BUENOS AIRES – “I like Messi,” Haitian migrant Roland said in Spanish, sitting in a classroom with Pakistanis, Iraqis and others from all over the world, brought together by the need to learn the language of Cervantes to begin a new life in Argentina.
In 2015, one out of every 113 people on Earth was a refugee, an asylum-seeker or an internally displaced person, according to the UN Refugee Agency, known as UNHCR.
And for the people affected, the unprecedented humanitarian crisis does not end when they obtain a visa.
Though most people forced to leave their homes choose to settle in neighboring countries, Argentina’s open-door policy lures many among the relatively few displaced persons who have the resources to pay for the long flight to Buenos Aires.
Once here, besides navigating the bureaucracy, they must confront the impossibility of getting a job or a place in an educational institution if they don’t speak Spanish.
For more than a decade, the UNHCR, the University of Buenos Aires, and the Argentine Catholic Migrations Commission Foundation have collaborated to offer free Spanish lessons, specially designed to help the growing crowd of new arrivals to surmount the main cultural barrier.
“Argentina was a dream for me because I love, I like Argentina a lot,” asylum-seeker Rolando said in serviceable Spanish after only a month of lessons. “There were difficulties in my country, Haiti. I come here to live in peace.”
Unlike Roland, Charles, a telecommunications engineer from Ghana, did not plan on heading for Argentina when he left his homeland in fear for his life.
Charles and a friend went first to Cuba, but when Havana turned them away, they came to Buenos Aires.
“I want to live and work here, but if you don’t know Spanish you can’t do anything,” said Charles, whose first language in English.
Teacher Sandra Sgarbi said that the mix of nationalities in her courses varies “according to the international context.”
“For example, now there are many people from Syria and Ukraine,” she said.
Classes also include a wide range of ages. “You can have everyone from children to the elderly. Sometimes, a whole family comes, father, mother and three or four children,” Sgarbi said.