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Documenting the realities of African refugees and migrants, Living at the Border captures everyday life in Italy. Through their personal stories, this multimedia project shows the complexity of their lives as they navigate through the asylum system in Europe. Field research for this project was conducted in Rome, Italy from September to October 2013.

Due to the lack of support, many asylum-seekers and refugees end up living inside abandoned public buildings or on the streets. By examining how makeshift communities are built by refugees despite government shut down of these places, this project explores how they attempt to seek acceptance and forge a sense of belonging in a new environment that is not always what it seems.
While the refugees and migrants interviewed for this project may not share the same story, they all live on the margins of society. They occupy the space between citizens and foreigners.

They are always living at the border.


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Part 1

An Unlikely Hotel Guest

Every year, thousands of migrants make the long and risky journey from Africa to the shores of southern Europe. Whether for economic reasons or due to forced circumstances, hundreds of African men and women cram themselves onto small and unstable boats. For many African refugees and migrants, this is where it begins.

In 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported more than 13,000 people arrived in Lampedusa, an island off the coast of Italy. This perilous journey, as witnessed throughout mainstream media reports, costs hundreds of lives as a result of boats capsizing.

Capturing headlines across the globe in early October of 2013, a boat carrying as many as 500 migrants caught fire and capsized causing more than 300 to die, including women and children. This was the greatest boat tragedy in Italy. For many African asylum-seekers and refugees, crossing the Mediterranean Sea can be viewed as the biggest challenge they must undertake to reach the ‘promised land.’ Though the journey is cut short for some, a new beginning emerges for others.
This hotel (above) is one of the many temporary shelters for refugees in Italy.

Nestled in the heart of Frosinone, a small quiet town located 75 kilometers south east of Rome, 11 young Somali refugees find themselves living in a hotel. Having arrived from Libya only a month prior, they are one of many Somali refugee youth who came to Italy by boat in search of a better life. They are known as ciyaalka baddha, or children of the sea.

This relocation is part of an attempt by the Italian government to deal with the influx of migrants and lack of housing space. The refugees live amongst regular guests at the hotel, but little is known about them. This is a temporary home for them, as they will be moved once space is found at various shelters.

Deeqa, a 23-year-old Somali refugee, is one of the residents. The young mother of two spent time in a Libyan prison before arriving to Italy. The group she was traveling with was apprehended near Libya two times before making the third journey to Italy.

I see boys and girls suffering here, people are thrown into jail, the pool of agony and discomfort is not worth it. The trouble and suffering that I have experienced on my way to get to Europe was not worth it.  

                                                                                         – Deeqa

Deeqa waits for the bus that will take her to an appointment in Rome.

She boards a bus to Rome with her friend. Sacadiya, a small-framed girl left behind elderly parents, a disabled brother and a two-year-old child when she travelled to Libya for work. When the revolution in Libya broke out, she boarded a boat set to sail for Europe. She has not seen her daughter for over a year.

It breaks my heart because we’ve gone through a great struggle, my country is a mess, I’ve suffered in foreign countries, all this struggle for the sake of a better life and opportunities. 



Since she has just arrived, it will be a while before she receives her permit of stay. Her journey from Somalia began in 2011.


“Europe is not what I envisioned it to be. People would say it is a great place and praise Europe but the reality does not measure up to what I’ve heard,” says Sacadiya.

As they walk through the town in traditional colorful Somali clothing, eyes focus on them. Most look at the group in curiosity, others in confusion. The young refugees know it is important to stay together. They do not yet know the language.

Sitting outside a shop, Sacadiya describes her two year journey to get to Italy.

Italy has long been a gateway into Europe. Merely a transit point, many people use it to pass through to Northern European countries. When refugees first arrive on the shores of Lampedusa, they are taken to a CARA; a detention centre for processing. This is where fingerprints and IDs are taken. The European centralized fingerprinting method (EURODAC) is meant to control the movement of refugees and migrants throughout Europe.


An unidentified migrant sits outside Piazza Vittorio.

The Italian Refugee Council is a non-profit organization that was created in 1990 to advocate on behalf of refugees and asylum-seekers in Italy. They provide services including legal assistance, family reunification and information on integration. Valeria Carlini is the spokeswoman for the IRC.

One European legislation that all refugees and migrants are familiar with is the Dublin II Regulation. This law was implemented in 2003 after a sudden increase in the number of asylum-seekers travelling throughout Europe. While this law has not prevented refugees from moving throughout the EU, it has been responsible for the countless Dublin returnees in Italy.

These individuals attempted to reach other countries but were sent back due to fingerprints. They often stay in these countries undetected for months before being returned to Italy. The problems faced by returnees include a loss of their place in a center or shelter. Returnees may spend some jail time in the country they were apprehended. Upon return, many of them find themselves on the streets.

Many refugees spend their days sitting in parks, waiting for documents. They travel from soup kitchen to soup kitchen in search of basic daily needs. It is common to see long line-ups outside church-run soup kitchens in Rome.

