Tellus: (tel’us), n. 1. [Latin] earth, soil, and the land; a country; the world. 2. a collection of Willamette University student’s insights, stories, photos and thoughts from their experiences studying abroad.

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Lives In Transit

Migrant Live Matter March-September 11, 2015 (Rome, Italy)

Migrant Live Matter March-September 11, 2015 (Rome, Italy)

Lives In Transit

With dusk barely showing its presence through the tendrils of the low-hanging Banyan tree, the evening’s hostess, one of the managers of the hostel that was holding tonight’s event, began to light the candles that were at the center of the walled courtyard. They cast a soft orange glow through the various tropical plants and trees growing in this compressed garden. People lined every inch of the place—not uncomfortable, but intimate. The faces of the two storytellers, one Afghani and the other Malian, were lit entirely from the light of the candles; the rest of the audience was in a half-light. Sitting above most, on a narrow terrace I had an overhead view of the garden that lie between the hostel and the busy avenue just over the property wall. It was September but the summer heat still seemed to warm the evening—maybe a lost current from across the Mediterranean.

The event was called “Refugees Stories” and was put on by a hostel of considerable size and sponsored by Paul’s Place Project, a program to house refugees around the city of Rome. I attended the event with several fellow volunteers all of whom had been volunteering weekly at the Noel Nafuma Refugee Center since the beginning of the academic semester, which was now in its fifth week. Studying in Rome for a little more than three months I had yet to actually leave the Eternal City and subsequently found my Friday mornings volunteering at the refugee center as an opportunity to interact with individuals from places not only beyond Rome and Italy but continental Europe.

“On your postcards, please write what comes to mind when you think of Rome”, said the storyteller from Mali. The audience shared their descriptors. Romans wrote things like “traffic”, “tourists”, and “congestion”. Tourists wrote “romance”, “history”, and “empire”. On my postcard with a picture of the Colosseum on the other side, I, an amateur student of art history, wrote “Heart of The Western Civilization”. “Now write what comes to mind when I say migrant”, the storyteller told us. His eyes seemed distant. He had lived through things many of us couldn’t imagine; it was an impenetrable and unwavering look. With the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s pale face on a Turkish beach fresh in most of the attendee’s minds, some of the most weighted descriptors like “poverty”, “violence”, and “war” were evoked. Some Italians, who found identity with their migrant roots, said “family” and “heritage”. Seeing the faces of the refugees brave enough to share their stories under the dim candle flicker I thought about the ones I had read about. But also about those whose stories didn’t reach the media and who were faceless in a sea of statistics. Approved for asylum, rejected for asylum, deported, alive, or deceased: they all had stories but not as far as statistics were concerned. Next to “The Heart of The Western Civilization” I wrote “Vulnerable”.

To reach the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center one must take a bus to the Chiesa di San Paolo Dentro le Mura. This Gothic-Revival Church built by an English architect in the 19th century is hidden down an unassuming alley only a few blocks from the swarms of travelers and tourists who frequent Termini Station. Our group of twenty (mostly veteran and mostly Italian volunteers), were amassed through an organization called STAND. While an international organization that addresses a multitude of social justice issues, the John Cabot University branch allocates the majority of its resources and volunteer hours to this particular refugee center—donating clothes and toiletries, buying books and study supplies, and giving basic English lessons. I asked the president of the club the morning of the first Friday if they usually have such a good turnout. She quickly shook her head saying that there were much more volunteers than in previous years most likely from the greater awareness and news coverage of the crisis. Although it looked like rain we eagerly packed into a metro bus and traveled to the center.

With cappuccino in our stomachs and a good attitude for being such a large group for the first week we descended below the street level to the church basement. Reverberations of foreign languages much more intimidating than the overheard Italian echoed up through the stairwell. Farsi, Bambara, and Arabic fluctuated in conversation amongst the colonizers Latin-derived languages. Body language was deemed the only cross-cultural form of communication. Adorning the walls of this massive vaulted room were murals of various continental themes. South America was conjured with paintings of Mayan pyramids, a bullfight, and the Mitad del Mundo monument. The side rooms included a prayer room, a makeshift theater, a depository for used clothing, and an art center to construct baskets and other artworks to sell. African and Arabic men were conversing at the dozens of tables throughout the main room, but any visitor could immediately tell that the focus of the space was at the foosball tables. Crowding around two well-worn foosball tables, spectators watched the games with an intensity that I couldn’t compare to any pass-the-time-until-dinner-game I had with my friends back in the States. They were good.

