Volunteering in Rome
 Joel Nafuma Refugee Center
St. Paul’s Within
the Walls Episcopal Church

Rome, Italy

February-March 2009

Judy Lightfoot

Homeless in Rome - Monday, February 2, 2009

Thousands of refugees sleep under the bridges and in the open spaces of Rome. Every weekday 200 and more crowd into the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center in the crypt of St. Paul's Within the Walls, a 20-minute bus ride from the apartment near the Porta Portese where my husband and I are living for six weeks.

On rainy days this center for political refugees from Africa, Asia, and South America is SRO. This fair morning there was enough room at the tables for a dozen exhausted men to nap with their heads cradled in their arms. Others had fallen asleep sitting up in folding chairs. Groups played foosball, ping-pong, or chess, and a group of twenty or thirty watched CNN news on a TV at one end of the room, where a recently released popular film is shown each afternoon. Others sat talking together or staring at nothing. All were glad to be off the streets, where officers of the polizie might stop them to check their papers. Many have no papers, or have only temporary documents, making them vulnerable to official hassling.

80% of these refugees are Afghan. Some were trafficked from Afghanistan through Iran, Turkey, and Greece to Italy, having paid large sums of money to get to a place where they had been promised legal documentation and jobs. All in this basement are men; the care of women refugees and children is overseen by the city of Rome, although rumor has it that much of the money earmarked for their services ends up in the pockets of officials. In general, human services for refugees in Rome and Italy under Silvio Berlusconi are among the poorest in the EU. Faith communities and churches here - like the St. Paul's Anglican-Episcopal community - do much of the work.

The men file into the cavernous basement at around 8:30 am and line up for a breakfast of tea and bread. Church officials can no longer afford the fruit they could offer in the past. After breakfast, staff and volunteers distribute hygiene supplies along with clothing and shoes until needs are met or everything's gone. Around 4 pm the center closes. The refugees move on to another church where showers and a hot meal are provided and a very few beds are available. Some refugees have been assigned beds in shelters and campsites, but due to housing shortages, for the huge majority it's another night sitting in the train station or lying in the open. Lucky ones find places under a viaduct or inside a discarded section of giant concrete pipe.

Today [Monday, February 2] I met many Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis, and Africans at the center. I’m grateful for knowing a little Italian. Many of the refugees learned to speak the language during the months they spent at refugee camps farther south, while being processed into Italy. Since literacy in Italian is required for employment here, some charitable organizations are offering free Italian language classes for refugees, but they want to learn English, too, because, they tell me, it's the international language. There are no free classes in English for refugees, so starting tomorrow I'll offer practice in English conversation for two hours every morning. It's a joy and a great privilege to be here.


Note: To protect the privacy of these refugees as well as the safety of family members left behind, I changed each person’s name and did not identify any towns or cities of origin.


Afghan refugee in Rome: Amit - February 4, 2009

A vigorous man probably in his late forties, Amit has a sensitive, open gaze. Until the Taliban falsely accused him of spying for the Afghan government, he owned a thriving automobile parts business. Taliban thugs wrecked his shop and his house, forcing his wife and their nine children to seek shelter with her relatives, and drove him out of Afghanistan. Amit and I sit down for some English conversation. He's already quite fluent. On this first day of volunteering, I learn that conversing in English means hearing painful stories like his.

He tells me that he paid thousands of Euros to be transported to Italy through Iran, then Turkey, then Greece. He spent four months in a camp for political refugees in the Italian town of Crotone, but in January was given a letter of deportation back to Greece, based on an EU agreement that the nation which is the refugee's first port of entry shall be the nation responsible for providing asylum. Bureaucratically the regulation may make a kind of sense, but Amit is in despair. “In Greece, unemployment and refugee services are even worse than here,” he said. “What will become of me there? How can I begin repairing my life?”

