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Another Side of Rome

“Prossima fermata: Basilica San Paulo. Uscita lato sinistra.

Stepping off the subway at Basilica S. Paulo, I find myself in another part of Rome. The apartment buildings aren’t the color of sunsets and no pretentious cobblestone threatens to trip me with each step. If I blinked, I might be somewhere else, some other city. Here, daily life exists apart from Roman ruins. I hurry past parks and highways. When Siri finally announces that I have arrived, I find myself on a tree-lined street, peering through a wrought iron gate, trying to figure out what to do. When I see a man walking up the street carrying his groceries, I seize the opportunity to follow him inside. We squeeze into one of those tiny Italian elevators where lack of space feigns a sense that we might know each other. He points me towards the apartment in broken English.

It is here where I experience a moment of hesitation. I think back to several weeks ago when I received an email one morning entitled: Hummustown Internship. Still half asleep, I sent it to spam before retrieving it twenty minutes later. I remember laughing, imagining typing Hummustown onto a future résumé for an engineering position. I had blithely signed up for an internship through Temple Rome for the chance to learn something new. In truth, I did not anticipate the pride I would one day feel for this organization. Hummustown is a Syrian refugee catering company. Founded in 2017, it has grown rapidly out of its founder’s kitchen to provide work and a new family to refugees residing in Rome. Beyond the pita and hummus, it has humanized an often overlooked and misunderstood population.

I ring the bell. I am greeted at the door by Loma, my boss’s sister, and as I step into the apartment, I hear soft music ruminating from a piano set in the corner. The man at the keys plays melancholy chords in the dimmed room as I enter into a brighter kitchen where a lady stands in front of the stove managing several pots. Loma explains that this man just arrived from Syria and though he can’t speak much English or Italian, he is a brilliant musician. Sensing a newcomer, several men begin to enter the kitchen until I am shaking hands with more names or faces than I can remember. During this ten-minute exchange, I only manage to establish that most of my new coworkers do not speak English.

Soon enough, we are loading food into a BMW and I am perching my legs atop a massive grocery bag of pita bread. Ghassan, the driver, has roared out of the driveway into the rush hour Roman traffic as I take in my first ride in Italy. It’s not a vespa, but the Syrian ballads that Khaled is singing in the backseat begin to mold the blurring scene into a movie. When we have finally arrived, the venue is not what I expected. Standing outside what I would later find out to be a refurbished government warehouse, colorful graffiti covers every wall and we duck through a garage door with armfuls of vegetables, pita, and hummus. The room inside is equally artsy and gritty. Posters hanging above a gathering of wooden picnic tables advertise revolutions in Mexico, Pakistan, and Italy. We head straight for the kitchen where two Senegalese women are bent over the stove, tending beans and rice with heat and spices. Khaled grabs a spoon to taste before the women can “tsk tsk tsk” him away.

As more workers arrive, a ceremonious and passionate greeting occurs with each new face as everyone rushes out of the kitchen to give kisses, hugs, and shake hands. I find myself awkwardly standing in the same position in the tiny kitchen where I can avoid being in someone’s way. “Relax! Be comfortable!” Ghassan and Khaled exclaim, handing me a glass of water. “Here I will teach you to fry falafel!” An entire bottle of canola oil is heated on a rusty gas burner as cakes are gingerly slid down the side of the deep pan. I step forward to watch so I can pretend I am useful. In one corner, vegetables are chopped and in the other, bottles are arranged next to a bar while still others set the serving table outside. Just then, the oil crackles and jumps out at my face, christening my cheek with a fresh burn. I jump back, initiated.

When the falafel is finally finished and the oil has been reduced to a mere simmer , I wander outside of the kitchen. Now I have time to take in more of the room. I realize I look rather out-of-place. The crowd that has begun to enter through the open garage door is composed of edgy hipster twenty-somethings. I realize I need a few more rips in my jeans or maybe a passion for hard rock. Americans smile too much, right? I better put on a thoughtful but cool look, like I know what’s going—“Here!” Khaled and another, Josephine, are waving a plate of food in my face. “Tell us if you like it!” Josephine smiles warmly. I force myself to savor each bite—it will take up more time. I have no trouble with this though, because the food is delicious and welcomingly rich after several days of lighter Mediterranean fare. I indulge in my meal and forget my self-consciousness for a few minutes.

It’s finally almost time for the event to begin. I square myself in front of the two shoeboxes that act as a register. The money must be divided between Hummustown and the two Lebanese women who are frying mana’essh (little pizzas) at the end of the table. This should be easy; I worked at a grocery store for four years, I can count money. The first guest approaches and I try to piece together enough Italian to explain the prices. The words I can’t find in Italian, I substitute with Spanish. I should probably just speak English, but the thought of revealing my American accent stops me.

I struggle to read the euros in the dark room and work slowly between the two registers. Several times, Ghassan walks over to assist. I become flustered and humbled. I find it strange that I just received an A in Honors Differential Equations but have to stop to think about every coin and bill to understand which box to put it in. During lulls, I am handed mana’eesh with mischievous grins and a plastic cup of beer. Eventually the crowd dwindles as a refugee movie is projected onto one wall and any remaining light only shines from the kitchen as we clean up. Khaled walks over and asks me point-blank, “You want to come tonight? We are taking food for Ramadan to a camp.” He points to the movie screen. “It looks like this.” He forms his hands into a tent shape like on the screen. An “okay” falls out of my mouth without warning.