A line of African refugees and migrants forms quickly outside Centro Astalli soup kitchen.

A 25-year-old refugee from Somalia reflects on the little change in the lives of Somali refugees since he first arrived. 


“I think it’s worse now than when I came five years ago. The ones coming in now have it much harder. Before, we would wait up to six months to get documents. But now, people are in those reception camps for a year. The process is much longer to get documents. I feel bad about it…” says Mohamed.

The group of refugees in Frosinone try to stay optimistic. As they have just arrived, the frustration has not set in for some. As the youngest in the group, 18-year-old Hassan puts it:

“It’s all luck. Just because they’ve waited a long time to receive their permits to live and work here does not necessarily mean that I will have to wait just as long. I hope to get them sooner.”

Mohamed stands outside Termini train station, an area frequented by refugees and migrants.
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Part 2


Surrounded by thick black iron fences, Piazza Vittorio, the largest square in Rome, sits as serene as the gardens it holds. Palm trees are scattered throughout the area alongside picturesque fountains to quench the thirst of passerby’s.

Locals and tourists in search for shade on a sweltering Tuesday morning make their rounds. Inside the piazza is another group, this one easy to miss, but undeniably there.
Parks are considered safe spaces as they are public and loitering is not a concern.

They come to Piazza Vittorio to pass the time. Alone or in a group they sit on benches, lean against concrete walls or sleep in the garden. Coming from as far as Mali, most will say they sacrificed their lives boarding rickety boats with hundreds of other asylum-seekers at sea for days, as they waited to get to their next destination: Europe.

But today those individuals are in a similar boat once again: waiting, but this time for documents. Mohamed Saho says: “Without no job, without no going to school, in Rome you wake up early in the morning you go everywhere you like and you come back and sleep without not doing anything. That is what we are living, one year three months in Italy.”

Behind the red cap that shades part of his eyes, the 22-year-old from Mali looks worn and aged. His eyes are as intense as the journey he describes.

Saho slept on the streets for months while he waited for a space in a shelter.

Saho moved to Libya as an economic migrant in order to support his family. On February 15th 2011 his life changed. The revolution in Libya broke out leaving him with little options. Muammar Gaddafi and his forces were using African mercenaries to fight, including Saho’s stepfather who died in the battle.

Leaving everything behind, Saho joined countless young Africans escaping Libya at the time making him now an asylum-seeker. After reaching Lampedusa, his fingerprints were taken and he is currently going through the asylum procedure with the hopes of receiving his travel and work documents.


Just the Beginning


“Still I am waiting for that appointment to go there and come back, they did not decide anything yet,” Saho says. “I am just waiting now, one year and three months.”

Sitting on a park bench with his two friends, visits to Piazza Vittoria have become a routine for them all. Saho says his daily life in Italy is poor because he cannot go to school.

I know Italy, if you stay here you will waste, you will not get any future because them they will not help you. That is what I know because I met people here who are here five years, six years, the same condition.

                                                                         – Mohamed Saho

Click Here to listen as Youssi explains daily life in Italy.

I remember when I was in Africa, I did not smoke, but now I smoke cigarettes, you see in front of you now I finish one packet, I buy another one because we think too much, we don’t know what we are going to do.

                                                                                                               – Youssi

Everyday Europe

Youssi says he avoids calling his family because he has not been able to support them for the last two years. The last time he sent them money, he was working in Libya.

“If I call them, I do not have work, I do not have anything, they will think I will lie, says Youssi. “Maybe I am here, I have a good life, I forget about them. It is not true, they do not know.”

He has also experienced racism living in Italy. Scenes of walking into an Italian boutique and being rushed out quickly are all too familiar to him.

“If you enter the bus or metro you will see people, their faces change and sometimes they will hit you and say ‘go away you are black,’ just like that,” says Youssi.

Every time they talk about black, black is our identity, but we are not criminal, we are human beings like them, we did not come here to kill somebody to thieve somebody. No, only we came here because we are refugee we leave our country because of war, no peace.

                                                                                       – Youssi

Staring at the crowds of people walking in and out of the piazza, Youssi says he does not want to lose his future, but has his doubts.
Across the park from the group sits Mutala Mohamed. He is a 24-year-old migrant from Ghana.

As for Saho, he remains optimistic about the future.

“I came from long way, I didn’t die, I crossed Sahara, I crossed international sea and then I am in Italy today so still I do not lose faith.”



Part 3


Salaam Palace translates as the “peace palace” in Arabic. One of the most well known examples of a makeshift community, Salaam houses 800 refugees from four East African countries (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan). The Palace was a former university and has been used as a shelter since 2006. 

An intricate world created out of necessity, the residents of the palace co-exist peacefully despite cultural and religious differences. When refugees first arrive in Rome, those who have heard of the palace, set out to find it. A council of eight representatives run Salaam. They manage the building. If there is a dispute between residents, they attempt to solve the problem immediately. 

