‘Have I really survived?’: On home, refuge, and quarantine in Rome
All pictures by Khaled Karri.
Around the world, government leaders have adopted bellicose language to describe their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a war, we’re told, with an invisible enemy. It’s a battle that, some say, positions us all as refugees: concerned about resources, showing our IDs to justify our movements, hiding as best we can from danger.
Except that we’re not all refugees. And while we share in this collective struggle and common fear, we experience the pandemic differentially. This is clear in the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and in the disproportionate rates of death in Black and Brown communities in the US and the UK. It’s apparent, too, in the lack of aid available to those living in migrant and refugee camps in Greece, Lebanon, Bangladesh; and elsewhere people who fled their homes to seek refuge are now stuck in transit. And even for refugees who have obtained some stability, quarantine can echo past periods of uncertainty and waiting.
Khaled has lived in Rome since 2017. In Syria, he went to university and was then conscripted into the army from 2010 to 2015. During this time, he was also imprisoned and tortured for almost one year. He then began his journey from Syria, to Turkey, to Libya, where he spent one year before deciding to be smuggled by boat to Italy. In Rome, he’s an advocate for migrant rights and a communications major at John Cabot University, roles in which he sees a chance to figure out his life.
We met in Rome shortly after Khaled moved there, when Eleanor was in town for a project. One of the first times we hung out, we walked for hours along the ancient Aurelian wall, sharing stories. But most of our conversations have taken place at a distance – Khaled in Rome, where he was granted asylum, and Eleanor in Ohio, where she was completing a degree. That distance has been solidified by the pandemic, which, this year, has kept us both ‘home’, and which, recently, brought our conversations to the visible and invisible dynamics shaping the present for Khaled and those in similar positions.
When we talk by phone in late March, Khaled says he hasn’t seen a city this disrupted since Damascus. There’s almost no car traffic. Outside his window, the city even smells different. Like other residents of Italy, when he leaves his apartment, police officers check his signed pass to verify he’s out on an approved errand. By May, Italy has begun to loosen restrictions, and Khaled, no longer able to afford rent, has had to move six times.
To be in lockdown is to be confronted with the realities of home as both idea and physical space. These are Khaled’s words, shared through conversations across our own very different experiences of the pandemic and assembled by us both, about how the endless ‘now’ of quarantine in Rome reshapes understandings of home as refuge:
Before coronavirus, my daily life was waking up, biking to the university, then going around the city to take care of different things. So every day I’m working, I’m doing, I’m making myself busy. I do these activities because I don’t want to go back to my room and be stuck with my memories. I prefer to get super tired at night, when I can just die in my bed and that’s it. But with coronavirus, these conditions are allowing me to go more deeply with my thoughts. Which means I’m returning to moments I never had time to think about even while they were happening. Until now I was just running from one thing, one moment to another, to another. There was no time to think about the past. But right now I have perfect time, 24 hours, perfect time just to remember. Enough time to feel sad, or to feel scared.
And I was thinking, if I didn’t have responsibilities with the university, I’d be working right now. And if I were working right now, I’d have lost my job because I wouldn't be able to work because of coronavirus. So I’d be back to living by Tiburtina train station. Right now the biggest fear I’ve had since coming to Italy is about the place where I'm living.
Visiting migrants living at Tiburtina station during lockdown.
But this is not only my fear. There are thousands of people here who are not secure in their daily life, who have this fear of not having a place. Coronavirus doesn’t distinguish between rich and poor, black and white. And quarantine is not isolation – it’s a chance to think about your neighbour, who does not work from home because he does not have a job.
* * *
During quarantine, the few people out first thing in the morning have visited a church food bank.
I think about what it means for different people to have to try to be safe. And about the people who are in real isolation...
When I think about being in quarantine, what isolation means… Don’t tell me you’re in isolation when you have your iPhone 7 Plus. It’s isolation when you’re imprisoned and you eat half your food and give the other half to the rats because you want to save your finger, or the tip of your ear. You don’t want this rat to get you while you are sleeping. And you’re sleeping not because you want to but because eating that small portion has worn you out. That’s what I’d call isolation. Right now the whole world is describing isolation – but which kind of isolation are you in?
I don’t mean to exaggerate – I would never question people who are living inside the prisons right now, or war zones, or people who live in poor areas.
* * *
When the war started in Syria, people started moving from one area to another. Like me, I moved from my house to my grandfather’s house, and my uncle moved with me because my grandfather’s house was in the centre, where nothing was happening. And we were almost 5 families inside. And in this lockdown I can see it. People are blocked in each other’s houses, and they somehow cannot go back to their own houses. So this is one aspect that reminds me strongly of the war.
And I am lucky because during quarantine I have been able to move in with friends. But my moving also affects how I behave with people. You are closer in one sense, but also when you need to stay at a friend’s place, somehow you need to be nicer than you are, sweeter than you are, kinder than you are. Because you have to steal your friend’s attention to let you sleep in her place or his place. And people help… but somehow you feel heavy, a burden. In that situation, how do you have your life when other people have not only their routine, but another culture?
* * *
Right now I feel a little disgusted to talk about my relationship with the city before and after coronavirus. I never ever felt Rome as a strange country.
There are a lot of things you can’t describe with words, but you feel it in the old Roman vie, for example. When you are walking in the Trastevere neighbourhood you feel as if you are walking in old Damascus. Both of them, Rome and Damascus, they are such old cities. And we share a lot of histories and food and culture and behaviour. I feel at home. That it’s really home. That’s what allowed me, at first, to be patient about this situation and the disease and everything. I’ve thought about leaving – I don’t want to be stuck in one place. But I’m staying.
The Syrian writer Muhammad Al Maghut said, ‘I cannot treat my city as a hotel, [that] when the service is bad I’m going to leave it.’ I also don’t want to treat it like this. When I was in Damascus from 2010 to 2015, my mum would call and tell me to leave and my father would tell me to leave, leave, get out, and I had this idea that I didn’t want to treat Damascus like a hotel and just leave – I’d benefited from the service there for 25 years. Since I was born, I drank water there, ate bread there, everything. And I also have the same idea here. I don’t want to leave Rome now, as if it were a hotel. I don’t want to be ungrateful to the city, as if as soon as there’s any problem I want to escape.
Trastevere during lockdown.
At the same time, I’m really tired of being in this position of having to think about escaping. I want to live a normal life. This normal life is my basic right. I want to stop being a survivor. I know that people love to listen to your story because you are a survivor, but when people treat you as a survivor, they treat you as someone who was a victim. They look at you as someone who had a problem. But I have a problem. The real question I’d love to be asked is: have I really survived? And under the quarantine I can say, I haven’t survived yet, guys.
And all the work I’m doing – and in this period I’m not doing much – but everything I’ve done since arriving here was to build myself, to create a new life, was to be a little bit stable, to be confident, was to have my own mind, my own body, my own Khaled.
Khaled is a Syrian refugee in Italy and a communications student at John Cabot University. He was conscripted into the Syrian army from 2010 until 2015. After being kidnapped, arrested, and beaten, he left Syria. At the moment, Khaled lives in Rome, where he is a public speaker, a student, and a filmmaker.
Eleanor Paynter studies displacement, asylum, and related issues of rights and representation, focusing on Mediterranean mobilities and migration to and through Italy. Her work has appeared in journals and outlets including Contexts, the LA Review of Books and The New Inquiry. She holds a PhD in Comparative Studies from Ohio State University. Twitter: @ebpaynter