9 July 2018: Rome Through The Eyes Of Locals
Moving With Purpose
Migrant life in Rome, a followup to the spring 2018 state of the city essay.
Pazi spotted the cafe across the street, “There––let’s go,” and led us through the rush hour crowd to a table inside.
It was a hot April morning, and he had just concluded his hearing before the judge, his appeal case for asylum, at the Tribunale building in Rome’s Prati district. He was handed a negative verdict some months before and had been working six days a week since with his language teachers to get his Italian in a strong place just for the day’s proceedings.
It was found in the structure of this day’s event his life’s pace as he leads it now in Rome, in Italy. Whereas a year ago, even six months ago, our visits would consist of long talks across an afternoon discovering the city, now, Pazi had places to be. The morning appointment was just one. After he ushered us to the cafe, he’d be off to his next.
So while it was the outcome of the hearing itself that would decide if Italy were to recognize him as a citizen here, he was already acting the part of one despite it.
The scene in the corridor at the Tribunale while he waited for his case to be called, was chaotic, filled with tens of other migrants in his same situation, each holding on for hope in these last minutes that their status to remain in Italy would be approved.
His lawyer appeared, a figure as conveyed to me by more than one source onsite as disreputable. It was said he is an opportunist, who exploits migrants’ desperation to stay, charging exorbitant fees for a service that is already provided for free by the state. The impression being that his high rate would mean a harder fight on their behalf. A crowd of young black men, eager for an answer, a word, a moment of personal guidance, surrounded him any time he would emerge.
Pazi went to him, but returned dejected.
“Right now I’m afraid. I don’t even know what to say, because I’m confused…I want to talk to him so he can explain to me what to do,” but he was not available.
Pazi was there with a team of his own, for moral support mostly, but for tactical reasons too. His teacher, Silvia, organized his folder of paperwork—language certificates and photocopies of miscellaneous documents. Zill, an interpreter originally from Senegal was approved to join him, translating specialized words in his native language, Wolof.
Everyone else in the corridor though appeared to be alone.
Inside the judge’s quarters, a well-lit but basic administrative office not insulated from the clamor just outside its door, Pazi pled his case. She asked him about Libya.
In Italian, Pazi answered what had happened.
“I told them they beat us, that they killed my friends, they killed my blood brother, that I was tied [up], that they beat my legs. You know, all those things.” He was glad, he said, that she asked him about it, because so much had happened that he has to live with, and he wanted her to understand.
“I told them how I used to eat handfuls of flour with water,” his sole meal of the day in prison, just to survive. He did all of it in Italian, with the exception of an occasional word, and he said the judge was impressed. He accomplished this in just over one year.
He left the room when the hearing had adjourned, relieved. On our way out he met a friend he had not seen since they were both captive in Libya. There is camaraderie even amidst the trauma such a reunion evokes. Neither knew until then that the other had survived.
He dashed out of the cafe after we’d finished our espressos, off to wherever it was the day was taking him. A positive verdict in his asylum case will yield him either two or five year documentation. A final verdict is due out this summer, 2018.
. . .
A few blocks away, German NGO Jugend Rettet (Youth Rescue) had just been handed their verdict, the one over the fate of their impounded rescue ship, the Iuventa.
We had met the day before in Piazza Cavour, in a harried state. Julian Pahlke and Isabel Grahn, their representatives, had flown in from Berlin early that morning on empty stomachs, had just appeared before the Italian court with their lawyers, and were now so exhausted that even the cold bites of tourist-grade risotto we took together at the cafe nearby didn’t offend them.
It seemed only about survival now. They were facing unfounded accusations of collusion with Libyan traffickers at sea, but optimism about their verdict was waning. Even the recent release of the Spanish Open Arms vessel in Sicily days before wasn’t barometer enough to assuage their anxieties.
I received by text a message from a former Jugend Rettet crew member as I left Pazi’s hearing the following day that the Italian courts had denied their ship’s release. Their appeal is pending.
. . .
“You have to learn French,” Ali told me as we made our way down the hill on Via Cavour toward the Coliseum. True that, I wanted to reply, but a flat-faced “oui” with an American accent would have to suffice.
Ali is originally from Senegal, but in his years in Italy has acquired the Italian language, plus a good amount of English, which he uses for work. That’s how I met him, on a street beside a crowded bar in Trastevere where he approached to sell me a beaded bracelet.
He works every day from the late afternoon until almost midnight. On a good day, he’ll walk away with 25, maybe 30 euros. On a bad day, he might earn nothing at all.
He has heard the worst from people on the street shooing him away. The rent on his apartment though—which he shares with five other men––is 600 euros and is due each month regardless of whatever reception he gets from locals and tourists; he is not deterred, but nor could he afford to be.
We met again a few days later before he began his work day, for an interview, and then lunch at a Turkish-run kebab shop near the Jewish Ghetto. It was the best kebab I’ve had yet in Rome, reminding me I can always rely on locals to tell me where to eat.
He made friends with a barkeep in Trastevere who holds his bag while he works. He’s developed a system in that way. So the bag with the shampoo he bought at the pharmacy before lunch, would stay secure, and he wouldn’t have to lug it with him all evening.
A day off of work was rare, but he was doing it that Saturday, his birthday. He would head out with friends for drinks, out to the sort of scene you might find yourself in when a migrant vendor approaches with a trinket or bracelet for sale.
But for now, the evening rush hour was starting, which meant his shift was too. We parted ways in three ways, “Au revoir! Arrivederci! Bye!”
. . .
Prince appeared early one morning on the street in Portuense, the area in southwest Rome where I was living. He was sweeping the street of debris left behind and arranging it in neat piles in a row. This was, however, less a display to the neighborhood’s residents of what they had left unaccounted for, than it was a proof of work, a plea for compensation.
There was a sign for donations and a cup with scant coins beside it.
A journalist friend, a Rome-based correspondent for a Swiss broadcast company who has covered migration, explained migrant street sweepers like these are common. In place of work that requires documentation, Prince, in his early thirties and from Nigeria, had created his own opportunity.
What he would earn sweeping would not be enough to live, we both knew, but he was compelled to do something regardless. “I have to stay busy and I want to give back,” he said.
Like Pazi, he too landed in Lampedusa after escaping Libya on the Mediterranean, being later transferred to Rome, where he currently resides.
Even if it is against the grain of a political force that does not want him and the others to thrive––Pazi, Ali, even the Jugend Rettet team, albeit by different means––they will try anyway. It’s the plain nature of humanity. We should be asking ourselves now what we can do to support it.
Read the MotM Op-Ed:
“Call It By It’s Name: It is A Humanitarian Crisis And It is Not Over” >