by Juan David Aristizabal and Marissa Wenzke
Welcoming three Syrian migrant families from Greece into the Vatican last month, Pope Francis has made the Church a leader in assisting refugees in Europe.
“All of us together, Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Copts, Evangelical [Protestant] brothers and sisters — children of the same God — we want to live in peace, integrated,” the pope said during Holy Thursday mass in March, after washing and blessing the feet of migrants from parts of Africa and the Middle East.
The pope has given public displays of support for a population that has faced discrimination and difficult prospects for opportunity in Italy. On May 5, he received the international Charlemagne Prize honoring unity and solidarity in Europe for his work. The Church runs a number of charities helping refugees in Italy, which saw the arrival of 92,000 migrants last year alone, according to its National Institute for Statistics.
Italy’s Bossi-Fini Law requires immediate deportation of immigrants without the proper residency paperwork, but the government has wavered in actual enforcement of the law. In fact, the Italian Coast Guard has rescued tens of thousands arriving by sea since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration.
But recent border closures and deportations in Greece have made migration routes into Italy’s southern borders even more common. As countries such as Austria propose armed troops and fencing along borders, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has called for economic agreements with African countries to cut back the number of arriving migrants.
In the meantime, Italy’s strict immigration laws and a lack of government-run resources have resulted in thousands of migrants struggling to find basics like work and housing. Complicating matters are the country’s poor economy and its ethnically and religiously homogenous population, giving rise to extreme right-wing parties such as the Northern League.
As a result, Italian immigrants often find refuge not in the government, but in religious organizations such as the Catholic Church, local mosques and the Waldensians. Many Catholic charities provide essentials like food, job assistance, housing, and sometimes, even legal, medical and psychological services.
Still, many immigrants struggle to find stable work or even a place to sleep, and many of the people frequenting charity centers are men in their 20s and 30s still on the search for employment. Reporting from Rome and Turin in Italy, these are a few of their stories.
Amadou Jallow, 29
The chill of winter in northern Italy has warmed into a summery March day at the abandoned Olympic Village in Turin, where Amadou Jallow is outside squinting and smiling brightly in the sun. He’s holding the story of his journey from Africa to Italy, which he typed inside an Italian refugee camp.
Originally from Gambia, Jallow left the country in 2009 and travelled throughout northern Africa before reaching the Sahara Desert. For three days, he walked through the desert by foot. The heat was scorching and many other migrants were killed by dehydration.
“In my life, I never see dead bodies like this — maybe only on TV or something else,” he said of seeing their bodies on the sands of the Sahara.
Once in Libya, Jallow settled and found work in construction. But his time there was cut short by the uprising that same year, in 2011. That year, the civil war and overthrow of brutal dictator Muammar Gaddafi left at least 30,000 dead, according to estimates from the country’s former health ministry.
Throughout the bloodshed, black Africans like Jallow faced discrimination and violence from other Libyans, he said.
“They said the blacks are the ones helping Gaddafi,” he said. “So if they see you are black, they will kill you.”
Within months, he fled Libya and crammed into a boat with other migrants. They ended up in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy. An Italian rescue team saved him and others, taking them to a Red Cross camp in nearby Bari.
Jallow now lives at the abandoned Olympic Village in Turin, where he finds resources like schooling and food through the organization of students and local residents that serves the village’s residents — Ex Moi. A Muslim, he said he lives in peace among the other religions and ethnicities at the village. And he’s grateful for them, the volunteers’ help, and for his own survival of a trans-continental journey.
“The things I pass by — I see my people die, but I don’t die,” he said. “So I say, ‘Thank God.’”
But Jallow still struggles to find a regular job in Turin. He has only found an occasional gig selling newspapers. It pays 25 euros a day for about nine to 10 hours of work.
“I like Italy but the problem is no work,” he said. “I’m here four years now and never work in Italy.”
Amit Saha, 27
After escaping religious persecution in Bangladesh, Amit Saha has found a new home in Rome.
Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he practices Hinduism. He fled Bangladesh because he said extremist Muslims there were trying to kill him. Living in Rome since 2013, he said he finds relief in Italy.
“I am living with my Muslim brothers, Catholics and other religions. Here, we all respect each other for who we are and who we believe in,” he said.
He has faced other troubling issues in Rome, which he would not describe further. But he still managed to get asylum papers after living in Italy for five months. In 2013, when he first came, the number of refugees living in Italy seemed lower than it is today, he said.
Amid this considerable rise in migration, Italy have struggled to provide enough resources and opportunity.
“This country was not ready for us. We are so many refugees,” Saha said.
Nevertheless, he has found a sense of community among fellow immigrants in Rome.
“All of us have different stories and reasons to come to Europe,” Saha said. “We are so different, but we share one thing — we came looking to save our lives.”
Mohammad Nabash, 29
At Rome’s Piazza Venezia, Mohammad Nabash spends his days texting and chatting online with friends and family back home in Iran.
He visits the piazza to use a free Wi-Fi spot through his phone, arriving in the mornings to speak with Juliana, his wife who lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. Despite a five-hour time difference, their love continues to evolve through difficult times. Nabash traveled from Iran to Rome two months ago and is one of the 150,000 immigrants who have arrived in Italy since 2014 seeking asylum, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The conflict between the Iranian government and ISIS forced him to leave his homeland, Nabash said, where he had a family and work.
“My father had a small market, and I worked with him,” Nabash said. “Here, I am looking for a job.”
His days in Iran now over, he sees Italy as his new country.
“This country and the Catholics are doing everything for me,” he said. “They gave me my papers and I have food thanks to them.”
Nabash is one of the 90 refugees served by Centro Astalli in Rome, which is run by the Jesuit Refugee Service. Although he was born Muslim, he said he would consider converting to Christianity.
“The Church is good. They help people. I could be Christian,” Nabash said, trying to explain his gratitude.
During the last few weeks, he has been looking for a job. He plans to learn Italian so he can finally find work.
“I know how to sell things. I am a good worker,” he said,
His love, Julia, is waiting for that job too, because she will travel to Rome once he’s employed. He hopes one day they will have a life of opportunity in Italy.
Zatgai Sulozai, 24
A journey from the Middle East to Italy was supposed to give Zatgai Sulozai new opportunities, escaping war and poverty in his homeland of Afghanistan.
But like many other immigrants, he has struggled to find work in a country where the unemployment rate now tops 12 percent, according to EU estimates.
Two years ago, Sulozai made his last prayer in Afghanistan at Kabul International Airport. He was heading to Italy and knew the trip would take at least two months. To prepare, he saved money for a year and borrowed the rest from his family. He left behind his entire family and flew into Iran. From there, he took a train to Turkey.
Sulozai, 22-years-old at the time, knew it was risky but felt he’d find a better future in Italy.
“I knew here could be difficult, but here is better than there,” he said, standing outside a Catholic-run charity center in Rome.
From Turkey, he travelled to Bulgaria and then through Serbia and Montenegro, arriving by boat in Bari, Italy. For three months, he crossed multiple countries and borders to finally arrive in his new city: Rome.
Sulozai said he decided to settle in Italy because he felt safe and protected there.
“This country has better options for us. I already have legal papers,” he said. “The government did allow me to stay.”
After living in Rome for two years, he is still learning Italian. But he has no job, nor a place to develop new skills or education. And he has trouble finding a place to sleep.
“There is no hope for me here. But at least I am living,” Sulozai said. “The pope is good. His church helps us, but no job — no job for us.”