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 PortaPortese where my husband and I are living for six
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
Turkey, and Greece
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
The men file into the cavernous basement at around 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 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
Afghan refugee in Rome:
Amit - February
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
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
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.
refugee in Rome: Ousmane - February
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
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
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 PortaPortese, 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
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.RomeCenter, 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
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
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
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 FiumicinoAirport,
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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 - 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 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
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
DO YOU LIKE ROME?
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.
political refugee grapevine - March
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 Norwayasap 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
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.
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
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