ITALY: In Rome, roads lead to Nafuma refugee center

May 1, 2009

A recent weekday in April was a typical one for the Rev. Michael Vono, rector of St. Paul's Within the Walls Episcopal church in Italy's capital city: he encountered Afghanis, Sudanese, Ghanians, Turks, Congolese – and few Italians or Americans.

That's because the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center in St. Paul's – the only day center in the city for refugees – serves another side of the Eternal City, the one not marked by ancient monuments and venerated by tourists.

At the back of the garden next to the 19th-century church building, a walk down a winding brick staircase brings a visitor into the musky air of St. Paul's crypt, a cavernous space filled with about 100 men. At one end, about two dozen are gathered in front of a television, watching an action DVD. Several have pushed a couple of chairs together for makeshift beds and are catching some sleep. In another corner, a ping pong table is seeing some lively activity.

"The center is a place of refuge. Some kids who came here from Afghanistan said people there told them, '[In Rome], look for St. Paul's, the American church,'" Vono said in an interview. A man who gave his name only as Salim stopped Vono to speak with him. He came from Afghanistan, he said. When asked by a visitor why he wanted to come, he pulled out a cell phone and displayed videos of vehicles and buildings exploding from bomb attacks in his home country, where U.S.-led forces have been fighting Taliban guerrillas.

"Some of them are on the streets and have nowhere to go at night," said Vono, gesturing to the sleepers. "In the morning we serve tea and biscuits," he continued, opening a door leading to a room with food supplies. "Today, we sent out for 240 bag lunches. We also have razors, soap, toothbrushes, and a barber comes in once a week," he said.

In another room off the main area, about a dozen men are settled in a classroom, where a middle-aged male teacher has written common Italian phrases, such as "mi piace" (I like it) on a blackboard. "We have English and Italian lessons, all provided by volunteers," said Vono. Near the classroom, Abdallah Zakaria, from Sudan, asked Vono – and anyone else within reach – how to pronounce a list of English vowels he had written on a scrap of paper.

The center, which has received a $25,000 grant from the United Thank Offering, a grantmaking agency of the Episcopal Church, sees 1,000 to 1,500 people a year. Vono said he and center coordinator Akbatan Abdulla, who came in 1999 from Iraq as a refugee, offer information on finding places to live, preparing paperwork for immigration authorities and navigating a large, busy European city.

Few women use the center since many come from Muslim countries where they are not comfortable in the proximity of groups of men, said Vono. Also, it isn't always smooth sailing when different ethnic and national groups share a space. "If there is any fighting, I close the center for the day, and they know that," he said; however, 10 years ago he ended up in the hospital for surgery when an attempt to break up a fight resulted in an accidental hard punch to his shoulder, tearing tendons.

Constructed in 1873, St. Paul's was the first non-Catholic church built within the walls of Rome. Today, the refugee center fits with a multi-cultural congregation. In addition to English-speaking parishioners, the church also hosts Latin American and African congregations.

Vono, who arrived at St. Paul's in 1992 from a parish in western Massachusetts, said the center was started in 1984. "In those days, it was people from Uganda. [Dictator Idi] Amin was chasing them out and they were coming to Rome," said Vono. The church is located several blocks from Rome's main Termini railroad station and Nafuma was a young Ugandan priest who invited his desperate countrymen off the streets and into the church.

"They are so broken, these people. When I first arrived, part of the effort was to work them through the immigration channels in Rome, and we'd try to get some Africans to go to Canada, America. Those doors closed within the first five years of my time here. The Catholic charities have dwindled; the government has been closing things," Vono observed.

He sees the center's mission as "restoring human dignity" and acting as a place of reconciliation between religious groups often at war in other countries.

"I was always interested in trying to secure a place where Muslims and Christians could have a common space. The Sudanese Muslims and Christians would say, 'Why do you have them here?' (referring to members of the other faith). At first, they won't sit next to each other, then they have to get in line for tea. Then they are hanging on to each other. It's a ministry of reconciliation that emerges in the most profound way.

"We celebrate Ramadan, we celebrate Christmas. If there's anything I'm grateful to the Lord for, [it is to] take away the trappings of religiosity and create the most genuine of religious experiences. They are making room for God in their lives," said Vono.

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To view a video of the Rev. Michael L. Vono, rector of St. Pauls Within the Walls in Rome, speaking about the parish ministry, including the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center, click here.