By Elena Dini
ROME — Philip Astephan arrived in Italy from Syria in 2011. Through the Centro Astalli, the Italian branch of the Jesuit Refugee Service, he came in contact with The Lay Centre, where he has resided since 2017. That same year, he also started working for Caritas Rome as an assistant educator in a shelter for minors.
However, he put his work on hold upon receiving a full scholarship and completed a bachelor’s degree in developmental psychology at the Salesian Pontifical University; he is now in the second year of the licentiate program in the same field.
With more time to devote to work, Astephan returned to Caritas for a few months last summer and stayed on as a volunteer cultural mediator in the fall.
“After some time, I received their offer of a permanent contract as an educator, and no longer assistant educator, since now I have the academic degree,” he said.
Astephan currently works 30 hours per week at the “Venafro” shelter, which hosts 12 minors.
“Young people arrive and we welcome them. We give them food and a bed. We enroll them at school. Educators help them to know Rome better, to go through all the requirements and paperwork for the residency permit. We wake them up in the morning and organize their breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he said, describing his job responsibilities.
He and other educators work shifts to ensure a 24-hour presence for the young people. Astephan is no stranger to the trauma same of the young people may have when they come to the shelter; he said the trauma of war that he experienced in Syria allows him to feel empathy for the young people at the shelter.
“I went through all that with my mum and my sister: to go to a shelter, not to own anything and be in need of help. This is something I share with these kids,” he said, adding, however, that he is careful to maintain professional distance to ensure a healthy working relationship.
Astephan also shared some of his reflections about his experience of war.
“War is undoubtedly a trauma and changes forever your way of looking at the world,” he said. “War made me discover violence and another aspect of the human being. At the same time, I discovered that pain can be borne and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
He said The Lay Centre community taught him necessary skills for his current work.
“It taught me how important it is to be with other people,” he said. “We have to lose part of our ‘ego’ to be with the other person and to learn, for example, to talk when we do not feel like talking. Time in a community is not always our own time, and this teaches flexibility.”
Being a member of The Lay Centre also makes him “a credible witness of the idea of community” that he proposes to the young people at the shelter, he said.
In his current role, Astephan also realizes the importance of being someone who espouses and defends human values.
“No matter what, we are always in front of human beings and we need to work to ensure their human rights are defended,” he said. “This work teaches me patience, love, and awareness every day.”
(Photo: Philip Astephan is pictured with his colleague Silvia Pacetti in the Caritas office. Photo courtesy of Philip Astephan)