War refugees rot at "Salaam Palace"
ROMA OSTIENSE – As the train slowly entered the station, I spotted laundry at the end of a platform. Are they back? Would he be among them?
I knew the authorities had cleared the station. Though the excited tourists and busy commuters had never minded the lethargic refugees, the police had evicted them. The stakes were high: food chain “Eataly” was to open its flagship store in a terminal. The refugees who were fainting from hunger had to make room for a gourmet store.
I met Haile four years ago, the day I had to get my “codice fiscale”. When I asked him for directions, he was keen to walk me to the tax office. “I know all about paperwork,” he said. Haile, a friendly young Ethiopian with funny dreadlocks, enjoyed asylum status. Italy had become his home country, a railway platform his home.
He advised me to take a ticket for a corporate “codice fiscale”, as I would avoid the long queue and the public officer would still help me. Barely half an hour later, we were having coffee. Haile did know about paperwork!
Walking back to the station Haile, wearing a ragged woollen sweater and corduroy trousers, asked me to buy him a meal: “I feel ashamed having to queue at the food bank.”
Although I would meet many immigrants during my further stay in Rome, I would not again get to know a refugee.
I jumped off the train just before the doors closed. Apart from the laundry, the platform was clear. A railwayman told me that the authorities had moved the refugees to a makeshift camp. I knew that Rome counted 6000 homeless refugees. I had noticed homeless immigrants roaming the centre by day and always wondered where they spent the night. What would have become of Haile?
In Via Carlo Tommaso Odelscalschi, a man was sitting on a chair before an entry in the stone wall. He became weary when I enquired about the refugees – the neighbourhood protests against the camp.
I told him I was looking for an old friend. He then informed me that asylum seekers could only spend the night in Rome’s 19 refugee centres. By day, the centres do not accommodate them. Moreover, the accommodation is only temporary: documented refugees can stay up to 30 days. After that, they are on their own. They squat large buildings in the East of Rome. My best chance would stand in the biggest of them all, near the Romanina shopping centre.
Riding my bike on the bridge across the orbital road, I could see a massive building complex. It contrasted with the surrounding office buildings: whereas many of its reflecting windows stood open, curtains and newspapers covered the windows that remained closed. Cables hanging from the windows ended in satellite dishes on the lower entry’s rooftop.
On the parking lot, medical units were buzzing. Two men tried to repair the engine of a van. Movers had put up an electronic ladder to the second floor.
All the time, people were entering and leaving the estate. At the gate, everybody greeted "Salaam".
Salaam Palace takes its name from the Arab word for peace. A thousand Ethiopians and Eritreans, nationalities that quarrel at home, live here in harmony.
Since the city council tried to clear the building and cut off the electricity, the residents are diffident towards strangers. Newcomers need an introduction.
I passed the gate.
Lately, the EU human rights commissioner visited Salam Palace and wrote a report. He points out Italy’s “serious shortcomings” in the integration of refugees. Compared to Northern European countries, Italy hardly provides welfare benefits such as housing, training or employment.
Italy approves thirty percent of all asylum requests, but provides only three thousand beds. The Arab Spring, however, turned Italy into Europe’s main gateway, and Rome into its waiting room. The numbers exploded: from 10,050 requests in 2010 to 34,120 in 2011. The government immediately declared a North Africa Emergency period and provided an extra thousand beds.
Because the homeless and squatters do not have a valid address, they cannot claim the benefits their papers entitle them to. The commissioner mentions “lives below minimal subsistence standards.”
The Salam Palace organisation keeps a register. There were many Haile’s. I did not know Haile’s last name or his birth date but none of them were in his age category. If he is Ethiopian, the person in charge suggested, than I might try an older squat, Natnet.
On Via Emilio Longoni, I was pedalling on the narrow bicycle lane. Almost too late, I noticed two young men walking towards me. I pulled my breaks a few inches short of them. We nearly bumped into each other.
“Sorry,” one of them said in English.
I told them not to worry and asked whether they were all right.
They asked me where I was from. The men, apparently African refugees, seemed eager to speak English.
“Belgium,” I said. “Up north.”
“The North,” they sighed. “Norway, the UK, Denmark. That’s where we would like to be. But we can’t. Because of Dublin, you know.”
In the following ten minutes, I learnt about the Dublin Regulation. This law obliges European countries to deport refugees to the country where they first applied for asylum. The border police fingerprint upon arrival in Europe. Refugees compare the Dublin fingerprint identification system with a virus: “Dublin is AIDS.”
I turned into Via Collatina. In the court of a service station, blacks were offering to clean cars for money. A large worn-out building was looming across the street – a fortress, its gate closed and its reflecting windows impenetrable.
Over seven hundred Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees are squatting this building which they baptised “natnet”, freedom. The building, however, is unstable: built on a water slope, it threatens to collapse.
Satellite dishes seem to be the only connection to the outside world. Some of the squatters have been living here for a decade and still do not speak Italian. Families with children cohabit with former child soldiers suffering from severe psychological disorders.
