The Things We Forget

By Isabel March

ROME, Italy

I interrupt my coverage of historic landmarks and gelato to present you with something that is real, raw, and painful.

Rome, in truth, has two sides. One glitters of romance and relics. This is the tourist Rome, and it is the one that we, as outsiders, know best.

But beneath this exterior breathes a living, functioning city—a city that happens to be on the frontline of an immigration crisis unlike anything Europe has ever before experienced. Every day, more refugees from the coast of Africa make their way to Rome, seeking opportunity and stability. They are met by confusion, helplessness, and resentment.

Meters and minutes away from the path of tourists, refugees scramble to survive. In the shadow of the Colosseum, they sleep on cardboard mats in the park of Colle Oppio. In the Termini train station, before excited tourists arrive in the morning, they’re woken by the police and forced to leave.

Sidewalk outside of Termini train station where, at nighttime, homeless refugees sleep.
Sidewalk outside of Termini train station where, at nighttime, homeless refugees sleep.
The homeless sleep in the Park of Colle Oppio. The Colosseum stands only a short distance away.
The homeless sleep in the Park of Colle Oppio. The Colosseum stands only a short distance away.

But I didn’t understand this—not really—until I met Maiga, a twenty-five-year-old who fled his home country of Mali at the age of nine and came to Italy at twenty-one. Maiga, who was trafficked across the Sahara on foot; Maiga, whose parents had died and whose stepfather was brutally murdered. Maiga, who has been homeless on the streets of Rome and who, yesterday, gave my class a tour of the other Rome—the Rome of soup kitchens, cardboard homes, and nativist resentment.

Maiga, originally from Mali, has been in Italy for two months and five years. Before that, he had lived and worked in Tripoli--this ended when Libyans turned against foreigners during the fall of Gheddafi.
Maiga, originally from Mali, has been in Italy for two years and five months. Before that, he had lived and worked in Tripoli–this ended when Libyans turned against foreigners during the fall of Gheddafi.
Soup kitchen where Miaga often went for food.
Soup kitchen where Miaga often went for food.
"Mare Monstrum"--a play on words mimicking the coast guard program Mare Nostrum, originally started to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean. This poster is from a group against foreigners in Italy.
“Mare Monstrum”–a play on words mimicking the coast guard program Mare Nostrum, originally started to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean. This poster is from a group against foreigners in Italy.

“I remember thinking ‘I’ve been rescued—this will be much better for me,’” he told us. But Italy can’t handle this problem, nor does it want to. “We had bad food and bad living conditions,” he said of his treatment. “After a year, they started deporting people.”

As I walked with him, I started to see things differently. A section of sidewalk became somebody’s world—this is where they lay huddled when they had nowhere else to go. A water fountain was suddenly a laundry machine and shower. But the tourists never see the truth surrounding them: the streets they wander and the public resources they use are the refugees’ connection to survival—thousands have been there before and when night falls, more will come again.

Tourists fill water bottles at the fountain where Maiga remembers washing his clothes.
Tourists fill water bottles at the fountain where Maiga remembers washing his clothes.

“Close your eyes and imagine you have nothing,” Maiga said.

“Where would you start?”

I don’t know. I don’t want to, either. I don’t want to know what it feels like when the only thing I have left in the world is myself.

But thousands of refugees do know. And every day, they are out there, trying to survive. The smallest things to us become enormous, important, and essential. The simplest conveniences are luxuries and blessings.

And that, I think, is what we forget: we are unimaginably rich, simply because we live in a country that is not uprooted by violence. We are fortunate beyond measure to have a roof above our heads. We are infinitely lucky to have somebody or something in this world.

From now on, I’ll try to remember.

During the tour, Maiga had to stop several times to collect himself. Telling this story is not easy.
During the tour, Maiga had to stop several times to collect himself. Telling this story is not easy.
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