Rome’s ‘invisible’ immigrants offer an alternative view of the Eternal City

With the Guide Invisibili walking tours of Rome, young refugees and immigrants are challenging the dominant narrative about who they are, where they come from and who gets to tell the story of one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. (Ginevra Sammartino)

For many people who live in Rome, the weekends are reserved for leisurely walks in the city centre and window shopping. But on a sunny winter morning one Sunday in January, 12 people met in Rome’s central neighbourhood of Trastevere to have a rather atypical stroll in their home city. First, they played a SoundCloud audio file via their smartphones, and then they started to walk through the narrow, picturesque Roman streets, guided by the voices they were hearing through their headphones.

“The trees, the cars parked one after another, the small streets – it all reminds me of my city, Damascus. Everything looks the same.” The voice they were listening to belonged to Marwa, a young Syrian-Palestinian woman who is one of the ‘invisible guides’ sharing their perception of the Italian capital in relation to the places where they come from. “Only one thing is different: the bars. We don’t have them.”

Marwa, whose voice guided the group through several streets in Trastevere, is one of 40 young refugees and immigrants to Rome participating in the Guide Invisibili (Invisible Guides) project. Launched three years ago by Rome’s Laboratorio 53, an NGO offering a multi-disciplinary approach to assistance and hospitality for migrants, Guide Invisibili is an audio storytelling initiative which aims to challenge the common perception of refugees and immigrants as ‘guests’ by turning them into ‘hosts’ who present Rome as they see and experience it.

“We wanted Italians and foreigners to get to see Rome through the eyes of its immigrants,” says Marco Stefanelli, coordinator of the project. Or rather ‘hear’ Rome as sound is at the core of the experience. Together with the voices of the guides, tour participants can hear background noises of the city to make the experience more authentic.

Some of the storytellers come from Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Palestine, but most of them are from Africa: Egypt, Senegal, Mali, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Benin, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast.

They are young men and women, mostly in their twenties, who left their homes countries due to conflicts or political and economic instability. The group members met through other Laboratorio 53 activities, such as Italian language classes, psychological counselling and legal aid services.

The personal stories of the guides making interesting parallels between life in Rome and life in the various African cities mentioned in the tour impressed Giulia Zimei, one of the participants in the Trastevere tour. Tucked between the River Tiber and the Vatican, Trastevere is one of Rome’s most charming districts owing to its narrow, cobblestone streets lined by medieval houses between which Romans hang their washed clothes to dry on clothes lines. Even though Zimei knows the area well, the walk was full of surprises: “You get a chance to pay attention to the places that you don’t even notice in everyday life. [You get to see] small corners with paintings or flowered balconies that you’ve never seen before and [hear] stories that you didn’t know of.”

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Bridging the divide between Rome’s ‘old’ and ‘new’ citizens

Laboratorio 53 has so far organised three nine-month rounds of storytelling workshops, the collection of stories, their audio recording and post-production. This has resulted in six different audio tours of Rome’s central neighbourhoods surrounding Trastevere, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, Termini, Monti, Piazza di Spagna and San Lorenzo. The audio guides are accessible in Italian and English through the online audio streaming platform SoundCloud. The tours, which are free of charge, are typically organised twice a month. The young storytellers help out with the logistics of the tours including sharing audio files with participants, distributing headphones to those who need them (or giving out MP4 players to participants whose phones aren’t connected to the internet) and moderating the discussions after the tours, which allows them to make a modest monthly income.

But for the participants, much more valuable than the money is the opportunity to break down the barriers between Italians and immigrants, and to fight against widespread prejudice against people from the Middle East and Africa. Ismael from Benin is one of the guides. He says that the most exciting part of the walks is the finale, when participants in the tours get to meet their ‘invisible guides’ and talk to them. “What I like the most is the opportunity to meet people. It helps me know Italians better, and allows me to better integrate here,” he tells Equal Times.

Ismael’s audio story about traditional religious practices in his country, such as the Ouidah Vodun Festival, has the reverse effect as well – Italians are left with a better understanding of the cultures of West Africa. “There are people who approach me and tell me they like my story about Benin, and who even tell me that my story makes them curious about my country. Some of them are even thinking of visiting it. This makes me very happy.”

The opportunity to be heard and seen means a lot to Ismael and his friends from Guide Invisibili, who are for the most part overlooked, neglected, and discriminated against. The rise of populist parties in Italy has fuelled a rise in xenophobia and feelings of mistrust towards refugees and immigrants over the last decade.

After the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011 and the subsequent collapse of the Gadhafi regime in Libya, Italy has seen a significant rise in the number of refugees and immigrants arriving in the country. From 40,360 asylum requests in 2011, the number of asylum requests jumped to 63,660 in 2014, according to UNHCR data. With the war in Syria and humanitarian crises in African countries such as Nigeria and Eritrea, Italy hosted many more refugees and immigrants in the following years. About 130,000 people asked for asylum during 2017, according to the Interior Ministry.

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With 46 per cent of the Italian population seeing immigration as a threat, the perception of insecurity caused by the presence of refugees and migrants was at its highest level in a decade, according to a 2017 survey by Italy’s Demos & Pi research institute. The number of racially motivated attacks has also been increasing in Italy together with the rise of Matteo Salvini’s far-right party Lega. In 2018, the Italian NGO Lunaria documented 126 cases of racially motivated aggression and physical violence; the same association registered 46 such incidents in 2017 and 27 in 2016.

The new ‘Sardines’ citizens’ movement, born in November 2019 in opposition to Salvini’s hostile politics, might help Ismael and other ‘invisible guides’ to feel more welcome in Italy. The country’s far-right and anti-immigrant sentiment is aimed almost exclusively at non-white immigrants from Africa and Asia, with ‘expats’ coming from white majority countries generally unaffected by the rise in hate speech and violence.

Zimei, who works with tourists and expatriates in Rome, thinks it is more a matter of income and status then of the race. “Any American or Australian citizen [immigrant] is also a non-EU citizen but is not perceived, given his or her social status, as a problem but as a resource. At the same time, a refugee or an African immigrant is seen as a burden for our society, as a problem to be solved.” However, the racist abuse suffered by well-paid black footballers in the Italian league and politicians such as Italy’s first black minister Cécile Kyenge suggests otherwise.

An estimated 2,500 people have participated in the tours so far. Even if many Italians don’t know about the initiative yet, the stories of young guides are indeed a valuable resource – of intercultural learning, peacebuilding and stability. Encouraging Rome’s new citizens to explore and – through that – claim the public spaces, allows the discovery and the creation of new and unexpected layers to the city. “How we see reality depends on our worldview,” says the description on the Guide Invisibili Facebook page.

“I personally think there is a paradox where the more you talk about refugees and immigrants, the more xenophobia will rise. Even the good narratives about immigrants cause this,” says Francesco Conte, a Rome-based journalist and founder of Termini TV, an online media project exploring migration. “But I think initiatives like [Guide Invisibili] can help, because they’re not explicitly talking about immigrants and refugees, but they simply include them, as anyone else. I think that’s the way to go.”

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