The council members are elected positions and each country has two representatives. There is a sense of safety and trust within the walls of Salaam Palace. This forged micro-universe ultimately reflects the need for acceptance, belonging and community. Mahad Abdi is one of the Somali representatives from the council. He calls Salaam Palace, home.

The Secret Community

“Comunita la Pace,” meaning the Community of Peace, is another example of a makeshift community. It is located next to a highway on vacant land near the Ponte Mammolo train station. From an aerial shot, the mass of buildings look like a slum in the middle of a quiet neighbourhood [see below].


In 2005, the refugees physically created this makeshift community. It can be considered a slum because of the self-created huts and garbage surrounding the area. Using cement, boards and other materials, a group of refugees constructed homes here. Now, more than 100 refugees live in the camp.


The ethnic communities that reside inside Comunita la Pace include Ethiopians, Eritreans, Egyptians, Moroccan and people from eastern Europe. One former resident shared information about the camp. According to him, the church and various NGO’s often deliver food and medication. He says that during the winter, living becomes difficult because there is no electricity. The residents go across the street and get water from a nearby fountain.


The residents have tried to make this place home and built two small cafés.

For a glimpse of this secret community, see below:

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Part 4


Most refugees who request asylum from Italy receive it.

Aladgie is one of them. A 24-year-old refugee from Mali, his journey began in Libya where he spent two years working. When the Libyan war broke out, he followed other Africans in fear of persecution and made his way to Europe. After having waited a little over a year for his permit of stay, he was granted refugee status.


However, he could not gain employment and found himself once again sleeping at a centre for asylum-seekers. He does not have permission to be at the centre, but was able to sleep there each night with the help of some friends. His story highlights the realities many migrants and refugees face once they receive their documents.

We came here, they give us document, thank God that they gave us documents. But after that, you don’t get work, no better place to live, it’s a problem.
                                                                                                    - Aladgie
Click Here to listen to Aladgie’s Europe.

Like many, Aladgie spends most of his days, sitting in areas around Termini train station. Due to the high tourist concentration in this part of downtown and the transient setting of the train station, migrants who hang around the area are chased away by police.

The Integration Problem

Some of the refugees said they were better off not getting their documents because now they must find their own means of shelter and food. Because refugees and migrants are the last to be considered for any kind of work, they end up on the streets. With little social networks, they are expected to support themselves. While refugees are supported on paper by policies, in reality very little support is offered.

There are not only negative stories…we also have very lucky stories, but a system cannot be based on stories. A system has to be done by rights and possibilities for everybody.                                                    

                                                                                       – Carlini, IRC


In recent years, Italy has made international media headlines for its treatment of refugees and migrants. There was an increase in xenophobic attacks throughout the country as documented by human rights agencies.


Migrants become scapegoats for current economic crises in the region. Politicians and media outlets often add to sensationalist views of foreigners. Refugees who already sleep on the street are especially vulnerable for these types of attacks.

Carlini acknowledged that while legislation on refugees have improved considerably in the country since 1990, the reality for many asylum-seekers have not changed. The gaps between policies and their practical implications are evident in, for example, the length of time in the asylum process.


According to Italian law, the process should only take 35 days. This is unrealistic considering the process can take anywhere between six months to two years. This is due to lack of resources and the backlog of asylum applications at the Questera. While they wait for their documents, many refugees find themselves in a limbo with very little access to integration services and employment.

Barikama Means Resistance

Housed in an abandoned former textile factor, Barikama Yogurt is a glimpse into what happens when people are forced to create their own opportunities. This micro-income project produces and sells organic yogurt in the Rome vicinity.

In a brightly lit room with graffiti everywhere, one wall reads, No One is Illegal. Five young men from Mali, Senegal and Ivory Coast clad in aprons work as west African music blares in the background. There is a welcoming feeling, as they share laughs and dance. As they make yogurt, they talk about their experiences and how they got to this point.


The word Rosarno comes up in each of their interviews and the smiles fade. What happened in Rosarno, Italy is a deeply traumatizing event for these individuals. One that cuts deeper each time it is recalled. Africans were illegally employed as farm labourers in the town. Making less than 20 euros a day, they slept in barns in unsanitary conditions.

In 2010, there was a revolt in the farming fields of Rosarno. In addition to the already present exploitation, African men were harassed in the street by the locals. The tipping point of the event was when three African men were shot on their way home. This led to a mass revolt as the migrants stopped working and took to the street. Clashes between the locals and migrants led to Italian authorities providing work visas and train tickets for the migrants to leave town. Some left for Rome, others for Napoli.

Sulieman, originally from Mali, is the founder of Barikama Yogurt. After meeting people from Ex-Snia, which is a social hub for non-governmental organizations, Sulieman created this project. The name Barikama is fitting for this initiative as it means ‘resistance’ in his native language of Bambara.


This project would change the lives of these African men. He feels a sense of brotherhood with the others. His dream is to expand this project and employ 100 refugees as a way to help his fellow Africans. Through this project the men involved learned the Italian language, have become familiar with Rome due to delivering the yogurt to markets and made connections to more job opportunities.

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