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Story Publication logo July 15, 2016

The Walking Dead of Rome


Basilica of Santa Maria

After the European Union’s plan to send new refugees from Greece back to Turkey, Italy is more...

Anti-immigrant graffiti is splashed along the walls of the Tiber River, which runs through the center of Rome. Image by Amanda Ulrich. Italy, 2016.
Anti-immigrant graffiti is splashed along the walls of the Tiber River, which runs through the center of Rome. Image by Amanda Ulrich. Italy, 2016.

The Joel Nafuma Refugee Center (JNRC) is set up almost like an after-school program for teenagers, complete with a foosball table a little past its prime, bright drawings on the walls and plastic, folding chairs.

But the people who frequent JNRC are not indifferent teens. They're a group of predominantly male refugees, fleeing from war-torn countries like Mali, Afghanistan and Libya, many of whom have been coming to this center for years because they have nowhere else to go.

It's only after perilous journeys across the Mediterranean that many refugees realize Italy cannot provide the type of safe haven they hoped it would. Even if they are awarded some level of international protection, finding a full-time job and meeting basic daily needs remain a constant challenge for refugees in Rome. That's where day centers, such as JNRC, come in.

The JNRC is a series of small, inter-connected rooms lodged in the underbelly of the historic St. Paul's Within the Walls, an Anglican church right in the middle of Via Nazionale. Tourists milling about on the main street—a stone's throw from the Colosseum and the Roman Forum—are also only a few steps from the center, full of people who are in Italy for very different reasons.

"I love my country," Rakeen, a refugee who was a well-known author in Afghanistan before he was forced to flee, said. "If there was any hope that I would be safe in Afghanistan, I would not stay in Europe one more minute. But all of my family has been killed, and I would be killed, too."

Thousands of migrants living in Rome have stories like Rakeen. A person's lifetime of unique experiences is reduced to just one harsh word as soon as they enter Europe: refugee. And now that the Greece-Macedonia border has been closed, the number of migrants seeking safety in Italy swells even larger; in March, nearly 10,000 migrants were rescued at sea and brought to Italy.

The Waiting Game

There is a catch 22 underlying Italy's asylum-seeking process for refugees: it's fairly easy to receive asylum, compared to other countries in the EU, yet refugees are left with few resources and job opportunities after they are awarded protection.

This is partly a humanitarian response on the part of the Italian government—to accept more refugees (or merely to turn a blind eye to new arrivals) instead of sending them back for almost certain death. But Italy could be biting off more than it can chew.

"These are people who have experienced violence against them in their home countries, who have survived these traumatic journeys," Jill Drzewiecki, who works at the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome, said. "They make it to Italy, go through this whole process, have some level of international protection, and then are ultimately relegated to life on the street. Many of these people are also extremely vulnerable to human trafficking, modern-day slavery."

It's a disheartening reality that perhaps can be best described by the Italian phrase "sempre in giro," roughly translated to "always getting the run-around." Though Italy has one of the highest rates of approving asylum cases in the European Union, its social services net is so inadequate that for a refugee, finding a job or permanent housing is still next to impossible.

Italy's particularly rigid labor market discourages business owners from hiring and firing full-time employees, mainly for fear of powerful labor union laws and deterrents like expensive severance packages. The youth unemployment rate in Italy hovered around 36 percent this May.

"Nobody is getting a tax-paying contract anymore in Italy, not even Italians. It's next to impossible," Theodora Yardley, a JNRC volunteer and journalist, said. "No one wants to stay in Italy, there's no work. So refugees might get asylum here, but there's nothing else the state can do for them, they're on their own."

The broken system leaves refugees feeling trapped, indefinitely imprisoned to one geographic area without any resources. The Dublin Regulation, a 2015 European Union law mandating that migrants must register and stamp their fingerprints in the country of first entry, in practice actually works against refugees (not to mention the few countries that must process all these cases).

It means that as soon as refugees register within Italy they are stuck in a country that can't do much for them. If they are able to make it to any other country within the EU, they will be sent back to Italy.

"I've heard refugees say, 'we're like the walking dead,'" Drzewiecki said. "Maybe they were some of the lucky ones that didn't die on the Mediterranean, but now what?"

Barriers to Integration

The obstacles for refugees in Rome are more than just economic. They're cultural, too. Much like other countries in Europe, Italy, especially in the past two years, has witnessed a tide of anti-immigration sentiment in the public and political sphere that works against refugees' acceptance and integration into local culture. The barren economic landscape helps to fuel anti-immigrant centered anger among Italians.

"People secure their wallets when they stand next to me on the metro," Rakeen said, describing the discrimination he has experienced in Rome. "They don't trust me."

In May 2016, thousands of protesters gathered at a refugee welcome center in Piazza Vittorio, rioting against the "invasion" of their country. The protesters, part of a far-right political movement called Casapound, marched down several main streets of Rome, waving Italian flags and chanting anti-migrant mantras.

There are also daily reminders of this undercurrent of distrust and fear around any street corner, any old building or bridge in Rome. In 2015, "mare monstrum" [the monster sea] posters, a twisted play-on-words against the Italian search and rescue program for refugees in the Mediterranean called "Mare Nostrum" [our sea], were hung around the city. A year later it might be a little more difficult to spot these signs, but new graffiti has already taken its place. All along the walls of the Tiber River, someone has used a stencil and black spray paint to draw a traditional-looking Arab man's face with the word "SHAME" marked thickly in bold down the side.

Italians are frustrated, not all for the same reasons. In February 2016, Italian activists held a counter-protest against the Northern League, Italy's right-wing party with an anti-immigrant stance. They held rubber dinghies above their heads to symbolize the long, increasingly fatal, journeys that refugees make to try and reach Europe.

Living in a Standstill

Back at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center, it's easy to forget about the often inhospitable climate of Rome. Men stand around in groups, making jokes with friends, sitting in on English classes and receiving a hot, daily breakfast.

There's a sense of optimism—albeit, one that's fairly tempered by the refugees' present reality.

"I hope to go to New York City," Ba, a 23-year-old from Mali, said, when asked where he wants to end up.

Ba listens to rappers like Kanye West and has an impressive knowledge of the American music scene. He clutches an English-learning packet in his hands (the section he's reading now is about road safety) and practices saying "helmet" over and over again until he has it right. He gets excited talking about politics, both in terms of Mali and the United States.

"I live in a refugee camp here and I don't want to be in Italy forever," he said.

But there's a complex web of policy and European bureaucracy that stands between Ba and the rest of the world that can't be navigated with money, sheer perseverance or hard work.

"Italy is just like a holding cell," Drzewiecki said.

For now, refugees like Ba and Rakeen have no choice but to make daily trips to the JNRC—and wait.

(Last names of refugees Ba and Rakeen have been withheld to protect their safety.)



teal halftone illustration of a family carrying luggage and walking


Migration and Refugees

Migration and Refugees

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