Entering the building, the two men had told me, I would discover an interior city: a Pentecostal church, two restaurants and a supermarket. The door numbers act as house numbers.
Will Natnet share the same faith as Pantanella? In the early nineties, 2500 squatters turned the abandoned Pantanella pastry mill into Europe’s largest squat. Starting as a modern Tower of Babel, the various ethnicities gradually organised themselves and rearranged the building. It housed a mosque, an Italian language school, restaurants and a food market.
The authorities eventually evicted the squatters. Many of them dispersed over Rome’s periphery.
Up the road, on the terrace of bar Valery, all day refugees kill time drinking beer. Many use Natnet as a base to try their chance in Northern Europe. Some manage to settle abroad. But when their fingerprints are run against the database, the authorities deport them to Italy. Some families end up living in two different countries. It takes an asylum seeker 15 years to acquire Italian citizenship and hence freedom of movement. In order to bypass the Dublin Regulation some refugees burn their fingertips.
Haile might be anywhere. I could try Rome’s other squats: 200 people occupy an old factory in Via Prenestina, 120 families a former rest home in Casal Boccone…
I last saw Haile in San Lorenzo, near the Salvation Army. Most refugees do not remain in large squats, but move to micro sediments or survive on their own on the streets. Near Ponte Mammolo lives a commune of Eritrean and Ethiopian men.
Palmiro Togliatti Avenue shoots over Ponte Mammolo station. Noisy cars and lorries rush over the avenue, below it lies a settlement. In 2003, five Peruvian families settled here. Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees soon joined them and founded the Peace Community.
Under a drizzle, young men were sitting idly on the parking lot facing the settlement. Suddenly, one of them crossed the road. First, he looked left and right as to ensure nobody saw him, and then he sneaked into the camp. I followed him at a distance.
The camp’s entrance is a breach between two rusty corrugated iron sheets, one carrying a ‘No Entry’ sign.
The Peace Community breathes a peculiar silence. Elementary brick constructions and shacks of corrugated iron alternate with wooden sheds and tents. Shaky garden screens separate the units. Dozens of shopping trolleys cling together. Rats cross the dusty paths. Although I did not pass anybody, I could feel eyes on me.
The Peace Community is hardly organised. It lacks electricity, heating and running water.
The refugees, who started a new life in Rome, do not receive any medical care. Ironically, the camp borders a research centre of the San Gallicano hospital. This hospital initially treated pilgrims; now it provides health care to Italy’s immigrant populations.
When I walked through a stretch that separates the camp from cosy cottages, three hounds of Baskerville broke the silence. No sign of the inhabitants behind the barricaded windows and high steel fencing. Perhaps they fear another Rosarno? After the infamous shootings, many refugees who worked the plains of Rosarno bought a one-way ticket to Rome.
The North Africa Emergency period will end this year and the extra beds will disappear. In the Lazio region, another 2700 refugees will become homeless.
I noticed an iron gate with a nice bell on top of it. The letterboxes next to it carried Spanish names. The gate leads to the section of the original residents. Over time, they have raised brick houses. Children were playing on the stone parking lot. A car arrived. The residents were having visitors, just like an Italian family.
I went to the local supermarket to buy food. A tall Ethiopian security guard was watching the entry. When I greeted him, he looked puzzled for a moment, but then he smiled and greeted me back. “Salam”.
These people have crossed oceans and deserts. They do not want to be pampered in prison-like centres operating a schedule. Among them, there are qualified doctors and engineers. When the Association of Small & Medium Enterprises lately complained that it could not find the right people to fill thirty thousand vacancies, an aid agency remarked that many refugees would easily qualify.
By the time I left the supermarket, the drizzle had turned into a downpour. I went to Ponte Mammolo station to look for shelter. Passing under the avenue, I distinguished blankets and sheets of cardboard.
On the bus platform, a Romanian man was shouting at a bus driver. The driver had told him to get off the bus. It clearly was a misunderstanding: the driver had finished his shift. As if to prove something, the man waved his papers. When he finally gave up and walked away, he chucked a beer can at the bus, leaving a trail of white foam on the pavement. Nobody paid the slightest attention
Meanwhile, vendors were selling cheap clothes and electronics in front of the station. They gesticulated heavily. Among them were Ethiopians wearing the Brazil outfit. The commuters halted to inspect the wares. Italian women tried to bargain. The vendors flattered them the Italian way: “E’ buona come te!”
I did not find Haile that day. Nor have I run into him since in Ostiense or San Lorenzo.
Haile, clever as he is and having a good command of Italian, must have broken that vicious circle of refugee centres and illegal squats. A volunteer organisation most likely got him a job.
He might even be abroad – some European courts now refuse to send asylum seekers back to Italy.
I am quite sure that, sooner or later, he would cross that bridge between immigrants and natives. In San Lorenzo, he had become the mascot of two different female students. Maybe he has already settled and raised a family!