SELAM PALACE, ROME—Six headless mannequin torsos are lined up against a rusted iron fence in front of the abandoned Letters and Philosophy building of the former Tor Vergata University in a gritty suburb of the Italian capital. A group of young Ethiopian men wearing charity-box parkas are milling around the former faculty parking lot. They are squatters, illegal residents of the nine-story glass-faced building now known as the Selam Palace that is home to more than 1,000 mostly Eritrean, Ethiopian and Somali refugees. In a bit of cruel bureaucratic irony, they have been awarded the legal right to stay in Italy because of their past hardships, but they have not been given a chance to do so with dignity.
The men in the parkas say the torsos symbolize the faceless victims of indifference. “They are like us,” says a man who calls himself Joseph. “They were thrown away. So we decided to save them.”
The residents chose the name selam because, they say, it means “peace” in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The dilapidated building that bears the name has been occupied since 2006, and is one of around 50 similar squat houses in abandoned office buildings in the Italian capital, which does not have a single residential center for those seeking political asylum, or adequate accommodation for those whose asylum requests have been granted.
It has been 33 years since Band Aid first recorded “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to raise awareness about famine and poverty in the Horn of Africa: “There’s a world outside your window / And it’s a world of dread and fear,” warned one verse.
Now many of those who’ve fled that dread and fear continue to suffer here in Europe: Hundreds of thousands of people, at enormous risk, come here hoping to survive and, if they are lucky, to better their lives. But this is the kind of place where many of them wind up.
The Selam Palace is a tinderbox, both literally and figuratively. Living spaces have been carved out of former offices. Fires often break out from the gas canisters used in the makeshift kitchens. Fights break out, too, among the residents who have little else to do but argue.
Some of the refugees work as babysitters, cleaners or care providers for the elderly, but few have legal contracts. There is constant fear of eviction and most residents who say they don’t know where they would go next, even though the conditions here are beyond appalling. There is no heat or hot water in the building and there is, on average, just one working toilet for every 250 residents.
Still, there is a sense of genuine Christmas spirit in the air.
A little market selling shined-up trinkets and treasures fished out of the garbage dumpsters next to the nearby Romanina shopping mall was doing a roaring business on a recent December afternoon.
Toys that have been cast away by wealthier Romans are the top selling item, says the woman running the till out of a shoebox. “It’s Christmas here, too,” she says, noting that the majority of their residents are Orthodox Christians who will celebrate on Jan. 7, which is Christ’s birthday according to the Julian calendar. They will have a Christmas mass in the parking garage, she says. But they won’t be celebrating New Year’s Eve. “We can praise Jesus at Christmas,” she says. “But there is really no reason to celebrate another new year when you live like this.”
Selam Palace is well known among migrants and refugees from the Horn of Africa who make it across the sea to Italy. A group of Eritrean migrants recently rescued at sea told The Daily Beast that they would head here first.
Those who have not yet been granted asylum generally are not allowed to live inside the makeshift apartments on the upper floors of the building, which are reserved for long-term residents. Instead they sleep on soiled mattresses on the cold cement floor of the parking garage until they get a legal document or find another place to stay.
“It’s risky for us to have illegal migrants inside the building,” Joseph says. “The police conduct frequent raids, but since we all have legal documents, they let us stay.”
In fact, everyone seems to turn a blind eye to Selam Palace and places like it. When it was first occupied more than a decade ago, police carted the first residents away and boarded up the stairwells on the lower floors. Not long after, the refugees came back and occupied the upper two floors, accessed by dangerous rope ladders to get around the barriers. The refugees eventually won and the barriers came down. Those who live here today do so illegally with the knowledge of the building’s owners, and there is even spotty electricity and mail delivery service, since most of the residents need a permanent address as part of their political asylum application.
Every Thursday evening, Donatella D’Angelo, a medical doctor who heads the non-governmental organization Cittadini Del Mondo or Citizens of the World, visits Selam Palace between 7 and 10:30 p.m. to treat the residents. Scabies skin parasites and fevers are the most common complaint, usually left over from the treacherous journey by sea.
In theory, the people of this horrible place should be allowed access to Italian state-run health care. In reality, they are not able to get that unless someone from the NGO accompanies them. Cittadini Del Mondo is also working to persuade the building’s owner to assign the structure to the refugees officially so they can legalize it and install amenities like showers and fire-safe kitchens, or even open a small canteen that could serve hot meals.
On a recent Thursday night, D’Angelo says she saw 34 “beautiful souls” who needed basic medical care for skin diseases and seasonal ailments like colds and flu. D’Angelo herself was battling a flu bug and a bad cough during her weekly visit. After an hour or so treating patients, a group of residents came down from their makeshift apartments with warm cups of ginger tea and other African remedies to try to help her feel better so she could carry out the lifesaving work.
“That’s what giving is about,” D’Angelo told The Daily Beast. “They live in conditions that you or I could never imagine. But they have such a level of genuine humanity that extends beyond their situation—the kind that should give us all hope if anyone would take the time to see it.”