· Vatican City ·

Once a refuge for persecuted Jews, the convent of the Franciscan Sisters in Rome is today a haven for refugees

A place of safety for the oppressed

 A place of safety for the oppressed  ING-024
16 June 2023

“Do you live here too”? “Yes of course, this house is all ours”. “Yours”? “Yes, but it is at the disposal of those in need”. “So you are good people”. Surprised, the young Somali woman, beautiful and veiled in the Muslim custom, takes a closer look at that woman, who is also wearing a veil like her, with whom she has decided to exchange her first words.

Asha arrived in Rome from a refugee camp on a Greek island, where she gave birth beneath a plastic tent that protected her neither from the cold, nor from the animals and people. After leaving Somalia, driven away by her husband who no longer wanted her, Asha, who is just over 20 years old, set out on the sea route, going first through the hell of Libya, and ending up in the black hole of the island of Lesvos, the migrant camp where in her desperation, she thought she had come to the end of her useless race.

There were days without hope, filled with chaos, terror and noise beneath the plastic tent, clutching her daughter whom she protected like a lioness, while another was growing in her womb to be delivered in this endless danger. Asha has sturdy arms like many young Somali women. But she has never known goodness. She asks the veiled woman: “Where are your children”? “I don’t have children”, she replies. “And where is your man”? “I don’t have a husband”. “No man? No”? Asha’s eyes open wide. “No. No man. I am consecrated to God”.

Asha, who was found beneath that tent belonging to the Community of Sant’Egidio, eventually made it to Rome, arriving at the convent of the Franciscan Sisters of Mercy. With Noor and Fatima, 6 and 3 years old, she is taken to the second floor, where she sets up her belongings in a room that, unbeknownst to her, many years earlier, in 1943, was made accessible to other mothers, to other fleeing children: oppressed people saved from the Nazi-Fascist persecutions by people who risked their lives for them.

Asha does not know it, but for years, the family of women without a man, has been responding to a vocation: to be a rescue boat for anyone fleeing from evil, with a boarding dock on Via Poggio Moiano 8, in the northern periphery of the city of Rome. There is a door there that, if times become difficult, is opened, no questions asked. A story that began on the brink of the end of the Second World War, when the Nazis hunted down Roman Jews, door-to-door, to load them into trains headed for Auschwitz. Destination final extermination.

However, in the Nazi-occupied Rome of 1943, news was circulated among the convents of one of the Pope’s “wishes”: to hide the Jewish people, who were hunted by the Nazis with the complicity of Italian Fascists who had compiled a list of Romans to find. The convent at Via Poggio Moiano 8, had already been opened when the Mother Superior at the time, Mother Elisabetta, wrote in her diary about the Pope’s wish that the oppressed be given refuge. Not all the Roman convents responded. At Via Poggio Moiano, however, the Pope’s wish was almost foreseen.

The first to arrive was an elementary school teacher. Then families on the run. All were hidden on the second floor, in the seven rooms concealed from the hunters’ sight, where the sisters entrusted the persecuted to Our Lady of Luxembourg to watch over them, but not without having first asked for permission from their Jewish guests. With courage and boldness they hid them in the same rooms that, until 3 October had been occupied by the ss and turned into a field hospital. And it was precisely their boldness that came to their aid every time the black squads showed up to conduct searches, which the sisters would foil with white lies and reckless improvisation, until the ss would leave, deceived.

In times of peace, the convent saw the beginning of the Saint Francis pre-school and elementary school. Generations of children, myself included, who grew up in those classrooms, lining up on the black lines along which the armed ss had lined up on 3 October 1943. None of those peacetime children ever knew, until 2019 (when “L’Osservatore Romano” revealed it) the hidden story of that family of women who taught them the loving tenderness of Jesus and Francis, and not to ever ever lose hope.

But war was on the horizon. Ready to rise and become total. Corruption, arms trafficking, crazy weather, profound destabilization in Africa, the Middle East, the persecutions of totalitarian regimes, created new oppressed people. Thus the door at Via Poggio Moiano 8, naturally opened again for the oppressed, who were no longer Romans like in 1943, but Romanians, Russians, Ukrainians, Somalis, Congolese, Syrians, Afghans, Rom.

There are currently 12 guests in the seven rooms that were once used by the ss and later by Jewish refugees. The Franciscan Sisters of Mercy put the second floor at their disposal. And people come and go from every corner of the world. Children show up, some are born there. Mothers arrive, burdened with pain, with children born in fear, sometimes from violence, experienced as an inevitable fatality. The convent is once again a hospital where broken human beings are cared for. A vessel that in secret, will always be ready to welcome aboard, at Via Poggio Moiano 8, “the oppressed” of every war.


Chiara Graziani