Long Way from Home

Four immigrants living in Rome, Turin, and Genoa talk about where they've landed and where they hope to go.

By / December 2012

In Turin’s Piazza dei Repubblica, the scent of tumeric and ginger has replaced basil and oregano. In the Pinciano district of Rome, the largest mosque in western Europe rises over the fields where Italian national athletes hone their skills, and on Genoa’s seafront, the sound of spoken Arabic fills the harbor where Columbus learned to sail.

Throughout Italy, and indeed all of Europe, immigrants have come in droves over the past three decades, setting off a rash of unease and no shortage of debate across the continent. At the end of last year, there were more than four and half million legal immigrants in Italy; the United Nations estimates up to 750,000 illegal ones. The latter figure is disputed by the Catholic charity organization, Caritas, which puts the number at upwards of a million.

Immigrants represent nearly ten percent of Italy’s population. They are mostly men who have uprooted in hopes of earning enough money to support families back home. They have not carried much with them in the way of material goods, but they have come bearing languages and cultures, not to mention accounts of perilous journeys, journeys that they themselves wonder if they ever should have made. Here, in the words of four immigrants living in Italy, are four such stories:


Ali, 19
Home: Afghanistan; Current Location: Rome

My name is Ali and I am from Afghanistan. I am 19 years old. Growing up, I never knew what it was like to have a father. Something had happened to my family when I was too young to remember. They were killed, I don’t know how. My parents, my brother, my sister, they were never in my life. My uncle raised me and some of my father’s friends would help as well. They were always giving me advice, telling me to get out of Afghanistan and run away before I was thrown into the life of a soldier. But their advice could never take the place of a father, and listening to their stories of his life could never make him feel close enough to me.

I was alone. I just wanted a good life with a family, like anyone else. Why did I deserve to be born where I was? In Afghanistan, there is no hope. There is only war. If you say you want a job, they tell you to become a farmer, but truly there is no work. The only way to survive is to fight, to be a prized soldier and to serve another man’s cause.

When I was 15, my uncle found me an agent living in Europe. He was willing to smuggle me out of Afghanistan, for a price. It took all the money we had. This man concealed me under cargo in a truck where I rode, hidden, hoping to find a better life somewhere far away. It made no difference to me whether it was Germany or France, Italy or England; I just wanted to have a chance at a new life. I wanted to escape the war.

I wanted a future. I traveled from Afghanistan to Turkey in a truck; then, I hid on a boat to Italy and another to England. I lived in England for two years and began to learn English on the streets there, but I was never able to gain documents or find a job. It’s so hard to become legal in England. I lived in constant fear of being sent back to Afghanistan and the war that I had fled. Eventually, I had to run from the English government and came back to Italy, looking for refuge.

I have hands. I have feet. I can work. I went to the employment office when I first arrived here, eight months ago, and they said they would call me. They never called. I don’t have the money to return home. I don’t have the money to stay. I am trapped. We all move from church to church in Rome, getting food, whatever we can, but all I want is a ticket out. It was not easy for us to leave our home; it is never easy to leave your people. If it were not for the war, we never would have left. 


Azat, 43
Home: Turkey; Current Location: Rome

Next week will make three years since the news came. My friends ran to my home and told me that the police had learned my name, and would soon know where I lived. They said that I must leave Turkey that very day. If I didn’t, they would arrest me, and my wife and three children would be in great danger. I took one bag, and I embraced my wife and then the children, one after another. I told my wife that I would go to Europe and make a life, and then I could send for them. After that, I was gone.

I rode with my friend in the back of a truck to the coast. His cousin worked on a ship there. They put me inside a shipping container and gave me a loaf of bread, a piece of cheese, and some water. They gave me a bag of pills so that I would not have to use the bathroom during the trip. They sealed me inside. It was so dark, and so hot, I felt like I couldn’t breath. I spent five days inside that container, from Turkey to the Italian coast. When we reached Civitavecchia, my friend’s cousin let me out, and snuck me off the boat. I was so hungry and felt very sick. He gave me a little money and told me how to get the bus to Rome.