Our arrival—twenty mostly white, mostly female college-age kids—broke the concentration of these flick-of-the-wrist-athletes. We began mingling timidly with some of the more curious refugees, but it was really from the foosball games that we found a commonality in light-hearted competition. What I knew about African and Arabic culture was limited and ignorant to say the least. I had a fear they would be angry or resentful towards us. God only knows how much the United States and Europe had done to reap profits from their people and homeland. This feeling quickly subsided as the reasoning came that if a President Bush supposedly represented the views of an entire country, that it would be an even greater fallacy to insinuate that a terrorist organization such as the Taliban or ISIS could represent and characterize an entire people, culture, or place.

After about half an hour and dozens of matches, our student coordinators began to organize two groups—one to help in the art center and the other to help in the English classroom. Having taught students from Japan, Ecuador, and the U.S., I found the English classroom to be an excellent opportunity to not only interact with the refugees in a more intimate setting, but also to subsequently add a few more cultures to my teaching repertoire. With a group of about seven other volunteers, I went to occupy one of the side rooms that had a white board and a myriad of second hand textbooks. The coordinator wrote a few brief dialogues in English on the board as a handful of refugees entered the classroom. “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?” were written on the board. Some came with backpacks and notebooks, others came just with their own curiosity. Once there were about seven students, one of us closed the door and the class began. The coordinator started off with a few recitations and then called on a few confident students to act out an example conversation in front of the class. Their English skills varied dramatically. Some had studied it in their home countries for years while others had never heard the language. “Where are you from?” was answered with “Mali”, “Cameroon”, “Libya”, “Afghanistan”, “Palestine”, and other far-away countries that you might hear briefly channel surfing on the news. Curious spectators peered through a window that looked out into the main room. They were too nervous to enter, but wanted to watch the lesson from a distance. They also had the advantage of avoiding the stifling heat that suffocated the small classroom.

The rest of the volunteers sat watching the sample conversation until the coordinator broke the class up into pairs. Since the ratio was nearly even all of us paired ourselves with one of the students. I looked around and approached a man from Libya. He had long hair and wore white Adidas sneakers. I somewhat nervously initiated the introductory questions: “Where are you from?”, “What’s your name?”, “How old are you?”. Quickly answering those with minimal grammatical flukes I could tell his English skills were much better than the other students. I went on to ask more personal questions and a somewhat broken conversation developed. He used to drive trucks in Libya, but, after the 2010 Arab Spring, economic opportunity plummeted. He lost his father and the rest of his family stayed in Libyan while he went to Europe to find a job. He traveled around Scandinavia and then ended up in Italy. On his phone he showed me pictures of his trip to Sweden from the previous winter. Pixilated landscapes of frozen lakes and snow topped pine trees contrasted what I pictured as the hot and arid landscape of his home country. He had been seeking asylum there. Italy was a waypoint point for him, as it is for most refugees who are seeking a more hospitable political and economic situation in Northern Europe—most popularly Sweden and Germany. While my Libyan student leaves his family to find a new life in the North, I will be traveling to Sweden in the spring to study and see the country my great-grandfather left nearly a century ago to find opportunity in the American west. On the typical viewing tour of photo albums my father always would flip to one of the photos with a lone black man sitting alongside a group of white blond-haired Swedish relatives. Rumor had it that he was a family friend or (for the number of times he turned up) one of our far flung relatives, either way we would always curiously imagine what his story to the land of Scandinavians was like before there was even commercial plane travel. In sepia-toned photo albums I was familiarized with an early 20th century Sweden, but my Libyan friend was on an adventure into the unknown. His curious eyes looked at the snowy landscapes on his timeworn flip phone and he said simply “beautiful”.

