With more than 900 churches in Rome, the impact of religion on the city is unmistakable. For all that the church has become to represent, the historical, architectural and artistic significance of many of the churches sees a constant pilgrimage of people from all over the world visiting to catch a glimpse of this institution of the Italian society.
Two churches, well within the tourist circuit of Piazza Venezia, the Colosseum and Roma Termini, and less than a kilometre away from each other, are connected by a daily stream of people from more than 50 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Orderly and complaint, an average of 150 people walk the distance through Via Nazionale, Via Firenze and Via XX Settembre to meet their daily needs. They are not tourists but political asylum seekers without a country, without identification papers, and with few if any resources or opportunities to create a meaningful life.
Italy’s geographical position makes the country one of the principal maritime entry points into the European Union for asylum seekers from more and more distant countries embarking on a perilous journey with the hope of a better life.
In recent years this situation has led Italian authorities to take initiatives regarding the administration of its borders and the treatment of asylum seekers which, coupled with a complex and unstable legal mechanism, does not always meet the requirements to respect the Human Rights of the person (http://www.fidh.org/Right-to-Asylum-in-Italy-Access-to). As recent as this week, the Italian Parliament has passed the most draconian laws against ‘illegal’ entrants to date.
The churches of St Paul’s Within the Walls and St Andrews of Scotland, through their missions of charity, provide services funded entirely from their own means and staffed exclusively by volunteers to asylum seekers. Each day St Andrews distributes food parcels, collected through a small gate next to the Italian Ministry of Defence. The recipients take the clear bag filled with a bread roll, tin food, fruit and drink down a crypt located under St Paul’s known as the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center (JNRC).
The JNRC founded and named after a young Ugandan priest, himself a refugee, is the only day centre in Rome available to asylum seekers. The JNRC represents an oasis, a haven where visitors can come to get advice and aid, spend time with people who speak their own languages, watch news bulletins from around the world, learn English, Italian, computer skills, and basic skills to help them adjust to living in Europe.
Other regular services offered by the JNRC include clothing distribution, morning tea, a library, satellite television and daily videos, chess and table-tennis, referral help for legal and medical assistance, and pastoral and resettlement counselling. (http://www.stpaulsrome.it/english/jnrc/jnrc.html).
The JNRC is unmarked and nestled at the back of a short driveway on the side of St Paul’s church. During the lunch hour, the courtyard is filled with asylum seekers who smoke. Down a tiny stairwell opens up a large room (the crypt under the church) with the entire centre’s facilities including the provision of unofficial ID cards and the tokens to collect their daily lunch from St Andrews. The visitors eat, chat, study and watch TV. Many of them use the day time facilities to catch up with the sleep their homelessness does not afford them in the night.
One side of the crypt is adorned by two murals painted by two asylum seekers-Victor Al-Harmazi and Goran Hemen Mohamed. The murals a gesture of reciprocity for the hospitality received.
While the Italian society has often taken pride for its sense of hospitality, the current attitude towards asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants is not coherent with this self-perception, nonetheless, the JNRC is an expression of global hospitality.
Foto: Part of the mural painted by Goran Hemen Mohamed ’09