He told me there was a house in Rome where some other men were living. I should go there.

Now, I have been living in this house for almost three years. It is a very old building, with no real beds, and very cold. But all this area is owned by the Communist Party, and they let us live here for free. That is good, and I appreciate them for their help, because I have no money. I have no job. I cannot get papers, because I am illegal.

Sometimes, I can talk to my wife and children on the telephone, but I have not seen them since that day I left them, weeping, at my front door. Next week will be three years. Three years next week. I don’t know when I will ever see them again. If I cannot find work, if I cannot get papers, I will never be able to make a life here, and bring my family over to join me. I lie on the floor at night and wonder if I will ever see my children grow up.


Hamad, 27
Home: Iran; Current Location: Genoa

I was born in Iran, but I am not Iranian. I am Farsi, Afghani by heritage. It is strange to think that I have never been to my home, Afghanistan that is. I was born an immigrant, and have never known any other life. I grew up hearing talk of the people in Afghanistan and the lives they lived, but even as close as it was, it felt too far away from me and my life in Iran. Speaking Farsi always made me stick out from my friends who were of Iranian heritage. I was always different, considered to be lower, always unpopular. I wanted something better, but I never felt like I could go to Afghanistan either and make a home there. So much war, so much trouble, how could I have a life and a family in that place?

I left Iran five years ago, and went to Turkey with a fake passport. It said that I was Israeli. They believe it is authentic if it is Israeli because of their strict security policies for immigration. Israeli passports are very expensive. Japan is also highly regarded, but I could never pass for a Japanese man.

My plan in Turkey was to meet my brother, and then, together, we would go on to Europe, to Norway, where we could find a new life, and freedom. My brother never came. I waited in Turkey until it became dangerous, but he never came. I moved on to Greece and waited there for another month. The few times I could contact him, he said he was coming, just trying to get things “straightened out.”

I was never sure if that was true, or if he was just too ashamed to tell me he had failed. I couldn’t wait any longer. I booked passage on a ship to Italy and have been moving around since then. I pick up work where I can, I do my best, but it is so hard.

I still have hope that my brother will come some day and we will go to Norway as we had planned all along. Things could be different for us there. I had hoped that my brother and I could make a place for ourselves in a new land, among different types of people, away from trouble. The hope of our dream coming true, that is what gets me through these days when no one around me seems to care if I live or I die, if I come or I go, if I win or I lose. Maybe this Norway will be a home for us. Maybe we will get there one day. Maybe, in the end, we will be happy.


Achmed, 51
Home: Morocco; Current Location: Turin

I am from Morocco, born in Casablanca, but you probably don’t care much about that. I have been in Italy for two years now and I know how things work around here. When I came to Turin, I started out in Piazza dei Repubblica, where all of the other immigrants are set up, trying to sell. Soon, I realized that this is foolishness, because they all try to sell to each other, and no one has any money. Who can afford to buy?

It wasn’t long before I moved out here to where the Italians and the tourists are. It’s a little better, but business is still bad. I look for a place where there are few others trying to sell, but there is little hope of success. That is unfair, and it makes me angry, but sometimes, the other immigrants make me just as angry as the Italians. They are so hopeful and optimistic, always talking about their plans of when their families will join them or they will make enough money to go home and not be ashamed of failing, but it’s not the truth. They are lying to themselves and giving up control to destiny.

I have a few cousins here, some friends from Morocco that came over to work also, but I have no loyalty to them. When I knew them, it was a different time, in a different place, and in different circumstances. Every man must fight to protect himself and he cannot be held back by childish friendships and ideals.

If I must live here and work and struggle and barely survive, I must do it on my own. I can’t hide behind Allah and the practices of my childhood. I can’t depend on my faith for excuses. I can’t trust anyone to help me. I can’t hope anyone will love me. Everything I do, I must do it on my own.


Melissa Peugh helped with the collection of these stories.