The movie is still playing as the kitchen staff is ushered outside to a rooftop terrace where “Happy Birthday” is sung in Arabic and Italian for a refugee and an Italian. Several of the refugees mock me staring off into space with a grin and ask me why I don’t speak. “I can’t. I don’t speak Italian or Arabic,” I sheepishly admit and bite my tongue while it is translated. “Ohhh…Arabica! You need to learn Arabica then!” I smile and shrug.

Soon I am being given champagne in one hand and cake in the other as a circle forms and Arabic words are exchanged. I watch their lips and try to guess their gesticulations and expressions. I pretend to follow, but I’m not fooling anyone. It would take several more days before I would learn to understand conversations through facial expressions without ever hearing a word I actually knew.
When it is time to leave we don’t finish our goodbyes for thirty minutes. This time, I am swept into the mix, attempting my best Italian cheek kiss (but later realizing my error as one’s lips should not actually touch skin). I have succeeded in managing my first event without words. I find myself not minding the lack of choice in whether to speak or not. “Come stai?” and “Sto bene” and emphatic “Eh-mahs!” are enough for now.

Next thing I know, it is well after midnight and I’m in the back of another, but gentler, Italian vehicle, hurtling towards the refugee camp that I blindly agreed to go to. It dawns on me that I don’t know Khaled. He has been hugging and talking to many people all night and handing me food, but is that an indication of safety? My gut says yes, so I go with it. I become less sure of myself though when we are dropped off at the end of an industrial road, one street light yellowing the patch of street that is left. Yep. You’ll probably find my body tomorrow. The car has left though so all I can do is pick up the six-dozen hard boiled eggs and start following him down the moonlit dirt path.

As we approach, I begin to hear chatter, tents rise up around me until I am in the middle of a wide-parking lot next to a warehouse. We put down the supplies in a tent and walk over to a man hacking at a piece of drywall in the dark. It sounds like backtrack to a horror movie. Khaled laughs and assists him in this effort. Then he begins to take me on a grand tour around the rows of tents. As we make our way through the camp we occasionally stop at campfires where men sit, scrolling Snapchat or poking a rusty can on top of a grate. At one tent, a man invites us inside and offers me tea that I pretend to drink after he insists. When Khaled walks away for a moment, his eyes light up as he pulls out a box of oranges. With a slight scuffle, he produces a canary with an orange mantle, pinching its wings between his fingers. “Why do you still have this?” Khaled chuckles behind me. “It will die.” But that doesn’t deter him from carefully folding the cardboard lid to prevent an escape.

At last, it is time to begin our work. We pull out the food as other helpers who have just arrived position a van in the center of the tent circle. Attracted by the noise, men emerge in turn to accept a bag of bread, a juice box, and an egg from my hands. “Americanah!” They exclaim as I reveal my accent and spot my face through the beam of a headlamp. For the most part though, they accept with eager but tired hands. Several almost walk away during the exchange. At one point, I drop an egg as a hand fails to grip it in the dark. “S***.” There was already not enough food for everyone gathered. When someone explains that we are finished despite a growing line, there isn’t an uproar or even much complaining. Just people shrinking back into the shadows. As we leave yet again, I engage in another round of kisses with the other volunteers, this time hitting both “mwahs” on both sides.

Then Khaled and I are walking again. He begins to curse in English to express his distaste. “This f***ing five-star building is right there but no one does anything. “These people…THESE PEOPLE… they don’t WANT pity, they want jobs…” We walk for another few meters in silence until he prompts me with more questions about myself. I tell him stupid things: I have a cat, and a brother, I like to run, I’m studying engineering. When I get tired of my voice I reverse the question.

“I hate to run. They made us run at 5:30 in the army. Every morning.” He continues while I prod for more. He is twenty-eight and has fought in the civil war but still loves his country. His homeland. He tells me he will go back when this is all over. “No one knows who shoots at who. They all look the same. Then I went to Switzerland, but they put me back here and I lived in this camp for two months until I found support. What do you think about these things?”

That is the question of the evening. He has asked me this already but I still don’t have an answer so I shrug and throw out adjectives that would probably insult him through their simplicity if he knew English better. I don’t have any more words though, just exhaustion, and a desire to find a way home.
Over the next few days, I move around with the weight of this night inside my chest, burrowing itself in my rib cage like a metal rod. There is a cocktail of emotions which have fused into a glob I can’t swallow. A juxtaposition between Hummustown joy and refugee camp squalor. There is definitely guilt; the annoyingly cliché and perhaps unwarranted guilt that my comfortable American life does not face these challenges. There is embarrassment that I represent a country who has had its hand in the conflict, and there is embarrassment from my own ignorance. There is overwhelming gratefulness that Khaled invited me to bear witness. There is sadness that my participation in this internship will likely mean nothing in the grand scheme of such an overwhelming problem. There is anger that most people won’t truly care. Finally, there is fear that my mind might forget and I too will fall back behind the veil. “Don’t forget.” I whisper to myself.

When we arrive at the bus station, we walk around for nearly an hour trying to find a bus that will take me home. When I am about to give up and take the fifty-euro taxi home, we spot it and cheer. I reserve the best cheek kiss and hug for this man who has stayed with me till nearly four AM. Jumping on the bus, I hear him follow behind me and thrust his phone toward me.

“Tell me when you get home.”