Outside the camps: Helping the Roma in Rome

By Neha Prakash 

Multimedia by Bogdan Mohora

Mira Kostich, Zoran's aunt, and her daughter Dana. Mira holds an icon of Saint Nicholas who is the patron saint of Italy and highly venerated in the Eastern Orthodox faith. | Photo by Bogdan Mohora

ROME — Claudio Betti weaves through a throng of people, both young and old, who have gathered  outside an old Catholic convent  in the Trastevere section of this ancient city. Traces of different languages — Italian, Romanian, Serbian — blend into nondescript words, ultimately drowned out by the nearby street noise.  The people come from many different places but they all are united under the title of Roma, popularly known as gypsies. Here in Rome, as elsewhere in Europe, they are among the poorest of the poor.

Pausing every few steps, Betti struggles to ultimately reach the door. He greets almost each person by name — like a party host making small talk with friends he has lost touch with and ushering others inside his home.

Betti knows many things about these Roma — their age, medical conditions and family members’ names — personal things he easily spouts off when questioned.

Betti reaches Daniel, a boy in his gawky and shy pre-adolescent days. Daniel’s hooded eyes immediately perk up when Betti vigorously shakes his hand and questions him about playing football.

Daniel’s aunt, Shafika, stands smiling a toothless grin. She has raised Daniel for years since his parents abandoned him because they had no way to support him. Shafika took him in despite being severely ill with cancer. Without any form of health care and fear of their illegal status, Daniel had to watch his aunt grow increasingly sick and fragile, until the members of Sant’Egidio welcomed her to their center.

Now, Daniel and his aunt, along with 14 others, live in an apartment above the Comunita di Sant’Egidio receiving free and constant medical care from doctors and Sant’Egidio members who have volunteered their time and resources to care for the Roma and other of Italy’s needy.

For the volunteers, it is the Gospel calling them to help the poor and downtrodden. And for Daniel and Shafika, and the hundreds of other Roma — many illegal, and all poor — who come to Trastevere, the Catholic lay organization of Sant’Egidio is one of the few places in Rome where being Roma does not matter.

It is a place where Betti — the assistant president and a founding member of Sant’Egidio, a born and raised Italian citizen and a devout Catholic — can befriend a group of people who are historically Italy’s most marginalized, hated, victimized and poor neighbors, no matter their religion or immigration status.

Sant’Egidio provides common grounds for the Roma despite even religious differences. Here, some are Catholic, Orthodox and others Muslim, but it does not matter to the Roma and matters even less to Betti.

“These are poor people, and the Gospel calls us to be close to the poor,” Betti says. “Once you become friends you discover very clearly there is no difference.” Betti acknowledges what every Italian seems to know, that the Roma are often involved in crimes, ranging from pickpocketing to organized theft. But he is sympathetic to their plight. “In the conditions they are living I would do exactly the same. If you live in a shantytown all your life and you have no possibility of [improvement], I would steal. Anyone of us would.”

“But this is something that doesn’t touch the ordinary mind of a person,” Betti says. “They think all the gypsies steal, they all are criminals, and many of them are, but they have never been given any other option. So I think this is one of the reasons why we work with them.

“They are our friends,” he says.


The movement began in 1968, when a group of teenage boys banded together to not just speak God’s word but to live God’s work. Sant’Egidio’s mission stems from the parable of the Good Samaritan emphasizing the commandment to “love thy neighbor,” especially the most harmed and helpless of neighbors. The high schoolers declared themselves “protectors of the weak,” and in the past four decades have taken their message and movement to include 40,000 members, spanning 60 countries on four different continents. In 1971, the community settled into the convent in Trastevere.

Fifteen years ago, the community members created a community center, housed in a building apart from the original Trastevere convent, where the poor could come to find solace. On Mondays, the center welcomes immigrants; on Tuesdays, the Italian homeless are invited in; and each Friday, Sant’Egidio opens its doors to about 200 Roma to receive food, clothing, showers, legal aid and medical care. The center is staffed fully by volunteers from the Sant’Egidio community and financially sustained through donations and sponsors.

