The day before Thanksgiving I toured a neighborhood near Rome’s central train station with a young man who spent his first months in the city homeless. He slept on the sidewalk beside the station, washed his clothes in fountains and ate at soup kitchens when he lined up early enough and before the food ran out. He shared his story with a small group of us who wanted to know more about the homelessness that befalls many refugees in Rome. He had already lived a nightmare that stretched from Mali to Libya and Malta before he came to Italy. He was just 21 when he landed in Rome on a Ryan Air flight, an odd detail that lies outside the typical path to this city for the current influx of refugees. Otherwise, his story is not unlike thousands of other people fleeing conflict or crumbling economies in nations in Africa and in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan among other countries in crisis. One of the easiest gateways to Europe is Italy because of its proximity to north Africa and narrow passage across the Mediterranean Sea.
My tour guide still lives in a state of threatening crisis but he has applied for asylum in Italy and now lives in a shelter for refugees. His life became more organized when he found a day facility that offers small meals, personal supplies, language classes and legal aid to refugees and migrants.
Now he works part-time at the center and he finds other odd jobs and opportunities to earn money. Still, he lives a precarious existence. Staying legal requires him to perpetually manage annual applications for temporary asylum. He says it sometimes takes eight months to renew just one of three required documents. Imagine the energy and organization needed to manage this bureaucracy while hungry and homeless and stateless.
Applying for asylum in Rome doesn’t guarantee housing or the meager benefits afforded refugees. Record numbers of people are coming to Italy – nearly 130,000 this year alone – and many of them end up Rome. There are not enough shelters here and applicants have to wait for housing. It also takes time to get into the system and there’s a dearth of emergency housing for the undocumented. In the interim, refugees sleep on the streets.
This is one of the reasons why I am working with four other volunteers on an emergency housing initiative. We want to open a 30-bed shelter for refugees in need of immediate, temporary housing. Ideally, the center would become a replicable prototype and eventually, a network of centers would open and share resources, such as medical care, teachers and counsellors. We have an awesome team and it includes the young man I write about in this post. I am confident that something will come of this effort. But it is sobering to keep in mind that a temporary bed is just the beginning of another long and uncertain journey for asylum seekers. Most have already suffered enormous tragedy just getting to Italy. Applying for refugee status and finding employment necessary to become independent and to obtain legal residency is a journey far longer than the passage across the Mediterranean.
Here’s a visual narrative of the weeks not mentioned above. It starts with a trip to London, where I joined my step family for a reunion during Remembrance weekend:
I took Olvia and George to Florence. George commanded the camera:
And a few more moments in our month: