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Intimate Portraits Show Tender Moments in the Lives of Refugees

Photographer Serena Vittorini highlights the passions and joys of two Malian refugees living in Rome.

It is 1,942 miles from Mali to the Marcellina neighborhood of Rome. Those miles traverse two entire countries and the Mediterranean Sea. For many, they are the quantifiable distinction between danger and safety, between ethnic or religious persecution and poverty, and between the home they left behind and SPRAR, a refugee rehabilitation center in Marcellina that houses asylum seekers and aids them with integration into modern Roman society.

Photographer Serena Vittorini met two Malian men, Sidibbe, 28, and Sarabba, 20, at the center. They escaped their country separately but developed a close friendship there. Her series Foo dëkk documents their lives in Marcellina, portraying their inherent struggles yet gravitating towards the joys of acclimation to a different and better life. "My intent was to create a report that would be less descriptive and more symbolic of the human condition of the boys," she tells Creators. "[To] bring out their aspirations and not their social status, emphasize that their needs are often similar to ours."

"Sarabba and Sidibbe talking to each other outside the center" 

Foo dëkk means "where do you live" in Wolof, the language spoken by Sidibbe and Sarabba. Vittorini chose this title as a means of highlighting a sense of belonging "not tied to geographic boundaries," she says, "but to the human relationship with the global environment." She also sought to emphasize that the boys live in a place that is not their home, but that within the global context of belonging you can, and sometimes must, make a life anywhere, and that acceptance should be universal.

Temporary homes for asylum seekers, such as SPRAR, are common in the US as well. Their goal of integration into the workforce and local economy is similarly challenging, but often surmountable thanks to the centers' connections in government and the community. Acceptance into a societal fabric, however, takes time and many refugees spend their first few years in isolation. At SPRAR, Sidibbe and Sarabba take language and vocational classes that train them in both agriculture and body guard certification, skills that aid them in self-sufficiency. The men of the center are often featured in a local online news outlet, PiuCulture, that tells the stories of Rome's immigrants—according to Vittorini, 10% of its population—in the hopes of decreasing alienation and encouraging empathy within the community. This is how Vittorini first learned of Sidibbe and Sarabba. "Thanks to the friendships that are created in these places," she says, "the boys manage to recreate their social fabric and to be strong in times of trouble."

"Rooms in the center"

When she first approached the men about her project, they agreed but remained suspicious of her. She cites this as her biggest challenge: "[To] earn their trust, make them aware that I was not a threat, but I was really interested in telling their story without depriving them of the dignity that too often they see threatened." Eventually, after time passed, they began to let her photograph them during intimate moments, like Sidibbe in the shower or Sarabba's scar where his umbilical cord was removed at birth. To Vittorini, this image is central to the symbolism of her series. It conveys the fragility of youth and the harsh realities often faced by those so young.

Throughout her series, Vittorini chose to prioritize the boys' passions over their struggles. For Sarabba that was soccer, whereas Sidibbe preferred nature. Both were outlets for the boys after their courses finished each day. In this way, she invites the viewer to glimpse into the daily life of two refugees, to consider the similarities rather than the differences. She stresses that we all must live in reality rather than allowing ourselves to be influenced by constructed and unnecessary prejudices. "Because," she says, "very close to each of us there is a story that deserves to be heard and a person who has a great desire to give."

"Sidibbe washes himself in public bathroom of the center"

"Sidibbe sitting in his room"

"Scar on the Sarabba's navel due to the cord cutting procedure performed in Africa at birth"

"Sarabba's football shoes"

"The entrance of the SPRAR center 'AMAHORO,' near Rome"

"Clothes hanging in the back of the property"

"Sarabba lying on one of the large lawns around the center"

Check out more of Serena Vittorini's work on her website

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