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.