ROME — Among incessant chatter of masculine voices and sporadically placed plastic chairs, stands Petros Bivile in front of a wall-sized laminated map. Bivile, age 17, gingerly traces the sketch of the world, attempting to identify capitals in West African and European countries.
It only takes him seconds to locate the cities with incredible accuracy, reminding you of the visibly intelligent high school student confidently answering posed questions in your class.
But Petros is not a student regurgitating geography lessons in a classroom, or a well-traveled tourist recalling his most recent visits. He is one of 200,000 refugees seeking asylum, yet caught in multiple dead ends of the refugee situation.
Barely four days in the city, Petros, born in Ethiopia, knows he does not want to stay. He planned to bring him and his friend Mike (pronounced “mee-kay”), who he met at a Sudanese refugee camp, to Paris for greater economic opportunity. For the time being, gathering the euros for their ideal destination keep them stuck in Rome. It then becomes an internal act of balancing the beauty and lack of social empathy from the eternal city.
While leaning on the dusted white walls where the world map hangs, Petros said, “It is beautiful, but no one asks where you come from.”
The acknowledgement that Italians may not want to know his story is not completely uncommon for struggling refugees like Petros. Huge number of people from Africa and the Middle East attempt these uncertain journeys on warily over-crowded ships with the acknowledged risk that they may take a chance on country filled with citizens unwilling to take a chance on them.
These brave yet frightened people navigate not only lands, but also a conglomerate of social, political, and economic conditions to seek a sense of stability, a peace, they once had. They make these physical sacrifices to survive beyond merely existing – they want to feel human.
Located near the Roma Termini train station, the Joel Nafuma Refuge Center provides an inkling of humanity to wandering migrants. Decorated with a multi-colored balloons, a constantly occupied foosball table, as well as an intimate art room filled with crayon self-portraits and bowls made from rolled-up newspaper, this safe space helps migrants and refugees relocate the stability in their lives.
“I heard about the center from a refugee camp,” said Abdul Shanawaz* an Afghani refugee who has spent the last three years spearheading an artisan project and finding genuine connection in every corner of the center. “I lost my whole family, [but] I found family here.”
The day center assists in organization of legal documents for asylum applicants, English lessons, and a daily breakfast. It functions as one of very few spaces for their foreign guests to occupy their day. But at night, these guests must travel elsewhere.
“I was the one sleeping outside on the streets for three months,” Shanawaz said, who was once a distinguished author to numerous novels, and a speaker of eight different languages.
This unfortunate situation is common for many migrants who arrive to Italy seeking protection, which continues to worsen with the significant influx of people from violent, poverty ridden nations. With Italy rarely turning away its migrants, asylum seekers like Shanawaz, highly educated and esteemed in their respective countries, are stuck in “Sempre in Giro”, unable to fully integrate into society.
Hope of reclaiming normalcy becomes a journey further delayed.
The challenges of the refugee situation reflect the state of degrado in Italy, more recently expressed by its citizens and journalists. Vast corruption and invisible accountability within their country have siphoned funds intended for refugee centers, commodifying the very individuals who direly need Europe’s help.
Admittedly, the difficulty in the asylum process also reflects past legislation created by the European Union. The Dublin Regulation established in 2003 determined the examination of asylum from the first entry port, disproportionately placing the burden on Italy, Greece, and Turkey.
And even after migrants arrive on shore, the process does not become easier.
Theodora Yardley, an expert in humans rights and volunteer for the Joel Nafuma Refuge center, said, “Every step in the process comes with a lot of catch-22’s,” leaving language barred, newly arrived migrants further navigating a futile legal process.
Navigating Cultural Fears and Setbacks
Found in the crowded corners of Trastevere, dark-skinned migrants of West African descent survey the tourist areas selling their Rastafarian jewelry. If met with any animosity or spoken prejudice, they repeat a pre-rehearsed phrase referencing Bob Marley’s famous song, “Don’t worry, be happy, okay?”
Language even when limited becomes important for many of these migrants. It gives them a voice to defend themselves and tell the stories that belong only to them.
Jacquelyn Pavilon, the Director of Communications for the Jesuit Refugee Service, a non-profit near the Vatican, acknowledges the impact of words in stories.
“Word choice is really important to instill dignity” says Pavilon, referring to the intentions of word to facilitate equality and agency for marginalized individuals like refugees. “The minute you start using language unfamiliar to the reader, you are automatically create an other.”
The careful use of narrative to limit ‘the other’ reflects a radical advocacy that protests the anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric appearing on the public walls of Rome and in the sentiments of emerging political leaders. Organizations such as Joel Nafuma Refuge Center or the Jesuit Refugee Service want to promote humanity to a group viewed largely as alarming statistics on a television screen.
This is why language can be powerful – or harmful.
For some migrants, words were enough to send them home. Pavilon says, referring to the refugee women unable to handle the ongoing prejudice in their new country. “The xenophobia they faced was so emotionally wearing that they returned to their [war-torn] country.” For others, it is a combination of actions and looks that leaves them feeling criminalized.
“Sometimes, when I go on the bus, people hold their bags close to them, but I am not a thief” said Shanawaz, staring at a student group of white faces. “I don’t know how to look like… you.”
But to others, physical presence hugely affects them.
When Maiga, a Malian refugee, recalled his escape from a violent community of men who severely beat and killed his step-father, he had no one. After time at the refugee day center, Yardley became a growing presence in his life.
It is the English language that allowed him to personally share his deeply intimate story to a group of students privileged enough to never see bloodshed violence in their lives. However, the consistent company of volunteers, like Yardley, is what recognized his human dignity, and motivated him to navigate through his painful past as a refugee.
As asylum seekers confront their situations of physical displacement or virulent xenophobia, they do so in different ways.
Some establish sanctuary in a public center, while others risk their lives again on a packed migrant ship.
The tough decision each person makes is a navigation to a home they once knew. “Refugees are additive to a country,” Yardley reminds us. “We all survive in different ways.”
*Name was changed to protect identity