Rome’s ‘invisible’ migrants offer alternative tourism guide to Eternal City

The Eternal City's famed monuments are given an African twist by refugees Abdul, Kaba and Sidia, who use anecdotes from their life journeys to show the Italian capital in a unique light.

Rome's 'invisible' migrants offer alternative tourism guide to Eternal City
Ismael from Belize (L) and Kaba from Guinea with Italian tourists by Rome's Trevi Fountain. Photos: AFP

For most of their time the “Invisible Guides” belong to Rome's multitude of anonymous migrants. But twice a month they hand out audio guides and lead walking tours organised by the Laboratorio 53 association in English and Italian.

First stop is Piazza di Spagna in the historic centre, with its grand staircase, expensive boutiques and snap-happy tourists.

Abdul Gafaru says it reminds him of the Vienna City district of Accra in his native Ghana, where “the rich go to have fun”.

The difference is that here “the rich and poor behave and dress the same”, and while tourists “can leave their country, go on holiday, then go back home”, Gafaru cannot.

Mamadou Cellou Diallo (right), a Guinean who supervises the walk, told AFP the aim was to “combine our stories withthe sites, and show things people don't usually notice”.

He shows how a climbing plant on one wall hides a 17th-century plaque which threatens fly tippers with heavy fines.

Centuries on, garbage litters the streets of Roman suburbs where many migrants live, and it reminds many of rubbish-strewn streets of large African cities.

The tourists stop at the edge of the busy Via del Tritone, where Lamine Sanogo tells the tale of his journey to Italy from Mali, which saw him cross five borders and the Mediterranean sea — where 25 of those on the boat with him died.

“They tell their stories with great simplicity and dignity, simply to say that they exist”, says Eve, a French woman who has lived in Rome for 28 years and did not want to give her surname.

Kaba Coulibaly from Conakry in Guinea says he hopes the project will help combat “prejudices against black people”.

“Italians think we are thieves, and bandits. We decided we should show off our cultures and make people think”.

'Water scares me'

The refugees and asylum seekers come from across Africa and their stories only scratch the surface of the violence and trauma they have suffered along their perilous journeys to Europe.

“The idea is to convey our emotions to the tourist through an event we have experienced,” Diallo says.

Standing in front of the Trevi Fountain, the listeners are transported to Casamance in Senegal, where Sidia Camara lost a childhood friend, aged just 10, when he drowned in a river where the village children played.

“Water scares me,” he says now. Despite that, he likes the Trevi Fountain because it reminds him of the “bolon” — which means moving water in his native Mandinka tongue — though “they are different in their sounds”.

For the past three years, migrants assisted by the association have been taking part in a radio laboratory where they write and then record their stories, to which ambient sounds are then added.

Threads of those stories are then linked to tours of the picturesque Trastevere, San Lorenzo and Monti neighbourhoods.

Marco Signorelli of Laboratorio 53 says the tours bring in money for the migrants, but are mainly aimed at “affirming the idea that migrants are citizens like any others, and their perspective can enrich our vision of the public space”.

Rome local Alfredo Gagliardi says it made him look at the historic centre differently.

“When I come to the centre it's for entertainment. For them, it's to go to the police station for their residence permits”.

Coulibaly says he is often racially abused in Italy, but being a guide helps serve as a counterbalance.

“This experience allows me to build relationships, meet people who are interested in my story and me personally,” he says.

Member comments

  1. Until broken countries are fixed in a meaningful way, europe is on an unstoppable trajectory of becoming the haven for millions upon millions of economic migrants. I was in Brussels not long ago, but it could have been Saudi Arabia. I was in Treviso, but it could have been Somalia. I have no answers to this dilemma, but I am focused on experiencing as many European cultures as possible in the next 10 years before they are gone forever.

  2. @Evelyna
    Don’t worry, refugees don’t want to come to Italy freely, since Italy is a shithole itself (just mentioning corruption and youth unemployment here). You probably should visit countries like Kuwait or the UAE, where >50% of the population are immigrants.
    European cultures will remain, I’m just not so sure about the Salvini-culture…

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Body of missing American tourist found in Rome’s River Tiber

The body of a missing 21-year-old tourist was found in the River Tiber on Thursday morning, according to media reports.

Body of missing American tourist found in Rome's River Tiber

Elijah Oliphant, from Dallas, Texas, was on holiday with his family in Rome when he went missing several days ago.

Oliphant’s parents reported his disappearance after he left his hotel room shortly after midnight on May 24th and did not return.

Hotel security footage showed him leaving the premises wearing a white undershirt and pyjama bottoms, which he was wearing when he was found.

Oliphant’s corpse was reportedly spotted by passersby near the Ponte Sisto bridge in Rome’s Trastevere district around 10am on Thursday morning. His body was positively identified by his parents.

Members of the fire brigade and river police who recovered the body say there were no obvious signs of violence, but an autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death. Trastevere police are reportedly investigating the matter.

The Oliphant family had arrived in Rome for a holiday on May 23rd. When Elijah went missing the following day, his parents launched an urgent appeal to help find their son.

His disappearance was featured on the missing persons television show, Chi l’ha visto¬†(‘Who’s seen them?’) on May 25th.

Several foreigners have been found drowned in the Tiber in recent years, though there are no indication that any of the incidents are linked.

In 2016, the body of 19-year-old American student Beau Solomon was recovered from the river.

Rough sleeper Massimo Galioto was charged involuntary manslaughter in the case, but was ultimately acquitted in 2020.

Prosecutors said that Galioto pushed Solomon in the course of a violent argument. Galioto’s defense team acknowledged that the two had argued but said the student had accidentally slipped.

In May 2019, 37-year-old Imen Chatbouri, a former athletics champion from Tunisia, was found dead in the Tiber after a night out. CCTV footage later showed she had been pushed from the Ponte Sisto bridge.

A then-26-year-old man whose advances she had rejected earlier that evening was convicted of her murder in November 2021.