In Rome he sleeps under a tree. He comes to the refugee center in this church basement each morning for tea, bread, and a chance to wash up, and stays because there’s nothing else to do with his day. He wants to make a case to the Italian authorities for remaining in Italy but, he tells me, he doesn't know how to start. His friendly smile grows fierce, and his eyes flash. “Italy, Europe – these places are said to be enlightened, but they have made my situation impossible! I can’t go back to Greece.” Then the gaze of this proud patriarch and businessman falls to his shoes. “Please, what can I do?”

I have no idea what he can do. But I can sit with him in his grief and rage. I tell him that I don’t know how to help him and that my heart aches for him. And I ask permission to tell him something about myself. He nods, his eyes brimming now, and I tell him a little about my son’s schizophrenia. I finish by saying, “You and I each have our own terrible heartbreak. But your pain and mine are in this world together.” Amit’s tense face relaxes, and we sit in silence for several minutes. Finally, “Thank you,” he says. “Will you be here tomorrow?” When I say yes, he smiles and grasps my hand in both of his. Then he rises from his chair so he won’t lose his turn to shave and brush his teeth in the refugee center bathroom.

I nod to a thin boy who's been listening to our conversation while patiently waiting to practice his English.


Afghan refugee in Rome: Tariq - February 7, 2009

Tariq, nineteen years old, spends long days in this center for political refugees. Growing up in Afghanistan he learned the art of gem-cutting from his father. "I know all the stones," this teenager says proudly, "and all the shapes and how to make them." Almost the first thing he tells me is that he misses his mother. She paid $12,000 to the trafficker who brought him to Italy. Tariq touches his earlobes, wrists, and breastbone: "She sold all these, all her jewels, so that I could come here." His older brother died in the war in Afghanistan. "Now," says Tariq, "her hopes are all in me."

He sleeps in Rome's Stazione Termini station and is often hungry, some days subsisting only on the breakfast of bread and tea served at the center weekday mornings. "On the telephone I do not tell my mother this," says Tariq. "I tell her I am sleeping in the casa of a friend. I tell her I am eating chicken." Tariq knows that he is young and has many years to build a new life, but, he mourns, "My mother has not so many years. Her heart is bad and now her heart is very bad with worry for me. I am sorry, I can think only of my mother."

During our conversation practice sessions Tariq patiently helps Kabir, whose English is limited to a phrase or two, and who can write only Farsi letters. Now that Tariq has told me his story, he appears less burdened; occasionally he smiles.


Ivory Coast refugee in Rome: Ousmane - February 9, 2009

Gentle, slender Ousmane wears his hair in tiny braids close to his scalp. He patiently reads his pocket-sized English dictionary page by page - he has no other English text. I make a mental note to photocopy something for him next time. He asks the meanings of the minuscule words printed in his table of irregular verbs. "What is 'abide, abode, abided'?" he asks. He gives me a list of punctuation symbols he's encountered: "Please you write definitions?" As I write "quotation mark," "exclamation point," and "question mark" next to the symbols he spots a pattern, prints "TION," and asks, "What means this?" ... "Ah, I see. What means 'ending'?" ... "Ah, I see. What means 'noun'?"

I ask Ousmane to tell me about his life while I write out his story for him. Haltingly he says he's 21 years old. He came to Italy from Ivory Coast to escape the civil war. His parents were killed in the fighting. When Ousmane was a child he loved learning French and history in school. His favorite teacher was a kind man "and he liked me very much." It's easy to see why.

I fill almost a page, Ousmane reviewing each sentence as I print it and correcting the way I spell the Ivory Coast president's name. We arrive at the year when Ousmane mastered motor scooter mechanics and started working as a repairman. Then I fold the page, ask him to practice reading it tonight, and promise that if he brings it tomorrow we'll continue writing his story. By the time I turn to another student, Malik, Ousmane has unfolded the page and is reading to himself in a whisper, smiling broadly. He reads the page several times.


Meanwhile, Malik shows me the words he doesn't know in an English newsletter he found somewhere on the street. A native of Afghanistan, he speaks five languages including Italian, English, Urdu, and Hindi.

