“Roma ande Kalisferia – Roma in Limbo” – Ronald Lee

©Ronald Lee, 2002, all rights reserved. Published in Terre Sospese – Suspended Worlds: A Photo Essay of Romani Refugee Camps in Italy. Stefano Montesi. Prospettiva Edizioni Srl. Rome. 2002.

The North-American Vlach-Roma believe there is a place between earth and Heaven, called Kalisferia in Romani, where the souls of unbaptised children, suicide victims and those who have committed crimes against God are condemned to exist in limbo. This is a dismal, fearful region of total darkness inhabited by fearsome creatures that torment those condemned to live there until they receive Grace from God to enter Raiyo, the Romani concept of Heaven. When I entered Camp Casilino 900, a Romani-refugee shanty town of shacks and trailers close to Rome, I found Kalisferia on earth!

Nobody knows how many Romni refugees there are in Italy. Campland: Racial Segregation of Roma in Italy, published by The European Roma Rights Center, Budapest, October 2000, gives one estimate of 130,000 and another of from 90.000 to 110,000. This of course includes the native Italian Sinti and Roma who also live in these camps despite the fact that they are mostly Italian citizens by birth. The Italian government considers all Roma and Sinti to be nomads who must live in segregated camps. They are not allowed to settle and enter mainstream society. Many of the Romani refugees are from Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia and other regions of the former Yugoslavia, others are from Rumania. Many have been in these camps for 10, 15, or more years, some for decades. Their children, born in Italy, have known no life but the camps. They cannot apply for Convention-refugee status like Romani refugees in Canada. Few can obtain residence permits and most are unable to obtain work permits. Women must beg on the streets of the cities with their children in order to feed their families. The police have the right to take away their children and place them in foster homes. Nobody knows how many camps there are in Italy. Some are legal others are illegal. The difference is vague and fluid, depending on the whims of local municipal governments. Most of the Roma in the “nomad” camps came from former sedentary Romani communities in the Balkans and were never nomadic. This institutionalised nomadism applied to Roma by the Italian government is a gross violation of human rights.

As a Romani activist who has been working in Canada with Romani refugees from many of the former Communist countries of central-eastern Europe I was astounded that such living conditions and dehumanisation of my people could exist in a civilised western European country. I and my colleagues were stopped at the entrance to Casilino 900 by plain-clothed Italian police who examined our passports and then warned us not to go into “this Gypsy camp. The Zingari will steal your cameras and rob you,” we were informed. They finally let us go in “at our own risk” as they put it.

The first thing that struck me in Casilino 900, was the garbage piled everywhere around the makeshift hovels the Roma had built and the stationary trailers, most without wheels. There was no garbage removal and all the camps are infested with rats which often bite babies and small children. There is no electricity, no running water except outdoor taps and no sanitation except the Sebach chemical toilets which were full to overflowing. Most of the lids had been destroyed and flies commuted from the accumulated excrement to the food the women were preparing on makeshift stoves outdoors where they cooked the family meals by burning wood and other refuse from the piles of garbage. In one camp, I did see a Sebach honey-dipper wagon driven by an Ethiopian refugee. He told me he makes one trip a month to that camp.

Casilino 900, the Roma told me, was typical of most of the camps throughout Italy. Most of the Roma in this camp are refugees from the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia and elsewhere. Fortunately I was able to converse with the Roma in Romani since my North-American Vlach-Romani has now been augmented by having to converse almost daily with Romani refugees in Canada who speak a wide variety of Romani dialects from many former Communist countries of the Balkans. Most Roma told me their main problem is work permits and lack of legal status. They are not allowed to apply for Convention-refuge status. If they do, like one man and his wife with 8 children from Bosnia who arrived 11 years ago, they are denied and given 30 days to leave Italy or be deported. Italy does not apply the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees to Roma, like Canada does. Instead, the Italian government applies the 1954 UN New York Agreement for Stateless Persons. A few Roma have been able to claim stateless status and have been given residence permits like Babo Daniele who arrived in Italy after a stateless Odyssey through the hate-filled remains of the former Yugoslavia with a useless red Yugoslavian passport. Like thousands of Roma from the former Yugoslavia, he was without citizenship in any of the new republics, none of which was eager to accept Romani citizens.

Thousands of others, including former guest workers in western Europe, cannot return to Yugoslavia, even if they wished to, because the husband is a citizen of one republic and his wife a citizen of another. Many stateless ex-Yugoslav Roma who were refugees in Macedonia have also made their way to Italy. Babo Daniele now manufactures his own ovens to cook pizza and steaks in his workshop in the house he has built in the camp. This house has electricity provided by a noisy gasoline-powered generator he made himself from parts he scrounged, begged or bought. He sells his stoves to the Roma and non-Roma to make a living. He is a blacksmith by trade and told me he is trying in vain to get the Italian government at some level to advance a loan or start-up grant to create a small factory in the camp where he and other blacksmiths among the Roma could manufacture these stoves as a community work project. So far his appeals have fallen on deaf ears.

Another invincible Rom is 80-year old Sevko R., a Chergari coppersmith from Bosnia who is still hammering copper and working as a metal-smith. He told me: “ I’ve been hammering copper all my life and I’ll die with a hammer in my hand.” Other Roma are also skilled in making jewellery, beaten-copper pots and vases and other commercially-viable items but no interest has been shown by the Italian government to develop cottage industries or to fund self-help or employment start-up projects to enable the refugees to earn their own living. Many are blacksmiths, auto mechanics, tradesmen or have other viable work skills.

