Ciao chow: UN Italians delight handicapped Lebanese

( AFP )- Ali kneads pizza dough under the watchful eye of Corporal Domenico Magliocca, a UN peacekeeper and head chef teaching handicapped Lebanese the art of preparing the Italian speciality.

The pizza apprentice is among some 100 youngsters aged between four and 25 who, suffering from Downs Syndrome, autism or multiple handicaps, have been trained since late 2006 by the Tyre Centre for those with "special needs".

Each Wednesday they have a party when the Italian Blue Helmets bring along not only their culinary skills but also their sense of fun to a group of young people otherwise largely isolated from the outside world.

Ali, 25, follows to the letter the instructions from Magliocca and his colleagues Vincenzo Schettino and Basilio Sudano, who in turn are teaching him how to measure out the ingredients, garnish the dough and cook the pizza.

"Yalla! yalla !" -- "Go on!" in Arabic -- one of them calls to Ali, amid applause.

The Italians are members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which is charged with monitoring the truce between Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement and Israel.

Southern Lebanon was hit especially hard by Israeli air and artillery bombardments during the 34-day war of the summer of 2006, which killed more than 1,000 people in Lebanon, many of them children.

"When they see us the young ones cry out that the pizza men have arrived. This fills us with real joy. Our visits have become a tradition and created a special link between us," says Lieutenant Colonel Edi Codarin, head of the logistics brigade in the Italian UNIFIL contingent.

"Those suffering from autism blossom in contact with these soldiers. It's very gratifying," adds the centre's deputy director, Ria Berreti.

"Each time you can see an improvement. At first when they saw strangers they would withdraw into themselves and try to hide. Now they no longer fear new faces."

It is not just pizza that is on the menu on Wednesdays, as boisterous singing from the centre's garden testifies.

There the very young, carried away by the music, add their own cries to the voices and guitars of soldiers singing "Volare, Cantare" and other popular Italian songs.

Young Hussein's face lights up when a soldier places his blue beret on the child's head. The tiny four-year-old, stricken with cerebral palsy, snaps a military salute and unleashes a round of clapping.

"I'd like them to come every day," says 16-year-old Mustapha, a football fanatic. "The Italians are the world champions," he adds to approving nods and looks from the Italian troops.

"They give us a lot of love -- I adore them," says young Maysam, her eyes sparkling.

Songs apart, the high point of the day is still dinner -- time to savour the pizzas patiently prepared by the older ones.

Youngsters and staff from the centre sit together with the Italians in the large dining room where the pizzas are literally gulped down.

"It's very touching to see these little ones devour the pizzas with so much pleasure and joke with my colleagues," an emotional Captain Gianni Salvatore says.

"In the present context, and with all the problems which Lebanon has known, so much innocence is very moving."

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