As I pack up to leave, another small moment of peaceful reconciliation between a Muslim and a Christian is happening in this basement filled with political refugees of conflicting faiths. Malik is telling Emmanuele, a refugee from Africa, why Jesus is considered one of the major prophets in Islam. As Malik explains the Islamic appreciation of Jesus, his English is fluent and fast. Emmanuele, eyes shining with grateful friendliness, replies, "I sorry, I not understand what you speak." Malik settles into his chair to walk Emmanuele through his words.

At the refugee center in Rome - February 15, 2009

It's clear and beautiful in Rome, but cold, too. On weekends, when the refugee center where I volunteer is closed, I wonder whether the refugees are finding places to stay warm during the day. I doubt that having to sleep outside in weather close to freezing every night can toughen you up for being cold 48 hours straight.

I look forward to Monday mornings. Descending the stone steps from the courtyard into the dimness I see crowds of refugees watching TV, playing foosball or chess, sleeping in chairs, or lining up for a turn with hygiene supplies at the bathroom sink. Some sit and talk with each other in small groups or just mill around restlessly. As I move past, the expressions of the men who look up range from impassive to wary until I say hello. Then each face lights up with a friendly grin.

The inevitable odor of unwashed humanity is strong. It reminds me of the tinge in the air of the apartment where my father lived out his last years, and of how my son smelled the year he lived on the streets. I breathe the air here with happiness. If that sounds ascetic or self-mortifying, believe me, it's not.

Yesterday, at the Sunday flea market that extends for at least a mile starting half a block from our apartment near Porta Portese, I found a new First English ABCs children's book with colorful illustrations for only €3. I'm excited to show it today to Abdul, from Mali, who's having a terrible time with English sounds. He's also mystified by pronouns, although on Friday after long labor he was proud to be reading two sentences over and over to himself in a loud whisper: "My name is Abdul. What is your name?"

Also on last Friday, across the table sat Hakim, an Afghan quite fluent in English who had asked me to "please write down all the best difficult English words with definitions for me." Since there were many students but only one of me, Hakim had to make do with a detective novel left behind by Americans at the U.W. Rome Center, periodically asking me to define words he didn't yet know.


Meanwhile, Ousmane was methodically pronouncing the English sentences in a children's book, What Do You Know About Camels?, written in Arabic, English, and Ivory Coast's official language, French (besides knowing French and some English, Ousmane speaks djoula, the language of his home village). When I told the proprietor of a used book shop in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood why I needed to buy this trilingual book, the lovely woman kindly loaned it to me, together with a good volume of English conversation exercises.

Learning a little English - February 23, 2009

I try to spend one-on-one time with each person who comes to my corner of the room at the refugee center. After the men eat their breakfast of bread and tea, twenty or thirty gravitate to my table. Some spend the entire two hours working with me; others come and go. Some who know no English want to memorize the alphabet. Others copy words with which I've labeled items pictured in a newspaper photo, or recite simple sentences: "I am from Somalia. Where are you from?" Those who can read some English enjoy Aesop's Fables (conveniently downloaded from Bartleby) and ask me questions about things they don't understand. Aesop has universal appeal, especially his fables about rapacious wolves and vulnerable lambs. Back home, these political refugees have felt on their very skins the brutal exercise of tyrannical power.

Today a group of students from a Virginia church visited the center and had one-on-one English conversations with refugees, a powerful experience for all. One young American wrote down the story of an Afghan man as he told it, and kept this amazing story to bring back home. Some of these refugees were beaten bloody by Taliban, or saw relatives murdered. Some were able to escape across the Afghan border only by squeezing into the undercarriages of trucks and managing to hold on while the vehicles roared for miles over bumpy terrain.

When our time together ends each day, many of the refugees leave their papers on my table because they sleep outside at night and have noplace to keep their things. Last week some men discussed with me a newspaper photo of a horse race. With a little help on vocabulary and spelling they wrote down what they saw, for practice. The boy Tariq (see my earlier post) was not among them, but at the end of the day, I found the following sentences on a sheet of paper: "This is a picture of a race. There are 3 horses. There are 3 men. I miss my mom." With his pencil the writer had gone over and over the last four words until they were as thick and dark as his sorrow.


