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A Summer of Discomfort and Laughter

By Libby Bova, AB’12

Growing up between Italy and the Chicago suburbs with an Italian father and American mother, Libby Bova thought she knew how to navigate two worlds. Working at Jesuit Refugee Service in Italy as a human rights intern, she got a chance to deepen that understanding.

Bova met refugees and migrants who sought safe haven in Italy after fleeing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. Here is an abridged version of the report she wrote after her summer 2011 internship.

Directly to the right of Piazza Venezia, arguably the largest and most well‐known tourist gathering-place in the center of Rome, there’s a small, elevated park with benches and trees, and rather sad looking green‐brown grass. From April to November, most hours of the day this park is filled with tourists eating their lunches, examining maps, and licking gelatos. It’s a typical resting place for foreigners taking a break from the whirlwind three-day tour of the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, St. Peter’s Basilica, and every other major monument composing Rome’s 4,000-plus years of history.

But this park also houses another, very different type of foreigner than the tourists that are taking a break in the shade: refugees and asylum seekers. Each weekday around 1:30 p.m., they start to congregate in the park, coming from all over the city to make their way to the headquarters of Centro Astalli (the name of Jesuit Refugee Service in Italy). For at 3:00, Centro Astalli opens the doors to its basement soup kitchen, and feeds every single refugee and asylum seeker in the long line that stretches up the stairs, out the entrance, and onto the street—often blocking the way of tourists walking towards Piazza Venezia at the same hour. Each man or woman signs their name, takes a ticket, and walks along the metal grates to be served food. For many of these clients, this will be the only real meal they have all day.


Each day the organization feeds around 400 refugees and asylum seekers in this way. The employees at Centro Astalli’s main office talk about the mixed feelings clients have about the service: for the young Afghanis who come in big groups, it can be a fun time. They jokingly flirt with the younger volunteers, and jeer and push each other in line, giving off an easygoing, relaxed confidence. But for some of the older clients, who have been in Italy for years but haven’t been able to find stable employment, having to ask for food can be one of the most denigrating experiences they face on a daily basis. You can tell by the way some of them hesitate that they want to ask for another serving of pasta—but they usually don’t. It’s too embarrassing, or too undignified. Or perhaps someone else may think their request is a sign of greediness—when really it’s just hunger for food, the most basic of human needs.

On the other side of the metal counter, things aren’t all that much easier. As volunteers, we’re mostly middle‐class and privileged, not just with money and opportunity and stability, but with citizenship—almost all of us are French, German, Italian, American, English. The disparity of rights created by the lines of citizenship status was often at the front of my mind when I was serving at the Centro Astalli soup kitchen. Why do I go home to a full refrigerator, allowed to eat whatever I want and as much or little as I desire, while all these people have their food selection and quantity dictated by a group of volunteers? Then there’s the discomfort of having to listen to the fruit woman yelling at each man who tries to sneak a second piece. And the guilt of treating the three‐hour shift like a job, when for the immigrants that come to eat, it’s a matter of survival.

My experience each week at the soup kitchen was fairly representative of my entire summer at Centro Astalli—a mix of ups and downs, confusion and helplessness combined with laughter and fulfillment. The sort of cognitive dissonance I felt relating my work in the soup kitchen to the lives of Centro Astalli’s clients was repeated over and over in the other services as well. My internship instructed me in the nuances of human rights work, and in particular the contradictions inherent in fighting for the rights of individuals who are deprived of the most fundamental human necessities.


The path that led me to my human rights internship was long and winding. During high school in west suburban Chicago, I was aware of the kinds of discrimination immigrants felt on a local level—our district had been experiencing large influxes of Hispanic immigrants that, by the time I graduated, made up 20 percent of our student population. A lot of my friends were immigrants, or had parents who were, and there was probably much more tension over their presence in our predominantly white, upper-middle-class township than I was aware of. Though at the time I wasn’t thinking about immigration with a human rights framework, those issues were recast in that light once I reached the University of Chicago.

Over my first two years at the University, I dabbled in various community service or social justice groups. But it wasn’t until I took my second human rights class (Human Rights: An Anthropological Perspective) that I really started to think critically about human rights as a field of study and work. That class taught me to question everything I had ever heard about NGOs, social service work, and humanitarian intervention—but it also reinforced how important a human rights framework could be to efforts taken to preserve the life and dignity of others. For that course I wrote an independent research paper linking human rights to sex trafficking in Italy, which was how I first became interested in larger forced migration issues. It was a particularly explorative project for me because I identify strongly with Italy, as it is where I was born, and from where much of my cultural heritage derives.

Later, studying abroad in Egypt and India made me appreciate the importance of understanding myself, and my own cultural identity, in relation to other people and other cultures. It was partly out of a desire to weave back to my own roots, and uncover my own first country, that I knew I wanted to do human rights work in Italy. But it was also the sneaking suspicion that there was a lot of experience to be uncovered if I pursued forced migration issues in practice—it was an opportunity to tie what I had explored in the classroom to hands‐on work, and to test whether my ideas about human rights in theory would hold up in practice.

The process of finding a placement was long and often frustrating. After endless e-mails, lots of translating into Italian, and numerous late‐night phone calls adjusting for time zones across the Atlantic, Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome agreed to take me on for the summer. They took what I had expressed in my cover letter to heart, and structured my internship almost exclusively around direct service and contact with refugees and asylum seekers. It was exactly the internship I’d been hoping for on paper, but in practice it was also a completely new and jarring set of experiences—perhaps more because I didn’t know what to expect. As one of the women I worked under at the women’s shelter pointed out, my summer was a very “human experience”—un’esperienza umana.


