by Laura Santopietro
SINCE 1999, Kurdish asylum seekers in Italy have found refuge at Rome’s Ararat Center. Many guests of the center have been the victims of torture and repression in Turkey, others are escaping from ISIS attacks in Iraq and Syria, but all have come to Italy first as they start new lives in Europe.
Italy is a geographic stepping stone to Northern Europe and a key gateway for many Kurdish immigrants. But while the majority of refugees will eventually seek asylum in other countries, many will be drawn back to Italy as a result of EU law. Implemented in 1997, the Dublin Regulation dictates that the first Member State where an asylum claim is lodged, or where an asylum seeker’s fingerprints are stored, should bear responsibility for that individual’s claim on asylum. This relegates many new refugees to remaining in Italy, a country with a liberal stance on immigration but which has a deep incapacity for accommodating the large numbers of refugees arriving in recent years. In Rome, many immigrants will continue to live in limbo, indefinitely and without a job or support from the state.
Although Italy’s laws fall in favor of asylum seekers, with clear policy for hosting and integration, the country’s own economic challenges—youth unemployment is nearly 44%—makes it difficult to absorb the flow of newcomers. Organizations like the Ararat Center are a crucial response to this crisis.
“Given the shortcomings of the system of acceptance and protection,” explains Nayera El Gamal, a spokesman for the Ararat steering committee, “Newcomers have to wait a long time to get a bed and people will be forced to sleep on the streets. At least here they have a roof, a hot meal and a community to welcome them—an essential element to avoid feeling completely disoriented after the trip.”
For recent immigrants the Ararat Center plays a key role. There they can find a bed, food, and some support navigating the bureaucracy of asylum claims and job searches. Language classes are offered, and a community of fellow Kurds and local volunteers helps to smooth their transition into Europe.
AZADI Freedom is a multimedia project that incorporates photographs, video, and interviews. With its realization we are aiming to reflect some sense of the Kurdish diaspora experience: stateless people, on the run from persecution and violence at home, who find asylum in a foreign land only to be faced with severely limited options. My collaborators on the project were Federica Araco (photographer and journalist) and Paolo Fumanti (photographer and video-maker). All images were made at the Ararat Center in Rome.
In 2014, thanks to the financial support of former guests, and a successful crowdfunding campaign, the Ararat Center received extensive renovations to its facilities. Since construction began, all of the center’s residents have been moved to alternate accommodations, in and outside Rome. Today Ararat no longer provides housing, but its core mission as a Kurdish cultural center for organizing meetings, language courses, and events, is still intact.