This essay is a part of a series of articles supporting the release of Understanding Statelessness, a book offering a comprehensive examination of the issue of statelessness published by Routledge in 2017. Towards the success of the book, I contributed photographs from my project Stateless in Italy.
The essay recounts my experiences of photographing and working with people who find themselves in vulnerable life circumstances. It was originally published on Discovery Society. The accompanying photo essay can be found on Internationale.it.
There's a small door that's open on the right side of Ramadan and Elena's trailer—its aluminium frame barely visible in the dim highway underpass where their mobile home sits propped up on bricks and throw-away stilts. A solitary streetlamp emits a faint amber glow, but no matter, the world beyond the door remains an impenetrable black. Just in front of it, out of what used to be an empty mud-filled stretch of unoccupied land, a backyard was willed into existence; evidence of children at work in its every corner: a soccer ball, a bicycle tipped on its side, a number of wooden sticks strewn randomly all over the patchy lawn which, I presume, the kids use to play catch with Rambo, the family's crossbreed dog now intently observing my approach.
Unconsciously, I fiddle with the knobs on my camera, setting its sensitivity high. A dim world, into which I will cross momentarily, wouldn't reveal itself otherwise.
Elena meets me with a warm, wide smile, Ramadan shakes my hand and makes a half-serious joke about how he didn’t believe that I would turn up as promised. People often express interest in their life but rarely follow through, he says.
Ramadan was born in the remote mountains of Macedonia, back then still one of the federal republics of socialist Yugoslavia. Not much is known about his parents besides the heartbreakingly short account of the only significant moment they spent with their newborn son: leaving him at the doorstep of an elderly couple he ultimately came to call his grandparents. They never returned and, even after becoming an adult, he never searched for them.
Seeing how his grandparents have never had any contacts with the authorities, his birth remained unannounced to the state. When Ramadan was ten, his grandparents died, leaving him to fend for himself ever since. From that point on, he remained alone, without access to education, and, unaware of his statelessness.
Stepping over the door's threshold, my eyes take a moment to adjust to the darkness of the mobile home. The room is smaller than an average pantry of a typical Italian apartment, but it's immediately obvious that a lot of life happens in these few square meters. The bunkbeds on both ends of the room are neatly made, sheets tucked under the pillow with obvious care. I see two colourful school backpacks stowed in small wooden compartments built by hand in the narrow space over the beds. And fixed to the wall, I spot a fold-out table for doing homework carved out of a scrap of plywood.
In the middle of the room stands a small electric heater positioned so that it would give an equal amount of warmth to both sides of the mobile home if turned on.
It's December 2015, just a couple of days before Christmas, and the outskirts of Rome are unseasonably cold and dark this year. Elena feels the floor with her hand looking for an extension cord that runs through a drilled hole in the wall of the trailer. When she finally finds it, she plugs in the electrical heater. The room lights up with its soft saturated red glow and the faces of Ramadan, Elena, and their three boys suddenly snap into focus in a mise-en-scène as if materialized straight from one of the masterpiece canvasses hanging in the countless galleries of Rome. The moment takes me aback, my mind’s eye stunned into a sudden loop: I never expected to have the privilege of actually finding myself in front of a real-life Caravaggio, replete with all its intricacies: deep black backgrounds, play of light and shadow, faces revealing meaning without ever having to utter words.
I align the camera with my eye, adjust the exposure and compose the frame with a sense of reverence towards the moment and the family that allowed me to witness it.
Ramadan was born into a world absent of pens and paper, and the year—or indeed the exact date of his birth—is not known. Over the next few hours, I hear him murmur repeatedly that he is somewhere in his mid-thirties and, every time he does this, invariably, his gaze turns inwards—as if to reassure himself that his life must be manifest of at least some quantifiable measure; that it is as demonstrable and real to the outer world as it is to him.
His life—just like the lives of most stateless people—is an endless exercise in fighting frustration, helplessness and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that most often proves to be as pointless as much as it leads nowhere.
Only after having arrived in Italy did Ramadan realize how precarious his situation truly is. Life without documents is a life without rights, a life where barely a handful few are willing to recognize a person’s existence. Even a simple act of walking his children to school means risking getting stopped by the police and a detention lasting up to a week, often with little food or water; the police treating him as if he were a common criminal.
He breathes and walks a truth close to a real-life Catch 22 in its shape: without documents, he is not allowed to marry Elena; in a coup of administrative immaculate conception, only Elena is registered as their children’s sole parent; obtaining a paper that would protect him from constant cycles of detentions and release is close to impossible.
Ramadan hugs his son, Valentino, and tells me: “Italy tried to deport me many times, but when they call Macedonia, they get nowhere. No country recognizes me as their citizen, so, there is nowhere to send me to. I have no way of defending myself when they take me on the street and try to figure out who I am.” Elena jumps in: “He is not allowed to work and getting medical care for his deafness is close to impossible without paying money we cannot earn. He is invisible to others.”
Working with people existing in such vulnerable conditions where their every step is evaluated against a cliff right next to the slippery path they are forced to walk, has long been a part of my life, but has never come easy to me. At every turn, a photographer needs to evaluate the extra burden—and one shudders to imagine—harm that could be introduced into their subjects' lives. Will publicizing their story invite intrusive scrutiny from people who don’t have the family’s good at their heart? Could my work attract attention from a particularly vindictive police officer? Would they be allowed to continue their life in the modicum of a safe space they carved out for themselves?
I ask Elena and Ramadan about the repercussions they could face by working with me. They tell me that the places where they live are always temporary, so the photos I take today will talk only about a point in history. This yard underneath a highway overpass has been their home for the last two months but they will have to move soon again: in spite of their efforts to stay unobtrusive, someone has already noticed their trailer and police came by just the other day to tell them to move as soon as possible. They tell me of abuse by authorities they went through over the past few years, but ask me not to mention any specific cases we discuss. I agree.
In spite of that, they are eager for others to know what they are going through and are steadfast in their resolve.
Back in 2015, it was an opportune time to talk about the issue of statelessness in Italy seeing how the was Senate deliberating a law which could provide ways of obtaining legal recognition. Witnessing their struggle for an end to their daily hassle with the authorities, I’m was that Elena and Ramadan’s story had the potential to illuminate the corners of Italian reality that most of its citizens never even surmise exists. "If we’re a bit lucky, it could move things forward," I think to myself and decide to team up with CIR, Italian Council for Refugees, where Daniela di Rado works hard to help people subjected to the whims of statelessness, guiding them through the web of obscure legal processes that could result in some administrative recognition.
It has been almost two years since I first met the family. Their resilience and good-natured humour in the face of the odds has touched me profoundly. Since then, their lives have gone through many changes: many for the better, a few for the worse.
After a few detentions, Ramadan is still stateless, albeit administratively on a safer ground thanks to the work of CIR.
The law deliberated in the Senate has not passed—and with it, many hopes of the Italian stateless have been quashed. These days, much of the debate about the stateless people has been conflated with the mass migration Italy has been facing for the last decade. The resistance is strong—as is the support towards lawfully regularizing the lives of the 15 000 stateless and around a million minors with non-Italian parents born and raised in Italy. The deliberations about the new law introduced in the Parliament called Ius Soli, are impassioned, long and intertwined with politics and its interests. Many an eye of the stateless is turned towards the vote which is to take place in the fall of 2017.