The services that Centro Astalli provides are varied—but there is also an attempt to make them holistic, and to make each individual that goes through their system feel as if they are being taken care of on an emotional, psychological, and cultural level, as well as just being given food and access to medical care. The mensa (soup kitchen) is the location where everything begins for a client—he or she waits outside the door to get a ticket for residency application, and a ticket for the daily meal. After being assigned to a legal advocate, he fills out the documents that allow him to use Centro Astalli’s address—without a valid address in Rome, a migrant cannot apply for asylum or international protection status. The application process is long and frustrating, and each individual has to make his case, prove that it is unsafe for him to return home, dredge up every horrific sigh, death, torture, and fear that made him flee, and present it calmly in front of the Questura of Rome.

Eventually, once they’ve spent enough time in the country and have been granted asylum or international protection, clients move on to the Employment and Legal Assistance office—where their legal case is reviewed and they end up (hopefully) creating a resume, signing up for Italian classes, and moving towards employment and financial independence. I worked one shift a week at this office and it was where I learned the most about how forced migration fits into the economic, cultural, and political context of Italy as a whole. The racism and discrimination against both the personhood and the experience (education and work) of migrants in America pale in comparison to the way forced migrants are treated in Italy. Finding work is a dream, if not a fantasy—most highly educated individuals, with degrees in medicine or engineering, are lucky to find stable jobs making pizzas or as domestic workers for a family. Finding true employment in one’s field, if it happens, occurs long, long after the initial stages of the asylum seeking process.

Centro Astalli’s primary role is to help people through this initial process—and after the soup kitchen, their clients are sent directly to the center’s outpatient clinic. Here they apply for their medical card (which gives them a fiscal code, the equivalent of a social security code or green card number) and see a physician. My work at this clinic was probably the most informative and also the most engaging of all the shifts I did. Much of it was navigating the various documents needed for the medical card, filling out the application forms, and sometimes sending clients to different offices if the documents they were carrying were incorrect. As part of a group of regular volunteers, I also took turns translating between clients and physicians, depending on what language was needed.


Translating for first‐time visitors meant that I heard their whole tale of flight or escape from their home country, because this information had to be used to create medical and legal documents presented for each client’s case before the Commune of Rome. Trying to describe the sorts of stories I heard in those exam rooms couldn’t do credit to the courage and resilience of every single one of the people I encountered at the clinic. But this wasn’t the case only at the clinic—a couple of days a week I also worked at the women’s shelter (called a “reception center” in Italian), where female refugees have a one‐year contracted place to live through Centro Astalli.

The pace at the shelter was much slower, and it was the one place where I was able to develop longer‐term relationships with some clients. I got to know a lot of the girls there well, either through conversations over simple dinners or by tutoring some of them in Italian using our common French skills. Talking with a lot of the women, who ranged in age from 19 to over 60, was often extremely heartwarming. We had birthday parties for the young daughters of the women there, and laughed together as clients and staff, all women alike, over the absurd Italian soap dramas set in the 19th century. But a lot of the time it was difficult, too: many of the women faced depression, anxiety, and general frustration at the Italian immigration system and the job market that kept them from independence.

From a broader perspective, though, these women are among the luckiest of the clients that Centro Astalli serves. Most of the migrants that come to Rome have no guaranteed place to sleep at night, much less to live with stability for a year. The men have it particularly bad: for every four that need a place in a shelter, only one actually has a bed and a roof over his head. A few sleep at friends’ apartments, but most spend their nights on the streets, or in the corridors and covered sections of Rome’s enormous Termini train station. This particular fact was one of the hardest to deal with while I worked at Centro Astalli. It wasn’t infrequent that I would go out with my roommates or friends at night and end up at Termini—and I would always wonder, walking past the dozens and dozens of sleeping bodies, Did I translate for you at the clinic this morning? Have I seen you at the Employment Assistance office in the last week?


Centro Astalli does a fantastic job of tying together all of their services and providing as much as they can for their clients. But there are limits to what every social service organization can do—and I lived and breathed those limitations daily, and often felt the burden of guilt that comes from having to say no to people in need asking me for bus money or medicine that I couldn’t provide or didn’t have. That summer, for me, was all about the dissonance between human rights in theory and human rights in practice. It didn’t make me completely cynical about the ideas on migrant human rights that are espoused at every major conference and in every migrant‐friendly city (even if there are rarely migrants at those venues to voice their own views). But it did make me question where I fit into the system of aid, and what right I had to be engaging personally with experiences that I had never known.

There were a lot of psychological and emotional roadblocks I ran into that summer. I often felt that there was a huge disconnect between my own day‐to‐day life, and the work I was doing with clients who lived a reality I could never truly imagine. And how could the small service I was providing really do much good? I was there for a mere three months, barely long enough to learn the ins and outs of the complicated bureaucracies of the Italian government and my organization, much less develop strong bonds with staff and clients enough to make a difference in their lives. It didn’t help that I felt uncomfortable in my own skin in Rome as well—I have always identified strongly with my Italian identity, but everywhere I turned in Italy I was seen as American, not Italian. Beyond the discomfort of always being the only American in a place where Americans aren’t looked upon so fondly, I often felt that because I hadn’t lived a similar experience of flight and persecution, there would always be something lacking in my ability to talk with clients and help them through the difficulties of adjusting to life in Italy. I may have been qualified with my cultural sensitivity and language skills for this internship—but I certainly didn’t feel qualified emotionally or psychologically.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think I could have asked for more out of my summer. It truly gave me the opportunity to take everything I had learned in my human rights courses and measure it against real experience. It has reinforced my desire to continue doing work with refugees, as difficult as it is, and as much as I feel I can’t quite connect with clients as much as I would like. Perhaps Centro Astalli ended up giving me much more than I gave the staff and clients there. But I can’t help but hope that it was a productive human experience for everyone involved.