He scrolled past a photo that looked vaguely familiar and returned to it and asked “Do you know who this is?” I looked at it closer but couldn’t make it out. “Tupac”, he said, emphasizing the “a” like “two pack”. “Do you listen to rap?” he asked. I laughed and said “Yeah, Tupac is very big in the United States.” “He’s from California like me. California Love. ” Like the Mama and Papa’s California Dreamin or the iconic Jordanian-inspired surfer-guitar rift in Dick Dale’s Misirlou, the song California Love has an undeniably distinct west coast sound that characterizes a Gold State of opportunity and Wild West antics. West coast pride and hip-hop culture seemed to have just as much of an attraction to a Libyan refugee as a white American kid who grew up in rural California. I thought, now that’s a fan base. I was about to ask him if he listens to Kendrick Lamar when the coordinator called us back to the front of the classroom.

All the pairs, each seeming to have been in equally engaging conversations, were reoriented back to the white board. “What languages do you speak?” and “How many?” were written on the board. Pairs went up and had conversations. One of the students said he spoke six languages. Behind me now, I heard my Libyan student say quietly, “6? Ok, that’s enough”. I turned around and laughed quietly while he subtly smirked. I vaguely remembered an old Spanish teacher telling me, that alongside dreaming in another language, understanding humor was the next best sign of linguistic and cultural comprehension.

As the clock reached noon we began to wrap up class and gather the rest of the volunteers. As we ascended to the street level, friendly “goodbyes” and “see you next Friday”s were exchanged between the refugees and volunteers. I could tell that the other volunteers along with myself were more relaxed than in the morning and that a common feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction was felt that only a solid dose of community service could evoke. While we waited for everyone to exit the center, the coordinator informed us that there would be a march for migrant rights later in the evening if anyone was interested in attending. Being in Rome for less than two weeks now with a minimal workload or a coherent schedule I expressed my interest. A group of three of us decided that we would meet at the campus at three o’clock and then return to the refugee center to meet with their group before heading to another center where the march would be held.

After getting in a quick lunch and nap I left for JCU’s Tiber campus not knowing what to expect. I had been to a handful of protests in the past but didn’t know what to expect from a march in a capital city and especially for an issue that was such a current topic for most Europeans. Two other volunteers I had met earlier that morning were there and after waiting another ten minutes we left for the bus stop. On our bus ride there I asked one of the other students, who was Jordanian-Italian, if he thought it would be peaceful. Before I left the States, the Ferguson and Baltimore riots were some of the top stories on nearly every American news channel for weeks until there was another shooting or riot in some other corner of the country to pursue. He replied “Probably not. There were some protests for economic reform that got pretty violent earlier this year, but I don’t think this one will be like that”.

We descended back below the church. It was completely vacant now except for a group of about five: two American professors on sabbatical, two refugees, and a representative from the center. This was where I first met Rakeen. He was an Afghani refugee in his early thirties and was one of the storytellers at the hostel nearly three weeks later. He was quiet and kept to himself, but friendly and approachable. His story, the one that was published[1] and was told in person that night at the hostel was one of the more horrifying stories I had heard. He fled when there was nothing left, but with unwavering optimism and determination even after being rejected from both Sweden and Norway he not only found a sense of family at the refugee center but even spearheaded the creation of an art program where the refugees could create artworks to sell for a minimal income. Intricate baskets woven carefully with braided newspapers and cards with intricate ink illustrations were later sold at the Refugee Stories night; eighty percent of the proceeds went to the refugees while the other twenty were voluntarily donated back to the refugee center. With the help of this program Rakeen returned from the art room with a large light green cloth banner raveled around a long two-by-four halfway up to the ceiling. With him as the poll barer we set off for meeting place for the march.