Impatient to build a better life - February 24, 2009

Political refugees often tell me how hard it is to wait so many months for the documents they need in order to find employment in Italy. Many have already spent many months in refugee camps farther south before coming to Rome. Now many have nowhere to sleep or even to keep any possessions, and their days alternate between grinding idleness and being herded in groups among places where bread or shelter are parceled out at certain times. Here is what an Afghan refugee wrote yesterday and slipped into my bag:


First I want to tell you that in our country there is too much problems, we are in a war there initially, but there is also much problems here. First we sleep in a campsite and we can't have any house and after we are going for bread to one Caritas [charity] after another Caritas and we are coming and going in our life here, living like animals. No one knows that's what we are doing. We want help, we want peace, we want work in our life in Italia.

So today seemed a good time to read Aesop's "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse" together, downloaded from Bartleby.com and edited with more modern idioms. The moral of the fable hit home: "Better to eat beans in safety than cakes in fear." Not that any of these men came from a place where they had many cakes. Their courage and determination through a protracted ordeal - and, yes, their patience - touch my heart.

"Anticipatory Grief" - February 26, 2009

Long ago I leafed through a book called "Anticipatory Grief," and though its content has leaked from my memory, the title remains. It names exactly my feeling as the end of my time in Rome approaches, only two weeks away. It will be difficult to quit my work with these amazing men, blasted out of their homelands and plunked down in a country where the welcome for foreigners, especially in a declining economy, is rather cool.

This morning about 30 Afghans and Africans surrounded two long tables to learn a little more English. Their mastery ranges from elementary to fairly strong, so they work on different things. When the four American women attending Rome University volunteer on Tuesdays and Fridays, there's more variety for the refugees. And today some students from Duquesne U visited, which gave many of the men a chance at extended one-on-one coaching or conversations in English.

Refugees who have notebooks and pens bring them each day, but many have nothing, so I put out paper and pencils every morning even though intentionally or accidentally some pencils may disappear. At the end of one table I dump out a bag of a couple hundred little oblongs of cardboard with words printed on one side and their opposites on the other (tall/short; wet/dry; ride/walk; come/go; father/mother; war/peace; give/take; hot/cold; today/tomorrow; the/a; man/woman; ?/!). These were used for vocabulary practice and for forming sentences, with blank pieces the writer stuck in if he couldn't find a word he wanted. Some men go through the pile systematically writing down all the words; others form sentences and copy them ("My girl friend is hot!"). Today eight young men spent the entire two hours teaching themselves with these fragments of English, occasionally asking me questions.

For those who read some English, working through photocopies of slightly simplified Aesop's Fables seems universally satisfying. I also made a little dictionary booklet listing some common words (apple, boy, cat), illustrated them with my ugly drawings, and printed them along with Aesop stories, easily downloaded from the Web and then edited a bit for easier vocabulary and a more current American style. Ibrahim, the Egyptian who owns the tiny Internet/copy place across the street from our apartment, gave me a generous discount when he heard what the copies were for.

I feel attached to all these people - including Ibrahim and his brother Abbas, whose flower stall is a few doors away from Ibrahim's shop.

The real Rome - February 26, 2009

Back in January when Bob and I first arrived, the sight of our street was kind of shocking with its graffiti, dumpster clutter, roaring traffic, and glaring billboards. I told the cab driver who had brought us from Fiumicino Airport, "This can't be the right place!" But within a week the neighborhood was our home, and we loved "the real Rome" more than the historic center tarted up for tourists.

One of our pleasures is watching daily life from our third-floor apartment windows. Workers change the billboards each week, casually but with uncanny precision using their brooms to slap up swaths of new signage. We check on clienti entering Ibrahim's Internet/phone/photocopy business, and we count passersby who stop to browse his brother Abbas's flower stall on the other corner.

