Project Rome reunited me with my brother, it helped me kick my drink and drug habit, it got me off the streets and back into a bed and a home. Project Rome turned my life around.
When I first came to Rome, I was badly injured. I’d been shot in the Libyan war. My arm was slowly and painfully reconstructed after many months in hospital. My Embassy paid for medical treatment and accommodation, first in Turkey and then in Italy. I returned one evening to my hotel in Rome to find myself locked out of my room. The war had taken hold and government money had dried up overnight. My nightmare had begun.
Sofa-hopping provided a short term solution but I soon found myself sleeping on the street, going to sleep beneath motorway bridges, in refugee centres or in railway stations. I had gone from being a hairdresser and soldier in my home country, living with a loving and large family, to being cared for by the medical system. Finally, I had become a drunken street dweller.
I was often the first customer at the corner shop near where the Tangenziale Est crosses over by Tiburtina train station. I slept beneath it, on dirty thin blankets at the far end, in a dark space by the concrete support. At 8am I’d buy a carton of wine or a beer, the first of several that saw me through the day and the night.
The days were long and boring, street dwellers live from one meal to the next. Alcohol helped to pass the time and ease the pain. Some mornings I would wake up bloodied and bruised from a drunken fight. I was robbed several times. I lost my documents, my cell-phone, my passport. I always felt dirty. My hands and nails were blackened by the dirt, my skin was grimy, my hair unkempt. My eyes were usually red and bloodshot, from lack of sleep, from punches and from alcohol.
I would earn a few euros each day from parking cars beneath the bridges at Tiburtina, but it could never be enough to rent a room or pay for a hotel. It was barely enough to get me through the day and back to being Davide’s first customer the next morning. Hairdressers are in high demand, but I couldn’t work, I was dirty, unshaven, dressed in someone else’s clothes and I lacked documents.
I didn’t eat my beloved cous-cous and spicy Arabic food for four years. Every evening a different charity brought cold pasta with tomato sauce to those of us who lived without shelter in Rome. We were fed like animals. Two days a week the menu would change to watery thin Minestrone, with pasta.
Then once a week, every Tuesday, I would eat vegetables and meat in a thick stew and drink cola or juice with a group called `Project Rome’. If I needed anything, rather than grabbing clothes handed out from the back of a van, I’d put in my `order’ and my name would be called out to collect the clothes and shoes I’d asked for, a week later. I liked it, it gave me something to think about. After a few weeks, someone from the group, a lady called Mary, hugged me. It was the first time for a long time that I had felt genuine emotion and affection. It was the first of many embraces.
As well as serving hot food and giving hugs, Project Rome had a drinks bar, they cut hair and shaved beards, they served the women first, and even set out tables and chairs for the older people and women to sit down.
One evening, I took over from Steve, a Project Rome volunteer, and I shaved a fellow homeless man and cut hair for the first time for a year or more. It became a regular thing. Another time I worked on the bar and soon became chief `bar man’, setting up the bar table, putting out the bottles of Cola and Orange, pouring drinks, dispensing tea, clearing up. I had gone from being helped, to being helper. I would go back each Tuesday night to sleep once more beneath the bridge, happy but hungry, because I’d been so busy with my bar that I’d not had time to eat.
Time passed. By chance I met up with Steve again at Tiburtina one afternoon in August 2016. He took me back to the Project Rome House in northern Rome. I had a shower, something to eat, and drove back to Tiburtina that evening with Mary. “What do you want in your life, what is your dream” she asked me as we drove south down the Via Cassia. I replied, “To wake up in a bed, eat breakfast, and to be with my brother again.”
Over the next weeks I alternated between the House and the street. Each time I returned to Tiburtina I would fight, or get drunk, or both. I was in and out of ambulances and hospitals. When we parted after my first visit to the House Mary had given me a letter with the address on it. I still have it. One evening, fresh out of hospital, I made my way to the House. This time I didn’t return to the street, I was welcomed in and allowed to stay. I slept on a bed every night, living with four others. We cooked, cleaned, packed the cars for the regular food runs, raked up leaves, fed the chickens. We were busy doing simple things, living normal lives. I liked it.
I took over responsibility for sorting out donations, racking them in sizes and colours, completing the `orders’ that I’d once been the recipient of. I would clean the floors, the terraces, I even shampooed the Project Rome dog, Winston. We went shopping for the food Project Rome serves to upwards of 300 people each week. I helped raise money at events, I served food, I sold books at a market, I spent my days being useful and I enjoyed them, I will never lose the memories of those precious days. I had become part of Project Rome. One day, while shopping for Tiburtina Tuesday where I’d met Project Rome, we bought cous cous. That night I ate roast vegetables, curried meat, boiled eggs and olives on a bed of cous cous for the first time in four years.
I knew that I couldn’t stay indefinitely at the House and I still longed to be back with my younger brother in Germany. I hadn’t seen him for six years. Mary and I talked endlessly about how I might leave Italy, how we could get my documents fit for travel across borders. I spent long hours in the Libyan Consul with Mary. She was allowed in, I wasn’t, without her. We pleaded with the Consul and explained my situation. The Consul finally agreed to write a formal letter confirming my ID. It was enough.
The years on the street, the months in the Project Rome House melted into minutes. Suddenly it was early one Sunday morning in December. Mary was driving me through Rome to Termini station in the same car I’d first arrived at the Project Rome House in. I was finally on my way to Germany. I had given up alcohol completely three weeks before. My eyes were bright, my skin clean and fresh, I’d given up counting how many people had commented lately on my appearance, the massive change in me.
Saying goodbye at the ticket barrier at Termini station was very hard. The train journey was long and stressful, through Austria and Switzerland, up to Germany, stopping first in Bologna, then Munich where my papers were challenged, but I was allowed to continue and arrived in Berlin nearly 24 hours after leaving Rome. Seeing my brother again and speaking to Mary and Steve from Berlin was one of the most emotional moments of my life. I had made it, after years of uncertainty, living a life as low as it can get, I was finally back on my feet, back with my brother. My life was about to re-start.
I will always keep Project Rome in my heart, the weeks and months that led up to my departure will remain with me throughout my life. My aim now is to set up Project Rome – Berlin, to show the same degree of compassion and kindness that I was shown in Rome, to help others get back up on their feet, just like I have been helped.