Works and Days

Escaping Eritrea: Stories of the Mass Exodus (Part 3)

In her first and second blog entries, Winta set out on the President's Summer Fellowship journey, travelling to Uganda to interview Eritrean refugees for a documentary, and reuniting with members of her family along the way. In this installment, she travels to Rome to interview more refugees.

            After leaving Uganda, my plan was to stay with my aunt in Italy and rely on her to help me connect with Eritrean refugees in the area. Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding about my arrival date and I actually landed the day she was leaving the country. Since I knew absolutely nobody else in Rome, I decided to get a hotel room in the city center. I noticed there were several Eritrean restaurants nearby and decided go in and ask the servers about where I might find Eritrean refugees in Rome. This required a lot of courage because I had no idea how they might receive me, but it turned out to be a successful endeavor. 

            The owner of the restaurant walked me to this place referred to as “The Palazzo” (which was two blocks away from my hotel room), and told me to talk to the Eritreans at the front desk. Though I couldn’t possibly describe everything that happened afterwards in this short blog, I will talk about two of the major highlights. 

            First, the person at the front desk (who I later found out is the director) let me know that the Palazzo was actually an illegally occupied building where 400 Eritreans were now residing. Since Italy granted these Eritreans asylum but didn’t give them work permits, these refugees had nowhere to go with nothing to do. As such, many of them ended up homeless in Italy. Eventually, they formed a coalition with a radical political party (which may or may not have included some members of a mafia). After months of careful planning, all 400 people stormed in and locked down the building. The city was unable to respond efficiently enough, so the government tried to force the refugees out by shutting down all the electricity and plumbing in the building. The Eritreans responded by having a 400+ people protest right in Rome’s city center. This blocked traffic for hours and upset the thousands of tourists in the area. At this point, the Eritreans were asked to please go back into the Palazzo by the city officials. Now, nine months later, the director of this operation is in negotiation with city officials about how to handle this ongoing situation. The Eritreans are demanding work permits or to have their fingerprints and documents destroyed from the Italian systems, so that they may seek asylum in more refugee-friendly countries (like Switzerland, Norway, or Sweden). Needless to say, the Palazzo was an amazing place to capture the voices of Eritrean refugees. 

            The second surprising highlight was the reaction to my questions about the Lampedusa boat tragedy. Every refugee I interviewed in Italy told me there was nothing particularly special about hundreds of refugees dying in the Mediterranean Sea (because it happens so frequently). From their perspective, Lampedusa was different for reasons not covered by the mainstream media. The folks I interviewed all believe that Italian authorities saw the boat in trouble, but refused to help because of a political battle between Italy and the EU. Right before the tragedy, Italy requested and was denied EU funding to help with the refugee crisis on its coastal border. Shortly after the Lampedusa tragedy, Italy was given millions of dollars in aid by the EU. The refugees I interviewed believe this was no coincidence. 

            While I came back home with many more questions than answers, I realize now that this is the nature of a pursuit for truth. I have also learned to consider the relationship between legal systems and morality and to question the implications of that relationship. While these short blogs can only capture simplified versions of the stories I encountered on this trip, I hope my final product will better depict the nuances of this complicated Eritrean refugee crisis. In the meantime, I would like to truly thank everyone involved with PSF for allowing me to have the most meaningful experience, both academic and personal, of my life. 

Tags: psf, presidents summer fellowship, eritrea, rome, international, documentary