Abbas strolls over to Ibrahim's several times an hour. During the last bitter January week we hypothesized that Abbas must have needed to warm up inside his brother's place pretty often, but now that the weather is milder his visits are just as frequent. The brothers stand in the doorway of the Internet Point, keeping an eye on the flower stall, chatting with passing neighbors, and clearly enjoying each other. Both work hard to support themselves and their families back home, though the Italian economy is collapsing faster than America's. Ibrahim's business is starting to fail, and Abbas glumly observes that Italians, less romantic than they used to be, buy fewer flowers these days. Still, they laugh with Bob and me as the four of us talk about politics. Obama is popular in Italy, but these Egyptian brothers have a strict "wait and see" suspicion of all politicians.

An American Christian with Muslims abroad - February 27, 2009

90% of the more than 200 men who spend their days in the church basement where I volunteer are Muslim. Right now I'm the only American in Rome with whom they spend 2-3 hours each weekday, and because of the setting they assume (as it happens, rightly) that I'm a Christian. I often wonder what the refugees think of Americans and in particular American Christians, especially when refugees' homelands happen to be countries the U.S. has conflicts with, for reasons the refugees may see as grounded in religious differences.

Regardless of wider political hostilities the men who gravitate to my table each morning are eager to learn English. And fortunately there are ways of blending even a paltry knowledge of Islam into our conversations. For example, while explaining that Aesop wrote his Fables in the 6th century B.C., a time line drawn from 2009 A.D. back to 600 B.C. marked with milestones can include 570 A.D. for the prophet Muhammed. Some of the men make sure to footnote the fact that the Muslim and Christian calendars differ.

For readers of Aesop's "Country Mouse / City Mouse" fable who stall at "bacon," the word can be defined as a meat they probably don't eat because it's pork. "Ah, pig meat!" they exclaim, with happy recognition and disgust. And I end my farewells of "See you tomorrow morning!" with the beautiful Arabic expression "Inshallah" - "God willing." It’s a sentiment I truly feel, and when I catch the warmth in the eyes of a person I say it to, it doesn't seem to be coming across as false camaraderie, a cheap attempt to "get down" with Muslims.

The day Yakub tried to pick a quarrel with me about the war in Afghanistan - "You're destroying my country!" - I didn't explain that American forces attacked the Taliban because they sheltered the mastermind of 9/11. It was easy to turn the conversation to the war's impact on Yakub's family and friends back home. Two weeks after this conversation I saw Yakub at the center again. It was noon - time for me to leave for the day and meet my husband for lunch. I paused by Yakub's chair at the table where he was about to eat the bag of food doled out at a nearby church each weekday at noon on the condition that every taker return to the refugee center to consume it.

Yakub was angry again. He looked up and slapped at his 5-day beard. He said his new job kept him away from the center in the mornings, when the men are given time at the bathroom sinks and shaving supplies (he still needed them donated to him because employers here typically delay paying first wages for weeks). I sympathized, but added that he looked pretty dignified with facial hair. After another minute of chat about how hard it is for refugees being herded here and there in Rome, he waved his hand with a graceful gesture of invitation above the tiny tin of sardines, the single roll, and the orange he had arranged on a clean newspaper in front of him. "Please, you will join me?" he asked. Hungry as he was, he may still have felt a little disappointed that I couldn't stay.

It's easy to find something to appreciate, even to love, about each one of these extraordinary human beings. We can hope that this, too, may have a small "political" impact - one person at a time.

"Do you like Rome?" - March 1, 2009

A couple of mornings each week I lead an exercise in English conversation that these political refugees seem to love. Afterward those who haven't made copies for themselves ask me to spread it out on the table so they can write down the question along with the answers they like. I hold up a long list printed on sheets of paper taped together, and when I shout out the question at the top, refugees crowd around to shout it again with me: "Do you like Rome?" Then, as I point to each word, in chorus we read the paired responses below the question:



Yes, Rome is sunny and warm.
No, Rome is rainy and cold.
Yes, there is no war in Rome.
No, there is no work for me here.
Yes, the people in Rome are kind.
No, Italians are rude to me.
Yes, I made new friends here.
No, I miss my family.
Yes, it is safer here than in my country.
No, it's dangerous - we have to sleep on the streets at night.
Yes, Rome is a beautiful city.
No, in Rome there is nothing to do except wait around.
Yes, I am getting my documents.
No, it is very hard to get documents.
Yes, I have a shelter where I can sleep.
No, I have no house here.
Yes, I can learn Italian in a free class.
No, there are no free classes in English.


