Bashkim Sejdiu arrived in Italy from his native Albania in 1993. Even for a child, he says, the bureaucracy felt overwhelming. The barrage of paperwork only grew as he became an adult: renewing his resident permit, securing proper documents, staying up-to-date on immigration laws, finding foreign offices—it didn’t end.
“After years the situation has not improved,” says Bashkim, who is now 32. “So I decided to take care of it personally.”
He began in 2010 with an office in Varese, a small city near Milan, where newly arrived immigrants in Italy could get help filling out necessary forms. He kept rates low, even though other agencies could turn a profit. “It was more important to help,” he recalls.
He’s now taking his service mobile with an app he designed, called Infostranieri, which means roughly ‘information for foreigners’.
Open the program, and pick from one of ten languages: Italian, English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Albanian, Romanian, and Urdu. Volunteers from ten nationalities do translations, answer questions, and offer knowledge from their personal experiences. They’re paired with users from similar backgrounds, since they understand the same social identities and country rules.
Immigrants in Italy typically travel to large cities like Milan or Rome to see if their permits or passports are ready. Often they don’t know if their embassy is open or closed, or where the most important offices are. Foreigners make appointments with their consulates to navigate the process, but it’s a waste of time. An immigrant might spend a week tracking down all the relevant details, forsaking a paycheck and racking up travel bills.
With Infostranieri, users register their names, select their nationalities, their province and municipality in Italy, and their native or best-understood language. Infostranieri then uploads all the information and contacts relevant to each individual, such as legal news, if useful community groups are nearby, or whether a passport is ready.
Public agencies post the passport results online, although they’re nearly impossible to find. Infostranieri’s team tracks them down and shares with users. The Albanian embassy publishes results directly on the app; Bashkim hopes to make arrangements with other offices, although negotiations are slow. “We have to close the gap between immigrant and Italian institutions,” he says. “An informed person is more aware and happy.”
Bashkim funded the project with a few months’ rent. His landlord, who supports the project, agreed to postpone Bashkim’s payments. Now he earns a living from the app, which is free for immigrants and public agencies but charges a fee for businesses and advertisers that post their services. He’s hoping to develop financial sponsorships, so he can start paying the volunteers.
Nordine Hallil, a 30-year-old Moroccan, says he used the app when renewing his resident permit, and it helped him save time by allowing him to skip long lines in multiple offices. Nordine arrived in Italy in 2005 after enduring a treacherous boat ride from the coast of Libya. “With me, there were a lot of people and 27 dead,” he remembers. In his new country, Nordine says he’s a football coach and talent scout for the Milan Football Club.
Valmir Halilaj, from Albania, says the app simplifies a complicated process. “It’s a concrete step toward digitizing all paperwork,” he explains.
Around 8,000 foreigners in Italy have downloaded Infostranieri since the app launched in March 2015. They learn about it through word-of-mouth and positive reviews from other users. Infostranieri will soon advertise on Facebook and post fliers in public offices. Bashkim says he hopes to partner with the federal government and notaries, lawyers, and accountants so the app can offer more complete services to immigrants.
He also plans to expand the app to address a feeling many immigrants share: that their voices aren’t heard. The new section might even allow users to press a button and cast virtual votes for candidates in municipal elections.“It will have no legal value,” he says. “But it will be useful to remember that immigrants have needs, thoughts, worries.”