A few blocks away from the center, sits the Church of Santa Maria where Sant’Egidio holds religious services. Every Monday night it offers vespers for its members and visitors. But the religious life of the community is kept separate from the social service effort. None of the Roma who come for help are asked to join the prayers.

“If they want to pray, we organize prayers, but we would never ask a Muslim to pray like a Christian,” Betti says. “People join the community not because they are helped by the community, but because they desire to be part of it from the heart, not because they owe it to us because we give them money.

“It would be very bad,” he says. “Jesus never bought anybody.”


In 2008, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni — a member of the populist Northern League known widely for their blatant xenophobia and anti-immigration policies — moved to close the 167 Roma camps around Italy. By 2010, Rome’s city officials had prepared 12 camps, or “villages” as city officials called them, on the outskirts of Rome to become home to the 6,000 to 8,000 gypsies, who had previously lived within city boundaries.

Maroni and Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, claimed the illegal camps scattered throughout the city fostered squalid conditions and that the new villages would provide better sources of running water and electricity and would overall minimize risk of public violence against them.

Many of the Roma who now frequent Sant’Egidio are now forced to travel from their new encampments in places like Ardea — a suburb an hour outside the city — for their social services because the villages provide even less resources and more neglect than ever before.

Approximately 1,500 gypsies live in this Ardea camp, the largest government-made Roma village near Rome.  Chain link fences surround the territory creating a distinct boundary between Roma and Italian — not dissimilar from the borders between feuding countries.

Trash cascades from dumpsters and pools on the ground nearby. Laundry hangs from multicolor clothespins on cables and washing machines sit outdoors accompanying propane tanks. Puppies run back and forth chasing children and loose trash tumbling through paved roads. Boxy caravans form zigzag rows for what seems like miles.

View a slideshow of photos about life in the camps and Roma families. Click on photos for captions. | Photos by Bogdan Mohora

The rows of caravans are separated by wrought-iron fences and lay in three sections —the first section houses the Catholic Roma, in the second the Orthodox, and in the third section the Muslim. Much unlike Sant’Egidio where religion comes secondary and resources come first, in this camp, the Roma have aligned themselves on ethnic and religious lines as a way to protect and distribute the minimal resources they receive from the government.

Among the trailers is one where Mira Kostich, an Orthodox woman, and her two daughters live.  The couch on which one of her daughter’s lays sprawled and sleeping juts awkwardly into the entrance space. Kostich’s other daughter Dana runs circles outside, like a dog freed from its unfit cage.

Kostich stands in her shoebox kitchen, a cross hangs from the wall that is covered in rose wallpaper. She is the mother of two, and like all mothers, she finds herself sacrificing things for the betterment of her children.

But this evening Mira had to be selfish.

Because she showered that evening, her daughter did not have enough water to wash herself.

“Life in the camps is atrocious… it’s a bit like the concentration camps in the Holocaust,” says Ian (Xulaj) Hancock, the representative to the United Nations and UNICEF for the Romani people. “People are scrambling for anything they can get. Any type of group loyalty takes second place; the main concern becomes family. And religious differences are exacerbated by the situation.”

Dragan, a community leader and activist within the Roma camp, and an Orthodox Roma, says his family was split up when they were forced to leave Rome (many Roma have several generations living together). Since coming to the camps, he has been trying to contact Amnesty International to help deal with the significant lack of resources, mainly water and electricity, offered to the people within the government encampments.

The Roma also find transportation to and from the camps difficult — the nearest bus stop is 5 kilometers away, and even there, the bus rarely stops to pick up Roma, Dragan says. Because of this, Dragan has created a system for purchasing groceries where his family members often buy food in bulk to resell to other camp members who can’t make it to the city to purchase certain items.

But it is the violence between the different religions Dragan finds most alarming and dangerous for the families living within the camps. Dragan says tensions grow so rapidly within the camps that often squabbles over water will quickly turn into 500-person gang fights involving Roma from other camps as well.

Dragan says when everyone lived in Rome he and the other Orthodox “elders” had good relations and a mutual understanding with the Muslim elders, and this violence was never a concern. He blames the new violence on the younger Muslim generations in the new camps trying to assert some power or dominion over the land and resources.

