I was a Stanger, and I was Welcome.

I want to share this story with you, I could never tell it as well as Rakin. As you know the JNRC is one of the two refugee centers I serve in Rome. 

My name is Rakin and I am a refugee.It is difficult for me to share my story, but I feel it’s important because I want others to understand the reality of my country and people.  We are not secure and there is no peace for millions of people like me.

Before I left Afghanistan, I was appreciated by my family, friends, and community. I had a comfortable life with a beautiful house. I had hopes of becoming a psychologist, I had published books condemning the acts of the Taliban, and I was interviewed on the radio and television about my writings. Then my life changed drastically.

I was kidnapped for money. The kidnappers called my family and threatened to kill me if my family didn’t pay them. More than ten times, the kidnappers sent pictures and videos of them beating and torturing me, to my family.  After four months, I escaped.  I was badly hurt and went to the police station. They knew I had been kidnapped because my father had reported it. The police asked me to take them to the place where I was kept. They arrested and killed many of the kidnappers. 

 
When my kidnappers heard that I reported this to the police, they threatened me by phone. My mother was so panicked she had a heart attack, and while I was visiting her in the hospital, my kidnappers sought revenge. They found my home and killed my father, brothers, and sisters. My mother and I tried to move to a friend’s house outside of Kabul where we would be safe. We stayed there for a long time, and then my mother asked me to leave Afghanistan. We couldn’t continue to hide in the house out of fear of being attacked.  The plan was that once I was settled in Europe, I would invite her so she could also be safe.

I never imagined that I would face such problems in Europe. I always thought of Europe as supporting human rights and equality. When I first arrived to Rome, I had to sleep in a tent outside in the park for three months during the winter. There was not good food to eat and it was cold. Now I share a room with eight other people at a reception center with other refugees. I don’t sleep well. There is no hot water. I can only wash myself every couple of days. Because of the cold water I am always sick. It is inhumane.

It is well known that money allocated for providing services to asylum seekers is being siphoned off for other purposes. Recently, a transcript released from wiretapping the Mafia Capitale revealed one member saying, “Do you have any idea how much I can make on these immigrants?  It’s a lot more profitable than drug trafficking.”  I am one of these immigrants.  So, I take cold showers as others profit from my misfortune.

“DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MUCH I CAN MAKE ON THESE IMMIGRANTS?

IT’S A LOT MORE PROFITABLE THAN DRUG TRAFFICKING.”

Like many, before I arrived here I perceived Rome as a holy city. When I arrived as an asylum seeker, I discovered a reality that was inconsistent with my perception of being a holy or sacred place. Keep in mind that I arrived as a foreigner who was not here to vacation, but rather to save my life.  As a stranger to this city, I am misunderstood and mistreated.  Now I wonder if this a holy city.

Instead of asking about my education, about my skills, or questions to get to know me, people only ask, “Where are you from?” This is what defines me. This is what creates a barrier in my ability to form friendships and feel welcome in the community.

Fortunately, when I arrived to the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center (JNRC), I met some wonderful people. Their kindness lessened my suffering. They tried to feel what I am feeling…not having any family.  I know that this center is my home and these people are my family. I no longer feel alone. People listen to me. They helped me solve my problems with documents. They invited me into their homes and cooked delicious food for me.  They even celebrated my birthday for the first time in 8 years – and since the death of my family – that I had a birthday celebration.  They were with me during my formal interview for protection (or commission as it is called here in Italy) and when my mother died alone, and in a faraway land. The JNRC is supporting me in every possible way.

Before coming to the JNRC, I was like a dead person. I used to sit in the park alone. Psychologically I was dead. Working with the JNRC psychologists and listening to their advice brought me brought me back to life.  All refugees that experience this kind of trauma need to be welcomed, especially when they don’t have any family to support or protect them. No one can go through life without family and supporters to lead us out of the darkness and toward our goals and dreams.  The circumstances of my own trauma have changed my life plans in ways that I never imagined possible.  Still, I am hopeful that one day I will start my writings again, continue with a psychology career and feel like a respected human being.

This is why I am very thankful for this center; for what they are doing for me and for others. In this center, Muslims and Christians eat, play and work together. Everyone welcomes newcomers as human beings, not according to religion, race, or ethnicity. The situation in this center feels very different from the situation out on the streets of Rome.

Outside, I feel looked upon as an unwelcome stranger. When I’m on the bus the people next to me secure their wallets and close their purses. I don’t know how to behave to prove that I am not a thief. The refugees that I know are good people from good families.  Even if they don’t have money or beg on the street, they would never steal. This is what we face as refugees everyday in Rome.

Now, I am part of the JNRC’s Artisans Together project.  We produce handicrafts, for a suggested donation, in order to heal from our trauma and rebuild our lives in Rome. We advocate and educate about the reality of refugees. As artisans, we share profits amongst us and donate 10 percent back to the JNRC in order to help the guests who depend on the center for daily assistance, sanctuary, and support.

My work with this group has restored my sense of belonging.  We practice respect for humanity and equality amongst brothers even though we are from different countries and continents.  In this group, I am learning new skills.  I am surrounded by a community of support that gives back by welcoming other strangers who make their way to this center.

As Muslims we believe that Jesus gave life to the dead by God’s permission.  The Christians that I found at the JNRC helped make me alive when I was dead person.  Still a practicing Muslim, I underwent nothing short of a miracle, to find myself again.  I was dead, but when I found this church and center that welcomed me as a stranger, I was given life again. Alhamdulillah! Or, as you might say in English, All praise is due to God alone!

“STILL A PRACTICING MUSLIM, I UNDERWENT NOTHING SHORT OF A MIRACLE, TO FIND MYSELF AGAIN. I WAS DEAD, BUT WHEN I FOUND THIS CHURCH AND CENTER THAT WELCOMED ME AS A STRANGER, I WAS GIVEN LIFE AGAIN.”

I don’t want to be identified as a refugee forever.  I hope that someday I will be treated in Italy as I was treated before the living nightmare of losing my family, my country, and my life.  I never wanted to be a refugee.  The human spirit is strong and I am learning to dream again – and this is the gift that I have been given, because I was a stranger, and I was welcomed.

ABOUT RAKIN

Rakin, who prefers not to share his last name, is originally from Kabul, Afghanistan. He fled his country in 2010. After being denied political asylum in Norway after four years, he came to Italy where he has been granted full refugee status according to the Geneva Convention (1951).  It is rumored in the JNRC and beyond that he is an unbeatable chess player.

This story first appeared in the JNRC blog. You can read this and other stories at http://jnrc.it/stranger-welcomed/#

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