city of Cali in Colombia because he felt his physical integrity was in danger due to his involvement in the defence of human rights. Social leaders, he says, suffer reprisals for their work helping communities.

In particular, he supported young victims of recruitment and forced displacement at the hands of guerrillas and paramilitaries.

Luis arrived in Madrid in August 2022, and from there he went to Malaga, where he applied for international protection.

He has been at Casa Betania for 11 months now and is studying English as well as taking courses in forklift work, food handling...

What he wants, his priority he insists, is to "continue to have the peace" he has found in Spain.

Mouhamed (Senegal)

'There was nothing for me in my country, so I came here'

Salvador Salas

"Living in my country is really hard," says Mouhamed, 24, from Senegal. There, since he was 12, he worked in fishing, now a difficult activity as, he says, the government sold off its resources to be exploited by foreign boats. In July 2022, he disembarked in the Canary Islands, after nine days crossing the ocean in a small boat.

Along with economic problems, Mouhamed also cites political ones to explain why he chose to leave his country: there are no rights, he says; those who speak out go to prison. "My father wouldn't let me study," he says. "I couldn't find a solution, so I came here."

As well as Spanish and English, Mouhamed is studying other skills aimed at helping him find a job when he leaves Casa Betania.

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