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Horrors, fatigue, and hope. Voices from the Centro Astalli in Rome

The refugees’ eyes speak
for themselves

 Per le rifugiate parlano gli occhi  DCM-008
02 September 2023

Joy is not even 20 years old. She has escaped from Nigeria and a horror that words cannot express but scars reveal so well. Joy smiles. Every day she smiles. She arrives at school every morning, sits down and opens her notebook. About the past, she does not speak, but about the future, she has much to say. She wants to learn Italian, study and open her own shop. She wants to fly her sister in and not arrive by sea as she did. Joy never went to school before arriving in Italy. She cannot write or read. She still expresses herself poorly not only because she does not know Italian well but also because she lacks the very experiences that give meaning to words. She has never seen a blackboard, never tasted an ice cream, never stroked a cat, and never ridden a bicycle. Joy has no friends, no family. She comes to school every day, sits and does her lesson, then goes back to the reception centre where she lives and practices her writing. She writes beautiful letters to her Italian teacher, who has known many refugee women and says that Joy has a special light.

Anna is exhausted. She carries a pain on her shoulders so great that it exhausts her. It takes away her thoughts, her sleep and sometimes seems to suffocate her. She fled Eritrea after her husband was killed. Anna had her one-year-old twin daughters with her, so she was not alone. Anna was stuck in Libya, in a cell for a whole year because she had no money to pay the traffickers. A cell so small that she could not lie down but big enough to contain all the evil in the world. Every day the military entered that cell. Every day, in front of the astonished eyes of the desperate girls, horror unfolded. Every day Anna did not scream, she did not cry so as not to frighten them, until her daughters died of exhaustion before her eyes and their lifeless bodies lay beside her, until she managed to get out, board a boat and get to Lampedusa.

For a year, she was hospitalized in Catania, where it was a question of life or death. Anna was pregnant when she arrived in Italy and it was here that Elvira, named after the nurse who cared for her, was born.

Elvira is the meaning of everything. Elvira keeps her mother alive and vice versa. Anna works many hours a day, too many in fact, in a small hotel. Elvira goes to school and then they meet at night in a flat outside Rome. They have recently been evicted, although the rent arrived on time. When the social worker asked her if she is worried, Anna lowers her gaze and whispers that this too shall pass.

There is Fatima too. She sits on a chair and does not want to eat, and does not want to speak. Her body is there but her mind travels far away, back to her home in Iraq. “I can’t answer questions, I have to think about where to sleep tonight, I don’t know where to go, leave me alone”. She is in pain but does not want to be touched by any doctor. She has her pain and has no room for anything else, for anyone. The operators believe she sleeps in an abandoned train. She is hardly lucid and present to herself. She comes every day to the canteen, sits, eats and her body seems to find some relief, sometimes she falls asleep, sometimes she cries silently.

Female asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in Italy alone are mostly victims of violence and abuse in the countries from which they flee and during the journey they undertake. They are mostly very young, without references, with fragile feelings, and the loneliness and fear make them easily fall in love with those who take advantage of them or those who cannot stay with them. They have the right to feel like daughters, but they often find themselves mothers in spite of themselves.

Centro Astalli, which is the Italian branch of the Jesuit Refugee Service, has been working for more than 40 years to guarantee psychological and health support, legal assistance, access to education and the labor market to migrant women. An attempt is also made to give voice to their experience.

The testimonies reported here are the fruit of a dialogue between women. These are refugee women who share their experience with the operators and volunteers who listen to them and accompany them for a stretch of their journey.

By Donatella Parisi
Centre Astalli communication manager