Beyond the Violence: Immigrant Family Claws for Hope in Italy
Apr. 29, 1995
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Immigrants in Europe often gain notice only after bullying and bloodshed. But anti-foreigner attacks offer just one side of their struggles. There are many private battles: fruitless job hunts, hungry children and hopelessness in societies with little room for diversity. An Associated Press reporter tracked an immigrant family for two months as they tried to carve out a toehold in their new country.
By BRIAN MURPHY
Associated Press Writer
LADISPOLI, Italy (AP) _ The plates are arranged on the floor and the children try to wait for sunset when they can eat.
The boy wipes his palm over a steam-clouded window and presses his nose to chilly glass. Sleet slaps against the pane. The storm smells of the sea, a few blocks away.
Baharudin, 9, studies the darkening ropes of clouds.
``Now?'' he asks.
His mother, Sada Abdullahi Muhmed, shakes her head and goes back to breast feeding her daughter, born at the beginning of the winter.
The older girls bring out covers for the food, a mix of their new country and homeland they left four years ago. One bowl is filled with pasta. Smaller plates hold triangle-shaped Somali meat pies.
``Now?'' the boy asks again. Sada Muhmed nods.
Usually her husband decides the moment to end the daytime fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. But he is still 18 miles away in Rome, where he goes almost every day to talk with other Somali men about the only subject that really matters: where and how to find a job.
Sada Muhmed holds the baby while her other five children _ ages 4 to 18 _ sit on a thin brown carpet and eat. The television news flashes its top stories. One is an attack on a Tunisian man in a nearby beach town. Everyone is too hungry this February evening to notice.
``Leave some for your father,'' Sada Muhmed says.
He gets home an hour later, shivering and soaked. The heat in the two-room apartment barely works. He runs his hands under warm water in the kitchen.
After a few bites, Mohamed Ahmed Farah turns to his wife.
``Nothing today,'' he tells her in Somali. ``No jobs.''
``Maybe tomorrow,'' she says.
``Maybe. `Inshallah,''' he says. ``God willing.''
Mohamed Farah once had a job driving trucks, a home in Mogadishu and a plot of farmland outside the Somali capital. ``We had yams, beans,'' he says. ``We had enough to eat, some money. Now I know how happy we were.''
Then came civil war. His family _ like tens of thousands of others _ were snared in the middle. Gangs backing one faction picked out Mohamed Farah's family as supporters of a rival group.
Mohamed Farah's wife _ who was several months pregnant _ was raped by 20 men, he says.
``She was bleeding and crying,'' he says. ``If we stayed she would die. I would die. My whole family would be killed.''
They went by bus to Ethiopia in late January 1991 and arrived in Addis Ababa with the equivalent of about $4,000. Their home was a hotel room, he says.
The fetus survived the rape and one night Sada Muhmed cried out. She was in labor. Mohamed Farah and his daughters helped deliver a healthy baby girl, Iftin. But Sada Muhmed grew weaker. The placenta remained in her and her fever climbed. Mohamed Farah said he went to a doctor 13 days after the birth.
``We tried to save money and it almost killed her,'' he admits.
They boarded an Alitalia flight to Rome on June 6, 1991, claiming they were en route to Libya. Mohamed Farah had a plan: tear up all their passports and identification and appeal for refugee status in Italy, Somalia's former colonial ruler.
They spent 15 days in an airport detention center before a three-month residency permit was granted.
``They told us, `This is Rome. Good luck,''' he says.
They knew no Italian and had no contacts. After their money ran out at a hotel, a relief group found them a small room in a town south of Rome. A few months later, they were moved to Ladispoli, a drab seaside town of concrete apartment towers and scrawny palm trees.
A cheap wristwatch and a pair of earrings are all that's left.
They've sold the rest of their jewelry. Bracelets, rings, a gold necklace brought them 650,000 lire (about $390), just enough for rent. But the money went quickly elsewhere: clothes for the infant, shoes for the children.
Nothing is left for the landlord, whom they last paid in January.
``She comes almost every day and tells us to pay or get out,'' says Mohamed Farah, 39. ``I lie to her. I say, `I have a job at the Somali Embassy as a driver and I'm waiting to be paid.'''
``I told her we can't leave. We have nowhere to go,'' says 13-year-old Nasra.
``What does she say to you?'' her father asks.
``The same thing: Pay the rent or leave,'' Nasra says.
Mohamed Farah sits for a long time and doesn't say a word. He sketches out his debts with a pencil stub. Rent and utility bills amount to about $600 a month. They eat as cheaply as possible: mostly pasta and bread. Milk for the children is a treat.
The oldest daughter, Fatha, 15, returns with some pasta and sauce from the corner market, which has given them credit. They owe close to $800.
``They wanted to know when we would pay something,'' she says.
``What did you say?'' asks Sada Muhmed, 35.
``Inshallah,'' her mother says.