ROME, Italy — It almost feels like we’re the refugee camp paparazzi. A mob of reporters are bombarding a small group of refugees with questions about rape, forced labor, human trafficking and smuggling, eager to find stories about the horrors they’ve endured.
We are in Rome, Italy for the 19 Million Project, a summit sponsored by Fusion and Univision involving journalists, coders, designers, digital strategists and human rights advocates who have come together to draw attention to the refugee crisis consuming Europe. As part of the two week conference, we are visiting Camp Baobab, a refugee center that faces a huge cemetery in the Roman neighborhood of Tiburtino. Last month Baobab hosted some 900 immigrants, most of them men fleeing brutal dictatorship, violence and forced army conscription in Eritrea, a small nation in the horn of Africa.
“All Human Beings Are Born Free,” reads a welcome banner at the shelter’s main entrance. A Baobab volunteer scolds us as we go on a picture-snapping frenzy. The refugees seem uncomfortable, they don’t want to be photographed or asked the same questions over and over. (The photos included in this story were taken with permission of the subjects.)
The reporters are relentless: ‘Why did you leave? Where are you going?’ Many of the refugees will leave in a few days hoping to reach Germany and Scandinavia, which have more welcoming policies toward refugees and migrants than Italy. It seems the worst part of the trip is now behind them. But we want to know how they crossed hell and what happened when they crossed it. Most don’t want to remember, repeat, or be victimized. They would rather talk about Reggae and Bob Marley, Facebook and Instagram, Italian fashion and soccer.
“They are plain people, like us,” says Pamela DeLargy, an advisor to the U.N. Special Representative for Migration who spoke at the 19 Million conference. “As numbers expand, it’s much harder to see people as individuals. We tend to think of them as some other people, somebody not like me,” she said. But they are like us; they want to talk hair, shoes, smartphones and music. And it’s these anecdotes that seem much more revealing than the human misery.
“Everyone want the Balotelli look,” says Fastum, a 30-year-old Eritrean teacher turned hair stylist who now runs the camp’s barbershop. Immigrants living in the shelter and the city walk into his shop looking to get the latest style, most young men requesting the same haircut of Italian soccer astro Mario Balotelli. The A.C. Milan striker and son of Ghanian immigrants is an inspiration for many Eritreans; the living proof an African can make it big in Europe.
If they’re not in the mood for a mini-mohawk, they can choose one of the 19 Eritrean hairstyles depicted on a poster in Fastum’s wall. “Work well for curly hair,” he says of the different styles he masters. When he’s not using scissors and an old-school razor to align beard with hair, Fastum does plenty of dying.
“Many are so much time in the water that when they arrive hair is yellow,” he explains. He’s just done the hair of a young man and a child.
To get to Italy, Eritreans must cross the Sahara Desert and then the Mediterranean Sea. Many travelers end up having to swim long distances, and many drown. Last April, some 800 immigrants perished in a boat that sank just off the coast of Libya.
Yellow strips of hair are painful mementos that Fastum dyes back to black.
A PAIR OF NIKES
When Fatsum gets a day off he is subbed in by Medhani Estifanos, a 26-year-old Eritrean who’s got a weakness for red skinny pants and Nike sneakers. “Yours look kind of girls,” he says and points to his brand new shoes as a better example of what a young hip man should wear.
Shoes are not only fashion but also something that occasionally serves as currency at the shelter. “Shoes are a priority as many arrive wearing flip-flops,” says Sandra Mazzucco, a neighborhood volunteer at Baobab. “A lot of them arrive with old, battered-looking, what-were-once-shoes on their feet.”
They come with injuries or covered in gangrene after spending months sleeping in the open air or in contact with water. Many show up with frozen extremities. By the time they arrive at the shelters, they’ve been wearing ill-fitting shoes or sandals for months. “We receive huge amounts of donations, but shoes are a precious item,” said Mazzucco.
Shoes are mobility, but also status. Estifanos sports his flashy Nikes with great pride. He says they cost him a little more than a 100 euros at a shop in Rome’s Termini Station.
THE MUSIC IN YOUR SMARTPHONE
People need distractions. People need to escape.
Abderrahim, Bilal, and Abdo, are passing through Baobab on their way to France. They’re traveling on their own – the rest of their family is back home in Morocco. Their cell phones serve as a portal to those who stayed behind. They’ve got Facebook, Whatsapp, Viber, Instagram, Snapchat and will soon download new apps that are being developed by NGOs to help them navigate through Europe. But most of their phone’s memory is used to store music.
They play several of their favorite rap songs, and start freestyling and dancing. It’s a common sight at Baobab. One song tells the story of a man’s journey by boat and trip through Italy – a reminder of the journey they are facing themselves.
Niger immigrant Ibrahim, 30, says music can ease the pain. “When you have nothing, you will free your mind,” he said. “You put everything inside you out and come free,” he said. “Music like drugs.” Ibrahim moves his arms and waist to the rhythm of Arabic Hip-hop.
Baobab’s young men gather in the living room, they rap for the ladies, freestyle. For a moment all else is forgotten, they are amused, they laugh at themselves. “People here they do parties. They dance together,” said Ibrahim. “When sometimes DJ play Eritrean music depending nationality, they put music and come and dance in this area.”
As they rap and dance, the women glance at the men with sparkling flirtation. We can’t help but notice this scene could belong back in the U.S. or in any other country. They are not others. Immigrants. Refugees. They are just like us. It is only their ballsy journey across the Mediterranean and Europe which makes them extraordinary.
Video interview by Daniel Bacchieri and Pedro Alvarez.
Photographs by Kent Hernandez.