You get the picture: the statements are all true.

Rome's political refugee grapevine - March 2, 2009

I heard it through the grapevine: Norway must be doing better than some other European Union economies. Today Yakub and his friend told me they're heading for Norway asap because they're sure to get jobs there. Refugees and homeless immigrants often have more (and possibly better) information than refugee center staff or volunteers have. Of course, a piece of news might be just a rumor.

My first morning at the center, the Italian volunteer who hands out hygiene supplies was telling four African newcomers that they could get their clothes laundered at San Martino, a church a dozen blocks (and many twists and turns) away. The route she showed them on the wall map looked like leftover spaghetti. The men silently stared at the convolutions. "I'll walk them over there," I told her. It wasn't yet clear to me what kind of help was needed from me at the refugee center, and a good map was in my pocket. "Would that be useful?"

"Useful and useless!" she replied. We both laughed, and she went on to explain: "The refugees know more about resources than we do! They probably already know the way to San Martino."


Still, in guiding (following?) the four men to their destination, I learned the Santa Maria Maggiore neighborhood more intimately, and on the way I got to talk with some interesting strangers from Ethiopia.

Four political refugees in Rome - their stories - March 8, 2009

These stories by political refugees were written for my fellow volunteer Mary-Ann, a teacher from England. The first is from an Eritrean refugee who like others at the center made a dangerous, circuitous journey to safety in Italy. Like others, too, he worries about whether it's possible to build a life in this country.


My name is Hamid. I was born in [the town of] G--- in my country of Eritrea and studied 12 years in A---. I left my country in 2004. I arrived in Ethiopia the same year and lived there 2 years. After that I went to Somalia and stayed 3 months. After that I cross the Indian Ocean. I stay on the sea 2 weeks but there is danger on the ship. Then I arrived in Yemen. After 2 months there I went to Saudi Arabia. I stayed 2 years. After that I returned to Ethiopia but was put in prison for 3 months. After that I went to Sudan, and from Sudan to Libya by desert. I lived in prison one year and 5 months. After that I arrived in Italy last year. My history is very long. I am not explaining simply. I am 25 years old. Now in Italy I live a dog's life. My dream is I want to finish university and I want to help my family. I like peace and work.


Some refugees found it hard to tell their stories. Most Americans if asked about themselves would happily launch into narratives well elaborated by life in a society that privileges self-assertion and self-revelation. For these refugees, a sense of privacy and a self-protectiveness hardened by memories of war-torn homelands and of dangerous years on the road vie with their courteous willingness to share themselves with us. When I wrote down the story Ousmane dictated to me about growing up in Ivory Coast, he arrived at a certain point in the narrative and simply stopped. I told him I'd continue writing his story if he brought it the next day. He came to the refugee center every single morning for the next 5 weeks to work with me on his English, but never again opened the story in my presence.


Similarly, Rashad abruptly breaks off his personal narrative:


I am from Eritrea. I was born in 198_ in a small village. Eritrea is found in the horn of East Africa and got its independence in 1991 from Ethiopia. I completed my school in a town near to my village. I loved school life. I remember my friends very well, because they were very helpful, funny, etc. Anyway I am not ready to write more about my life story. It just feels bad. It's not my potential to write all about my past days, all the feelings, emotional violence as well as my desires [for the future]. It terrifies me to think about myself. I hope you will understand me even if it doesn't mean that I wrote all the necessary points to make you understand me. What makes me not to write more is, I am upset with my life. However, if you tell me what is the purpose of this, I will write more. Thank you.