Betti assigns these violent struggles not to any type of religious bigotry between Muslims, Orthodox and Catholic Roma, but more so a battle of necessity — and ultimately, he says, the fault rests at the feet of the Italian government which has segregated the Roma in the camps.

“These people have been interreligious, interethnic and without borders forever,” Betti says. “They have lived with their neighbors and they have not had issues of religion [in the past]. We are creating those issues.”

“They have created a situation of extreme need,” Betti says of the Italian government. “You will not find two families that will say they don’t have issues with each other. When you have to survive the crisis, you tend to protect what you have, and what you can eventually get…the territory, and you can get violent in that.”

“The war between the poor is always worse than the war between the rich,” he says.

And this war is manifesting itself in several stereotypes within and outside the camps’ lines. Zoran Maksimovic, an Orthodox Roma, used to live in the camps, but moved his family to a home outside the encampment because of the increasing violence. Maksimovic says when living in the camp, his children began getting involved with crimes and drugs. The problem, Maksimovic says, was instigated only by the Muslim Roma in the camps.

One day this past spring, Maksimovic returns to visit his other family members who remain in the camps. As he walks through the Orthodox section of the camp, introducing many onlookers as cousins or aunts and uncles, he stops to point out the Muslim section just visible through the slits in the fence.

“Only their side of the camp has all that,” he says, pointing to graffiti and trash. He defiantly disregards the similar conditions on his side of the fence.

It seems that even here, within the marginalized, there exists a marginalized. That a group surrounded by hatred, ostracism and violence, has breed an incestual prejudice of their own.


Cismic Cassim exists just beyond the fence that Maksimovic previously pointed out. Cassim is a Muslim Roma and acts as another community leader within this camp. He says the problem is not religious and stems from a density of people in the area who can easily involve other family members in the smallest of matters.

“The Rom population, we are different cultures, but in between us, the population Rom, there is total respect,” Cassim says.

Sant’Egidio — often noted for its facilitating of peace talks and dialogues throughout the world — has not stepped in within the camps to help ease any ethnic or religious uprisings. Betti said conflict resolution is this situation would bring about minimal impact, because there needs to be a much larger paradigm shift in the attitude toward the Roma on the outside as well as a betterment in their overall circumstances before the Roma within the camps can stop feuding themselves.

Though Sant’Egidio hasn’t interceded in any official capacity, Dragan said they were previously a large help in arranging meetings with various Italian institutions to discuss the future of the camps. Dragan was currently preparing to meet with a member of Rome’s mayoral office to discuss the Roma’s desire to build another camp in Ardea, which would allow the Orthodox and Muslims to be separated and stop competing for limited resources.

Rome’s Mayoral office did not respond for comment on their willingness to build another camp.


Sant’Egidio, though it is not working to provide conflict resolution, has concerned itself with simply bringing the Roma the basic necessities given to all Italian residents.

“Forcing people to live in conditions as animals in a Western European country is a breach of human rights,” Betti says.

Previously, Sant’Egidio traveled to the camps to provide schooling for Rom children, legal care and even used a caravan to transport medical equipment to tend to the sick in their own homes. Maksimovic noted that Sant’Egidio educated almost all of his children and he feels a great respect for them despite their religious differences.

After realizing the quickly and exponentially expanding needs of the Rome people in the camps, Sant’Egidio brought the resources, community volunteers and Rom together in a centralized location in Trastevere, Rome. The center allowed numerous other facilities that Sant’Egidio couldn’t provide by traveling to the camps. (Sant’Egidio still travels to camps in cities other than Rome, where it would be impossible for the Roma to travel to the center located far away.)

Today, the visitors browse through racks of clothing and shelves of shoes, launder their clothes and pick up bags of pasta and cheese at no cost.

The only requirement Sant’Egidio places on the services is that the Roma register in their system.

The registration cards, Betti says, provide some of the only documentation many of these people will ever have, since several are illegal citizens of Rome. The cards show simple details like birthdays and small photos, and come as a welcome respite from the fingerprinting the government began requiring of the Roma years earlier to help identify them. Betti adds since Sant’Egidio has the largest database of the Roma in the city (the actual computers containing the information are hidden from the Italian government for the protection of the Roma, Betti says), police often turn to him and the other community members for help when identifying dead bodies of Roma or suspected Roma criminals.