Most of the men in Casilino 900 and in the hundreds of other camps, are demoralised. They are unable to obtain work permits and most survive on the begging of their wives and whatever odd jobs they can find. The Italian press condemns these camps as “breeding grounds for criminals” and there is no doubt that temptation towards fringe criminality exists since all honest avenues for gainful employment have been legally eliminated or denied.

Education is another disaster. Some children do go to school in the few camps where school buses provide service but most do not or attend sporadically. Young boys vie with one another to learn the accordion since many of the men are able to eke out a living by playing music on the streetcars, the subway and in restaurants where they accompany themselves playing and singing popular melodies like O Solo Mio or La Cumparsita for European and American tourists who think they are Italian troubadours. Little girls face a career of begging or menial housework for rich Italians.

In nearby Camp Luigi Candoni, inhabited by Rumanian-Romani refugees, children do attend school since there is a school bus service. Roma in this camp live in containers which are the best solution for refugees but there are too few of them available. The containers are about as comfortable as a mobile home in Canada with running water, indoor plumbing including bidets, electricity , stoves, refrigerators, and multiple small bedrooms. At first glance this model camp, the only one of its kind, seems comfortable and pleasant and much better than the isolated, moth-eaten, no-star motels along the highways near Hamilton, Saint Catherines and in the Niagara Peninsula where the Toronto Shelters Committee is housing Hungarian-Romani refugees in Canada until you realise that these Roma in Italy may be here forever. The Hungarian Roma in Canada only have to stay two months or so in the motel rooms until they are able to leave, rent apartments, obtain work permits and begin to integrate into Canadian society while awaiting a decision from the Immigration & Refugee Board (IRB). If they receive a positive decision from the IRB they can apply to become landed immigrants and when landed, they can apply for Canadian citizenship. A negative decision by the IRB means an appeal and if this fails, deportation or voluntary return to Hungary. The negative side of the coin is that at present, only 12 to 18 percent of the Hungarian-Romani refugees are receiving positive decisions from the IRB in Canada compared to 89 percent for the Czech-Romani refugees in 1998.

The main problem in model camp Luigi Candoni is hunger. Refugees in Italy are not given money for food and without the begging of the women, who travel daily to Rome, nobody would eat regular meals. The men cannot obtain work permits and are forced to find whatever work or self-employment they can in the underground economy. It is also almost impossible for the Roma to obtain medical care. One 27-year-old woman, seven months pregnant, went to a hospital in Rome with a dead foetus in her womb. She was given some pills and told to leave since the hospital was not responsible for “Zingari trash.” She insisted and finally she was placed alone in a room and left unattended where she suffered a miscarriage and a haemorrhage without the assistance of a doctor or nurse. When I met Camilia D. three months later, in October 2001, she was still bleeding intermittently and could not obtain follow-up care from that hospital or any other.

The daily routine of Camp Luigi Candoni, like the others in the area, is dictated by hunger. Young mothers leave with pre-school children early in the morning to take the subway to Rome. They are allowed to beg anywhere except in Vatican City where they are forbidden and face arrest. While His Holiness did bless the Roma and refer to them as “My Beloved Children of the Wind,” he does not allow them to beg in his domain. In the evening, the mothers and children return and are verbally bombarded by the older women who sit along the walkways between the containers behind piles of clothing and other items obtained from charity organisations or kind Italian donors which they sell to their fellow Roma whom they hope might have a few extra lire to spare after a day of begging. Often, there was no food in the morning or maybe some stale bread and nobody ate breakfast so there is now a mad rush to prepare supper since the entire camp is hungry. Those who have food, feed those who have not. Next morning the cycle begins again. In some camps, the women have returned to find the camp demolished by bulldozers, their shacks a pile of rubbish and the Roma absent, hiding elsewhere until the fury of the municipal authorities, the racist police and the snarling bulldozers has abated and they can return to salvage what is left of their belongings.

I left Italy with one question that I as a Canadian-Romani activist must ask myself. Where are our Romani leaders in Europe? Why are none of the leading Romani figures involved in this tragedy? Are they too busy attending endless conferences and fighting with one another over grants and allocation of authority? Are they too busy with their own aggrandisement and self-promotion to care about our people in these camps? In Canada we are doing all we can to assist the Romani refugees in a country where they do have the chance to be accepted as Convention refugees and eventually obtain citizenship. If I lived in Europe I would be in Italy fighting for these Roma. Why aren’t our European Romani leaders and activists? The Gazhé will not solve this problem, only Roma activists and leaders. Non-Roma are helping, in fact they are providing most of the help at present but without strong Roma leadership, Kalisferia will continue to exist for these Romani refugees in Italy.

On my last visit to Casilino 900, “Little Onion,” a 12-year-old loveable little rascal born in the camps and already a masterful beggar implored me: “Amico, le man tusa ande Kanada – Friend, take me with you to Canada!” I only wished I could. His request was echoed by many Campland Roma: “Kako! Azhutisar amen te djas ande Kanada. Meras ande Italiya – Uncle! Help us to go to Canada. We are dying in Italy.”

The world needs to know about these camps, the institutionalised racism and the inhuman conditions under which the Roma are forced to live. This photo journal by Stefano Montesi * , an Italian activist and photo-journalist who has given of his time and talent to help the Roma, often at considerable personal risk from the authorities, will be invaluable. I met Stefano in Italy and I can fully recommend his work and his dedication to the cause of human rights.


* As mentioned above, this article appeared as an introduction to Terre Sospese – Suspended Worlds: A Photo Essay of Romani Refugee Camps in Italy. Stefano Montesi. Prospettiva Edizioni Srl. Rome. 2002.