In Rome, a decent night’s sleep is not a given

A young migrant family’s struggle to find a safe bed for their kids.

Codi Trigger
INTERSOS staffers, part of a UNICEF-supported mobile team, pick up a young girl (2) outside a building where migrants are taking shelter in Rome, Italy.
UNICEF/UN0264419/De Luigi VII Photo

08 May 2019

ROME, Italy – All roads lead to Rome. It’s an ancient saying; but for migrants and refugees in today’s Italy, it still rings true.

Just off one of the major roads that lead to the centre of Rome sits an old Penicillin factory: at its peak, one of the largest producers in the whole of Europe. The factory shut down in the 1980s, but its skeleton still stands. In it live five hundred migrants and refugees.

Heaps of trash pile up outside, surrounding the building with a wall of stench. Asbestos centimetres thick line the walls. There’s no running water or electricity so at night, it’s pitch black. According to the mobile team, organized crime rings operate all around, coercing inhabitants to traffic drugs.

At 6pm, a young family emerges from one of the building’s entrances. They’re barely visible until they reach the sidewalk, illuminated by the headlights of rush hour traffic. A trio of men in beige vests is waiting for them four times a week. The father kisses his children goodbye and retreats back into the abandoned factory. The trio exchanges familiar greetings with the mother, Tamara*, and her two children, five-year-old Reth and Michelle, two. Then they head to a van together and drive to the next building.

Despite the number of refugees and migrants arriving to Italy declined dramatically in 2018, many people have travelled to Rome from elsewhere in the country, living in the city's abandoned buildings. The UNICEF-supported INTERSOS mobile team have reached, in 2018, 625 unaccompanied children living outside the reception system.

Reports of xenophobia and violence against refugee and migrants are common. Coupled with long asylum procedures, frustration and anxiety is on the rise. In Rome, volunteers worry that many migrants and refugees could be put on the streets as police raid and evacuate the buildings. With the recent decree passed into law in December 2018, which severely limits humanitarian protection and access to services, many children report uncertainty and fear for the future.

Migrants line up for a hot meal served by volunteers at the Baobab occupation at Tiburtina station in Rome,
UNICEF/UN0264410/De Luigi VII Photo
Volunteers in Rome, Italy serve hot meals to people in need, including refugees and migrants. Many refugees and migrants here sleep under the outside covers of the train station and the bus stops. Night time is especially dangerous for refugee and migrant children and young people traveling alone as they can easily encounter a number of dangers such as frustrated people, darkness, drug trafficking and sexual abuse.

The trio of men make up a mobile team run by UNICEF’s partner INTERSOS. Three times a week, the team makes rounds to several places in Rome where migrants and refugees who don’t have homes stay, picking up mothers with children as well as unaccompanied minors. They’re well known and well trusted by all, who call the team whenever a new underage migrant arrives. The team brings these people to the INTERSOS night centre. The centre, which opens at 9pm and closes at 9am, has two rooms of bunk beds. There people can rest, have a hot shower, eat a hot meal prepared by educators and cultural mediators, check their email.

Mutilated and tortured as a girl, Tamara decided she couldn’t stay in Nigeria and let the same happen to her own daughter. The family left, with Reth a toddler, and made their way up to Italy. They migrated to Libya and arrived in Calabria, in Sicily, after spending seven days crossing the Mediterranean by boat. Tamara was five months pregnant with Michelle at the time. Eventually they made their way up to Rome, arriving in the city in October 2018. Since they arrived, the mobile team has been receiving them every night at their night centre.

Tamara is matter-of-fact and slightly stoic, cultivated from years in survival mode. Her Italian is fluent and her English flawless. The children speak English and are learning Italian. They leave the center at 7.30am every morning to get to school – a two-hour commute that involves three different bus lines.

Tamara's trying to find a longer-term solution. Official reception centres aren’t always able to offer much better conditions. “It’s hell,” she says. “Human rights – we don’t get that.” Tamara explains that there’s one reception centre that might have space available, but it would require putting the kids in yet another school. It’s a difficult decision. Tamara doesn’t want them to fall out of school again. The kids love the teachers they have now and are starting to thrive for the first time.

“Human rights – we don’t get that.”

As the first pick-ups by the outreach team, Tamara, Reth and Michelle accompany the team as they visit other migrants and refugees. Reth and Michelle sneak off at one point to grab a plate of steaming food served by local Italian volunteers. Everybody laughs, and Tamara holds their plates as they make their way back to the van. Reth does a few magic tricks in the car using his and Michelle’s plastic forks as props – “now you see it, now you don’t!” As the van hits potholes, Michelle’s stroller rattles in the back.

The children skip into the centre. “I like to come here to play with other kids,” Reth says. But that night no other young children arrive.  Reth and Michelle head straight to the toys and set up a mini stage so they can perform a magic show together. Reth dons a white cape made from a disposable table cloth. He declares his magician name: “Reth the Great. No, Imani the Great!” He and his sister collapse into giggles and move on to the action figures, their performance quickly forgotten.

An INTERSOS staffer, part of a UNICEF-supported mobile team, plays with a girl at a UNICEF-supported night reception center run by implementing partner INTERSOS in Rome, Italy.
UNICEF/UN0264415/De Luigi VII Photo
An INTERSOS staffer, part of a UNICEF-supported mobile team, plays with a girl at a UNICEF-supported night reception center run by implementing partner INTERSOS in Rome, Italy.

It’s calm, but the harsh fluorescent lights are hardly relaxing. As they play, Tamara checks the news and makes a few calls. In the meantime, several teenage boys trickle in. It’s not yet 9pm but nobody is going to make them wait outside. The smell of eggplant frying fills the rooms. People start cooking and laughing. Close to 10pm, the table is set. Reth and Michelle won’t make it for a second dinner, they’ve already fallen asleep. 

“If you’re well taken care of, you’re not a migrant.”

The family has some hopeful news: they’ve just received notice that they have been granted a temporary residence permit for five years – although only Tamara and the children, not her husband. So life still feels very unstable, with no proper home and the difficulties to find decent work. “The most important thing is that I’m accepted, my kids are accepted…and that I can get a job,” Tamara says. After a pause she adds: “If you’re well taken care of, you’re not a migrant.”



*Names have been changed to protect their identity.