After a bus driver deemed the flag too large and too dangerous to carry onto a bus we ended up walking; the soft drizzle that was persistent throughout the day turned into a steady shower. As we got closer to where we thought to be the other refugee center a roar of voices began to rise, fade, and echo over the buildings. The rain had ceased. My worry that we would be the only ones was completely relieved upon turning the corner to the sight of a crowd well over a hundred packed into an narrow alleyway. We slowly weaved our way through the crowded alley, which was retaining a thick humidity left over from the rain. Groups of Italians, foreigners, and refugees mingled discussing the nature of the crisis and foreign policies. Bookending both the entrances were lines of police and television crews. Cameramen and reporters had also infiltrated the crowd, taking interviews here and there. Rakeen turned down a perpendicular alley and began to unravel and assemble the banner. With help from the rest of the group we lifted the banner above the crowd. Light green trimmed with gold scales was written “Migrant Lives Matter”. It was one of the more significant banners in the crowd and immediately became a staple subject for the photographers. The crowd grew denser as new arrivals accumulated into the alley. A young Italian girl, held above the crowd on her mother’s shoulders, stared up at the sparkling golden scales that encircled the text on the banner. She reached in wonder and playfulness towards the glittering halo. Her mother closened her to the corner of the banner where our other refugee volunteer playfully began to play hide and seek with her. Nkhenfack was always incredibly friendly and social. He was from Cameroon and while not very outspoken about his experience coming to Europe, he worked closely with the center’s administration and volunteered when he had the opportunity.

DSCF1176The line of police and reporters blocking the entrance began to recede and the crowd slowly started to push forward. The police would follow us for the rest of the march, acting more to direct traffic than prevent violence. As the crowd exited the ally we realized how large the march had become. The broad streets relieved the pressure of the narrow alley and the crowd expanded across the entire avenue. Shop owners pried curiously out of their shops and non-pedestrian traffic slowed to a standstill. As our banner bobbed up and down over the sea of marchers I reoriented my camera and myself onto curbsides and benches to snap photos of the crowd. Signs with “S.O.S Europe” and flags of various countries waved amongst the marchers. Some Italians walked barefoot to stand in solidarity with the newcomers who arrive on the beaches in the same way. After a voyage over thousands of miles of sea the refugees find sanctuary in the sand between their toes. A new beginning in a land far different from their home is a far cry to how the tourists and locals see and frequent the beaches.

As we pass the Tiburtina Station and round back to the beginning of our walk, the sun begins to dim below the stone pines that line the avenue. It’s a particularly crimson sunset that must have been due to the more humid air brought on by the earlier storm. Between the golden hued trees cheers greeted the return of the march back to the narrow alley where at the other entrance lies the Baobab Reception Center. Beacons of hospitality and respite can be far between and it’s rest stops like this reception center that support the migrants travels north. After some time the crowd began to dissipate and this small moving community of advocacy separated back to the various households, shelters, street corners, and hotels that would possess their evening.

I’ll never forget where I was when the Paris attack occurred. I had been selected as a delegate for the 2015 Nobel Peace Laureates World Summit in Barcelona and the theme for this year was “Advocating for Refugees”. The second night at the conference tweets and posts slowly started to reveal a more and more horrific scene of carnage and destruction from the center of Paris. The consequences and implications of such a tragedy are yet to be fully realized but my immediate reaction was for the safety of the refugees. Thoughts of border closings, xenophobia, mosque and refugee closings, and another escalating war in the Middle East kept me awake the night of November 13. Weeks after the attack, the police, possibly the some of the same ones who had helped coordinate the march months earlier, raided the Baobab Reception Center arresting dozens of undocumented refugees[2]. After that it was announced that the Reception Center would be closed at the beginning of 2016 for the construction of new shopping center[3].

I began my last Friday in Rome volunteering at the Refugee Center. Saying goodbye to my students without the usual “see you next Friday” on the last day I was only with two other volunteers, a drastic decrease from the initial twenty. While seeking a world away from their war torn or poverty-stricken homelands, the refugees encountered a world that could go from hospitable and welcoming to xenophobic and hostile in the matter of mere weeks. The voyages and treks that have been undertaken to find new lives in Europe will not only be remembered in photo albums and news archives for generations, but in the evolving culture of Europe. Lives in transit will continue to seek a new home; will we welcome them?


[1] Giuffrida, Angela. “An Afghan Refugee: Safe, but in Limbo in Italy.” The Local. The Local, 08 Oct. 2015. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <>.


[2] “Police Raid Baobab Migrant Reception Centre in Rome – English.” ANSA, 24 Nov. 2015. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <>.


[3] Carrier, Fanny. “Popular Migrant Rest-stop Centre in Rome Forced to Close.”Yahoo! News. Yahoo!, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <>.


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