The services at Sant’Egidio are plentiful, but not exhaustive; the center turns away many medical patients each week because of limited supplies. Food bags are limited to one per person — children can receive supplies but must be accompanied by a parent — and the clothes which stack the shelves are only opened up to the community at certain times, not constantly.

Watch a video on Sant’Egidio and the volunteers who are committed to helping the Roma. | Photo and video by Bogan Mohora

The center in no way can support the 140,000 to 160,000 of Roma who live in Italy. Betti says the community is already seeking a larger location to house the services in the near future. The current building is struggling to contain the quantity of people coming for help on a regular basis.

The center relies on unpaid volunteers — all members of the Sant’Egidio community — as well as donations from shops and mainly public institutions like the European Union, and is heavily financially supported by the Italian Bishops Conference and the Foreign Bishops Conference (each conference supports different Sant’Egidio projects).

Sant’Egidio does not receive the Italian’s government’s otto per mille (eight per thousand), unless taxpayers specifically indicate on tax forms to donate their annual income tax to Sant’Egidio as a recipient. Even then, the community can only receive cinque per mille (five per thousand), as per Italian tax law.

But the donors, whether they come from the tax or store donations, are not notified of whom exactly their funds or items are assisting, Betti says. And Sant’Egidio feels no need to specify.

“If a person takes a stand of helping they do not make a difference between helping a gypsy or an immigrant or an Italian homeless,” Betti says.

But in a country so plagued by negative sentiment toward the Roma people, Betti agrees the donors would be “more wary” to help the gypsy community. Sant’Egidio has faced severe backlash throughout the country for openly helping the people ostracized by majority groups. Betti says Sant’Egidio has been called “not Catholic enough” for their non-proselyting approach.  Sant’Egidio invites all faiths and ethnicities into its’ centers and extends help with a secular hand. The center, which was built as a testament to the Second Vatican’s call for more involvement of lay people in church and good works, showcases no outward religious symbols.

Unlike many public areas of Italy, crucifixes are not found hanging on walls and there is no mandatory religious participation of the people who accept the help. Their symbol is simply a white dove flying over a rainbow.

The center even stands separated from the church in which the members celebrate traditional Catholic services.

Sant’Egidio — a lay organization officially recognized by the Vatican — it seems, is attempting a separation of church and state in a country that has historically tangled and twisted the two.

Hancock, the Unicef representative concerned with the Roma, says that historically “established religions,” — he notes Christianity and Islam as the main perpetrators — have not been welcoming to the Roma community, even excluding them from prayer services or excommunicating priests for performing marriages between Roma couples. Situations like this, Hancock says, have led Roma to shy from being resolute in their religious practices and instead align their spirituality with that of the country’s dominant population.

“It’s a means of survival to at least appear to be part of the society,” Hancock says.

The Holy See Office for the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People provides the Catholic Church with guidelines on how the Roma should be treated, integrated and evangelized. Its last statement on the subject, released in 2005, includes some harsh words and advice on Roma culture. It says in part:

“The Church recognizes [Roma] right to have their own identity, and works to achieve a greater justice for them, respecting their culture and healthy traditions. But rights and duties go together, and therefore also the Gypsies have duties towards other peoples.

Moreover, education, professional training and personal initiatives and responsibility are indispensable prerequisites for achieving a dignified quality of life for Gypsies, all elements of human promotion. Equal rights for men and women should likewise be promoted, eliminating all forms of discrimination… In this sense, any attempt to assimilate the Gypsy culture, and dissolve it in that of the majority, should be rejected.”

Dragan largely dismissed the document.  “The Vatican only cares about the Catholics, he says. As an Orthodox, he says the major Orthodox Church in Rome does not have enough resources to provide help to the Roma at the capacity that Sant’Egidio is able to. Additionally, Dragan says there are no specifically Roma priests in the area to educate children about their faith. The Roma community is particularly worried that traditions and customs will slowly begin to die down, he adds.