I've posted before about the refugees' passionate desire and need for work. Here is Khaled:


In the name of God: My name is Khaled. I'm from Afghanistan. But I was born in Iran. I lived in I--- [an Iranian town]. I was a student, but in Iran we can't go to the university. The Iranian people are very racist. In Italy I have a document but I don't have work. What do I have to do? I don't know. Maybe I have to go to another country. I have gone to Sweden, but I have fingerprints in Italy. [Khaled means that Italy was his port of entry. Under European Union law, Italy is responsible for his political asylum, including arrangements for shelter, employment, etc., so Sweden would have sent him back here.] Maybe once upon a time I'll come back to Afghanistan. I'm not sure. I am in Rome. Rome is one Big city.


Finally, Laurent embodies some of the gifts these political refugees bring to their adopted countries, including an impressive determination to meet daunting challenges. Already fluent in French, the official language of his native Ivory Coast, Laurent is now learning Italian and English:


I was born in 1974 in Ivory Coast. I lived in Korogho, the capital of the north of the country. I was a trader. I grew up in a nuclear family composed of 4 (four) members. When I was young, I always went to school for study. During break times I played games with my schoolmates. My favourite subject was philosophy and my ideal philosopher was DENIS DIDEROT. I was a fan of reggae, slow rock, and the Beatles. The music listening made me an English lover. English for me wasn't a subject, but a necessity. I saw the conquest of English worldwide. I remarked also, that most information was in English. My dream is first to get a paper of stay. After to get a good job and then to try to build my future the second time. My dream is also to build a nice flat where I am living with my family. I want to be reliable - ponctuel - and very efficient - organise'.


On my last day of volunteering here, the men I worked with were courtly and ceremonious in their farewells. As each one spoke to me, he placed his hand over his heart. It was very difficult to leave. Now that I'm back in Seattle, my heart is full of their stories and faces.


It was easier than I thought to put in some significant volunteer time while on a 6-week vacation in Rome. American and English churches were where I looked first, lists of churches in the city being online. On my very first morning of seeking a volunteering opportunity I happened to visit St. Paul's Within the Walls – and found that the church has a big refugee center in the basement. Good opportunities might have been available at other places, but the following morning I dropped by St. Paul's, and Father Michael drafted me immediately.

Volunteers who know no Italian do just fine at the refugee center. They bring pictures in, speak slowly, and act words out (refugees especially enjoyed my impersonations of Aesop’s Wolf, Lamb, and Frog characters). Some of the refugees know English and will help by translating for their countrymen.

Through volunteering I feel more strongly connected than before with Italy and its people. In the past my husband and I had spent two separate 3-month academic terms in Rome (in 2002 and 2004) and two consecutive academic terms in Siena (Jan-June 2006). This was the first time I wasn't ready after 3 weeks to leave Italy and come back home.


This time I didn't want to come back at all.

From readers:


What struck me about all these posts is that these gentlemen were much like me. Many of them were my age just sorting out who they will be in the midst of a quickly changing world and culture. The sense of shared humanity was strong.

The people were inspiring.

Africans are everywhere in
Rome selling inexpensive knock-off handbags, belts, etc. on sidewalks and piazzas. These enterprising merchants can be found walking the hot sands of Italian beaches hawking bath towels, rugs and other items. What amazes many American tourists is that the Senegalese live together in communities sharing their day's profits with fellow boarders. The fact that they sell the same wares within sight of each other confounds Americans used to competitive commerce. There is no panhandling among the Senegalese in Rome, as far as we could tell. Americans have come to stereotype poor Blacks as well as Whites in our cities as street people begging for change. Not in Italy.

Their stories are moving, and yours is inspiring. I am a tourist with a purpose, mostly in
Haiti, but I love Italy, and you give me good reason to head back some day. Please keep the stories coming!

My heart goes out to all the refugees.

Welcome home! This was a thought provoking account of your work. I'm glad you wrote it and made sure I had more than a fuzzy understanding of your project. How welcome a little consideration and respite must be from the vulnerabilities these folks endure. A fearsome world it seems, and blessings on efforts to soften the blows here and there.

Who knew there are Afghans in
Italy? I learned something.

Tears in my eyes.

The narratives are really interesting and should be useful for students who want to consider volunteering


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