On March 21 the community celebrates Newroz (Kurdish New Year) at the Ararat Center. The Newroz holiday, popular throughout Mesopotamia, is a seasonal link to fire — a symbol of purification and regeneration in Kurdish culture. © Laura Santopietro.

Making Community Far From Home

To be Kurdish is to live without national borders. Laura Santopietro takes us inside a community center in Italy that nurtures the shared culture of a stateless people


Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series profiling Catchlight Activist Award winners. In 2014, Laura Santopietro was a finalist with her series AZADI Freedom.


Words and photos by Laura Santopietro

Since 1999, Kurdish asylum seekers in Italy have found refuge at Rome’s Ararat Center. Many guests of the center have been the victims of torture and repression in Turkey, others are escaping from ISIS attacks in Iraq and Syria, but all have come to Italy first as they start new lives in Europe.

The reading room of the Ararat Center in Rome, which houses many Kurdish asylum seekers and refugees in transit. © Laura Santopietro

Italy is a geographic stepping stone to Northern Europe and a key gateway for many Kurdish immigrants. While the majority of refugees will eventually seek asylum in other countries, many will be drawn back to Italy as a result of an EU law named the Dublin Regulation.

Italy, a country with a liberal stance on immigration but with a deep incapacity for accommodating the large numbers of refugees.

Implemented in 1997, the Dublin Regulation dictates that the first Member State where an asylum claim is lodged, or where an asylum seeker’s fingerprints are stored, should bear responsibility for that individual’s claim on asylum. This relegates many new refugees to remaining in Italy, a country with a liberal stance on immigration but with a deep incapacity for accommodating the large numbers of refugees arriving in recent years. In Rome, many immigrants will continue to live in limbo, indefinitely and without a job or support from the state.

In the Ararat Center’s kitchen. All activities are self-managed and financed by guests with the help of external volunteers. © Laura Santopietro.
Amidst asylum claims, denials, and appeals, many Kurds remain in the center for years while working to obtain the necessary documents for employment. © Laura Santopietro.

Although Italy’s laws fall in favor of asylum seekers, with clear policy for hosting and integration, the country’s own economic challenges — youth unemployment is nearly 44% — makes it difficult to absorb the flow of newcomers. Organizations like the Ararat Center are a crucial response to this crisis.

In Rome, many immigrants will continue to live in limbo, indefinitely and without a job or support from the state.

“Given the shortcomings of the system of acceptance and protection,” explains Nayera El Gamal, a spokesman for the Ararat steering committee, “Newcomers have to wait a long time to get a bed and people will be forced to sleep on the streets. At least here they have a roof, a hot meal and a community to welcome them — an essential element to avoid feeling completely disoriented after the trip.”

Every Sunday, volunteers give Italian lessons to the center’s guests. © Laura Santopietro.
From spring to autumn, when the flow of refugees increases due to better travel conditions, the center is overcrowded and newcomers must sleep in makeshift shelters. © Laura Santopietro.
A barber works outdoors in the Ararat Center’s garden. © Laura Santopietro.

For recent immigrants the Ararat Center plays a key role. There they can find a bed, food, and some support navigating the bureaucracy of asylum claims and job searches. Language classes are offered, and a community of fellow Kurds and local volunteers helps to smooth their transition into Europe.

“Given the shortcomings of the system of acceptance and protection,” explains Nayera El Gamal, a spokesman for the steering committee, “Newcomers have to wait a long time to get a bed and people will be forced to sleep on the streets. At least here they have a roof, a hot meal and a community to welcome them — an essential element to avoid feeling completely disoriented after the trip.” © Laura Santopietro.
An abandoned former slaughterhouse in Testaccio, Rome, has been home to the Ararat Center since 1999. © Laura Santopietro.

AZADI Freedom is a multimedia project that incorporates photographs, video, and interviews. With its realization we are aiming to reflect some sense of the Kurdish diaspora experience: stateless people, on the run from persecution and violence at home, who find asylum in a foreign land only to be faced with severely limited options.

My collaborators on the project were Federica Araco (photographer and journalist) and Paolo Fumanti (photographer and video-maker). All images were made at the Ararat Center in Rome.

Ararat has electricity but no heating. Guests at the center spend cold winter evenings outdoors around the campfire, singing songs in Kurdish and drinking çay, their traditional tea. © Laura Santopietro.

Postscript

In 2014, thanks to the financial support of former guests, and a successful crowdfunding campaign, the Ararat Center received extensive renovations to its facilities. Since construction began, all of the center’s residents have been moved to alternate accommodations, in and outside Rome. Today Ararat no longer provides housing, but its core mission as a Kurdish cultural center for organizing meetings, language courses, and events, is still intact.


Laura Santopietro is a documentary photographer from Rome, Italy. Follow her on Facebook. Laura worked in collaboration with Rome’s Ararat Center on this project.

Based in San Francisco, Catchlight helps visual storytellers find their voice and supports photographers in the creation of new work. Through partnerships with media organizations, Catchlight distributes work through traditional channels and across new platforms. Catchlight produces additional content around photographers’ work to add context and enrich the experience. Live and virtual events coordinated by Catchlight connect visual storytellers directly with their audiences for more intimate and meaningful exchanges.​

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On March 21 the community celebrates Newroz (Kurdish New Year) at the Ararat Center. The Newroz holiday, popular throughout Mesopotamia, is a seasonal link to fire — a symbol of purification and regeneration in Kurdish culture. © Laura Santopietro.
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