Cassim, the Muslim Roma camp leader, says that it is for their own house of worship that these Roma wish for, somewhere, that won’t elicit stares of pity or whispers of racism when families wish to pray together. At some point, in the struggles to worship, even the denomination of the higher being loses its significance to the Roma.

“It is important for the kids to believe in God,” he says. “Whether they believe in Orthodoxy or Islam, they need to believe in something.”


It is into this somewhat religious vacuum that Sant’Egidio has stepped in to offer some form of religious and spiritual presence to the Roma.

Betti says on major feast days, especially the feast of Saint George — a saint worshipped largely by Roma worldwide —Sant’Egidio members (all Catholic) will perform an Orthodox mass in the camps, where Betti says, often several of the Muslim Roma will also be in attendance to celebrate the day. To Betti, this peaceful coexistence should be emulated in all parts of the world. To others, the blatant disregard for doctrinal rules of worship could seem borderline blasphemous.

To Maksimovic, Sant’Egidio, he says, is one of the only places he and his family have been allowed to “be themselves” — a task achieved by a community which is sewn from the same societal fabric that so doggedly and stubbornly has woven a country that inherently rejects immigrant assimilation, especially that of the Roma.

“Racism against gypsies, it is compared to anti-Semitism,” Betti says. “Anti-gytism, it is called in Italy, is extremely strong. It matches, or is even more powerful than, anti-Semitism. “The judgment against gypsies is so bad they face difficulties on all levels… It’s a mentality, it’s a culture that they think gypsies are so different from everyone. It’s a hatred for what is different.

“We live in a myth that [gypsies] want to roam around. They are forced to do it because nobody wants to settle down next to them. They would love to integrate but they just cannot.

“Try to find a house as a gypsy, try to find a job,” Betti says. “You can’t.”


Maksimovic and his family have long faced these problems of joblessness and racism. His son recently lost his job as a chef because he was discovered to be a Roma and his son-in-law was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit,  Maksimovic says. Maksimovic was born in Serbia and has lived in Italy for the past four decades. His children were all born and raised in Italy and some of them have even married Italians.

He is still not considered a legal Italian citizen.

Pablo Naso, an Italian activist for immigrant rights, says the negative attitudes toward gypsies stem in part from the stringent anti-immigration policies of the former Prime Minister Silvo Berlusconi. These were built on the idea that if immigrants were given opportunities and assistance to integrate it would encourage more immigrants to enter the country. Instead, Berlusconi’s government made any assimilation nearly impossible.

But with the days of Berlusconi’s government behind it, Italy is en route for a gradual, but nonetheless, significant transformation. Naso says the right-winged Northern League is now in opposition, allowing for a much more free public discourse, especially about the Roma.

He adds he is optimistic for the future of the Roma’s social inclusion, saying he sees dramatic differences possible in the next 10 years as long as the Roma also create a “mutual bilateral process” of integration, ultimately being committed to sending children to schools, learning Italian and getting regular jobs.

Sant’Egidio is integral in shaping this new public discourse. In November 2011, Andrea Riccardi, the founder of Sant’Egidio was appointed minister for International Cooperation and Integration Policies within Mario Monti’s new government.

Riccardi’s presence within the government already points toward a new era of social Catholicism and open-mindedness nearly nonexistent before. Though Naso says Riccardi has already opened up several doors to immigrant integration, including visiting the Mosque of Rome, Riccardi’s efforts to rally support to change policy surrounding the Roma community has been near impossible to achieve, Betti says.

Riccardi has attempted, on more than one occasion, Betti says, to introduce legislation or a dialogue about the integration of Roma into society; it has repeatedly faced strong opposition. There would be a public outcry against politicians for putting services into place or providing funding for Roma housing before the needs of the Italian homeless and needy, Betti says.

So for the time being, Riccardi’s involvement with the Roma is limited to the resources and social services that grow out of Trastevere each Friday.


Aside from the social services that Sant’Egidio provides, it offers one other tradition to all who pass its gates in Trastevere. As 6 p.m. arrives each night, members and visitors alike stand still and observe a moment of silence.

For 60 seconds, all activity ceases, only church bells clamor throughout the city. The solitary minute acts as a universal call to pause and remember the poor and needy among us. It is a moment that all people, Roma or Italian, rich and poor, need.


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