A refugee shows the Somali flag during the 50th anniversary celebration of Somalia's independence day, July 1960.Florence, Italy. 4 July 2010.  Lorenzo Masi/The Stand

Struggle for a Normal Life

Somali Refugee - Italy

Lorenzo Masi

Italy. 2009 Ongoing

After 20 years of civil war, Somalia remains one of the poorest and most dangerous nations in the world. To avoid being killed or forced to fight in an infinite war, many of its inhabitants try to move to foreign countries.
Considering its position in the Mediterranean Sea and the colonial past that links it with Somalia, Italy is one of the favorite destinations for people who flee the Horn of Africa country.
The common way to reach the Italian coast is to cross the desert by bus or truck to arrive at the shipping points near Tripoli.

During the Qaddafi regime, an agreement between the Libyan and Italian governments (with a clear advantage also for other European countries), called for the North African country to jail the migrants, many as a means of blackmailing their families, in order to prevent their departure.

In the absence of a stable central government, Somali and other refugees have become victims of traffickers who charge high fees for transportation on overcrowded boats. Those who survive the long and dangerous trip have the right to be put under international protection, according to the Refugee Convention that Italy and others European countries subscribed to in Geneva in 1951. However the assistance from the Italian state ends here.

Except for some sporadic intervention, the government doesn’t manage a program to provide housing for refugees, to help them learning Italian, to help them to find a job. As a result, many live in abandoned buildings or, when these buildings are evicted, in some welcome centre for refugees that is only able to host them for few months. In this situation, moving from a makeshift accommodation to another, trying, often helped by local NGOs, to learn Italian and to find a job, Somali refugees struggle to live a normal life. They are forced to remain in Italy in compliance with international agreements that prevent people who apply for asylum in one European country to relocate to another in the European Union.

Q&A with Lorenzo Masi


I was particularly struck by the wedding picture. Perhaps you could explain that scene, since Somalia is a Muslim nation, and she is wearing a very western Christian wedding dress?
In that particular situation I was invited to the wedding party by some Somali refugees I met in a former hotel that is now used as a shelter. The party was a sort of public party for the Somali community as the family of the bride was a very important one (there were also Somali personalities, like a former minister of a transitory government) but, as many of the people at the banquet, I didn’t participate in the ceremony so I don’t know for certain if the marriage was celebrated following a Christian rite. It is possible as some Somali which are living in Italy for long time, some of them are in Italy since the ’80s or even before, become Christians.

How were you accepted by the Somali community? Was it difficult, given the hostility many of them face in Italy?
I was accepted since I’ve been with them for a long time, at first not taking pictures, just talking, eating together and so. Not in every place was it the same. In Florence, my hometown, I could perform this slow approach. In other contexts I depended on the help of local organizations or advocates for the Somali community. Anyhow, I realized that when people, in this case refugees, understand that you are interested in their stories they become more and more open. Especially when they have faced some hostility, finding someone interested in their point of view and story could lead to a major interaction.
It’s possible that some don’t want to be pictured or questioned, but you should be patience and perseverant in explaining your work and your tasks.

At that point developing this story was very important to me because it worked like a first class about getting in touch, gaining the access and following a story.

Since Somalia was an Italian colony, is there a greater acceptance of Somalis than other African immigrants/refugees?
The acceptance of Somalis is much more related to their refugees/asylum-seeker status than to the colonial past that link their country to Italy. Of course the argument about immigration in Italy and Europe is too wide to treat it in in few words. The only thing I could say concisely is that the grade of acceptance is subjected to many specific situations.

In a general way, and this is related to the majority of immigrants arriving in Italy without any relation to their international status, it depends on how many people arriving in the country. It depends on whether refugees live if in houses, in welcome centers, in squats and so on. For example, a group of refugees living in an abandoned building may create a strong friction with the people living nearby.

Have you witnessed the boats of refugees arriving at all, is this how Somalis come to Italy?
Yes, Somali refugees for the most come to Italy by sea despite the dangers of the trip because they aren’t allowed to take planes without a Visa. When the boats are intercepted by the Italian Coastal Guard, or when they dock in Italy, people on them are questioned by authorities about their status. Any other immigrant could pretend to be an asylum seeker to avoid restrictions or expatriation measures.

Following a directive from EU, airlines are responsible for the costs of the return trip if a person was recognized as an illegal immigrant at the police check in the European arriving terminal. So, to avoid the responsibility airlines simply don’t onboard people without Visas.
The ones that do arrive by plane, I met some of them, usually lived for a while in other countries like Egypt and received help from their families in Europe to have all the documents ready.

How much time did you spend on this project? Have you kept in touch with or followed any of the refugees? 
I documented their lives for about three years. I’m not in touch with them (some of them don’t live in Italy anymore as they rejoined their families in other countries), but as I tried to win some grants to continue the project I contacted some of the non-governmental organizations and Somali people that helped me in the past.