Alberto Livadiotti sifts through a pile of old photos, some in black and white, others in colour, as his youngest daughters quietly play with Stella, the house’s cat, on the floor of their apartment on the western outskirts of Catania, eastern Sicily.
Alberto is sipping from a cup of Turkish coffee. He is joined by his wife, Rasha, in the living room of the apartment, which is decorated with hookahs and oriental lamps with colourful mosaics, to look through the family album together.
“Look, this is your baba when he was your age,” says Alberto, gently wrapping an arm around his six-year-old daughter Fajer – the youngest of his five children – as he points to a picture of himself as a small boy wearing traditional Syrian clothes. The photos spread over the living room’s tea table tell a tale of happier times back in his homeland of Syria, before the civil war that erupted in 2011 changed the course of his life forever.
Despite his Italian name, 50-year-old Alberto was born and raised in the suburbs of Damascus. Before arriving as a refugee in Italy with his family in the summer of 2014, he had never embraced Italian culture, learned the language or set foot on Italian soil. But he had kept with pride the Italian citizenship inherited from his grandfather, Alfonso; a legacy that Alberto has also passed on to his five children.
During World War ll, Alfonso Livadiotti, a non-practising Jew from Sicily, found refuge in Syria from Italy’s fascist regime. Like the millions of Syrians who, in the past nine years, have risked their lives to reach safety in Europe, 80 years ago, thousands of European refugees travelled those same routes in reverse.
There is little information about Alfonso’s life in Italy before he fled to Syria. Neither Alberto nor his mother, Rena, ever met Alfonso, who died before Alberto’s parents met.
From 1942, the British-run agency Middle East Relief and Refugee Administration (MERRA) operated refugee camps across the Arab region, placing about 40,000 people in camps in Syria, Egypt and Palestine.
Rena Cheropoulos, Alberto’s mother, reminisces about the inclusive Arab society that in the 1940s had also welcomed her Christian Orthodox parents from Greece, first as refugees in Beirut and later Damascus.
“Europe and Syria were not so different at that time,” she says with sadness. A 69-year-old woman with a youthful spirit and the look of a Lebanese singer from the 1960s, Rena is the keeper of her family’s fading memories of the past.
Her late husband and Alberto’s father, Giuseppe Livadiotti, once told her that when World War II ended, Alfonso fell in love in Damascus with a refugee woman from Yugoslavia of Christian-Jewish background. Their romance turned into the beginning of a new life in the Middle East. When their child, Alberto, was born, he was registered as an Italian national as a formality, and the family eventually became an integral part of Syria’s fluid ethnic mosaic.
Rena was only a teenager in 1967 when she married Giuseppe, the neighbourhood boy with Italian roots, in Syria. But their love story was short-lived, as he died from heart disease just a few months after Alberto’s birth, leaving Rena a widow at the age of 19. Alberto was their only child.
A life-saving phone call
Giuseppe Livadiotti could not have known that his heritage would prove to be the salvation for his future grandchildren nearly 40 years later. When, in 2012, civil unrest turned into armed conflict, Alberto received a phone call out of the blue from the Italian embassy in Damascus, before it suspended operations. The embassy staff told him they were making preparations to evacuate Italian nationals, and asked if he and his family wanted to leave the country. All those registered as Italians received that call; but while for many others this meant returning home, for the Livadiottis leaving implied becoming refugees. As a result, they decided to stay put.
“Syria had been our only home,” says Alberto. He takes a last sip of his coffee before moving to the couch. He is joined by his daughters who want to sit on his lap. “We didn’t want to leave for a place we had never been to. So we thought staying was the best decision.”
But as the months passed, the war hit closer to home, taking a huge toll on the family’s mental health.
“The kids would stay awake crying all night, we were frightened by any noise,” says Rasha Hamed, Alberto’s second wife, who in 2013 discovered she was pregnant while listening to the bombings around their house, just outside the capital. “As a father and husband, my priority became protecting them at any cost,” Livadiotti says.
Six months after Rasha gave birth to the second of their two children, and two years after the phone call from the embassy, Alberto sold everything he could, borrowed money from relatives, and took his family by bus to Lebanon. With him were his mother, wife and children, including the three from his first marriage. They spent a few months in Beirut, while the Italian embassy there approved travel documents for Rasha, the only member of the family with no Italian citizenship. Having traced the family’s origins to Catania in Sicily, the embassy suggested they go there.
“We had never heard of this city before,” says Rasha. “We didn’t even know for sure which city Alfonso was from, because many historical family details got buried with time.”
“But apparently it was in the embassy’s records,” her husband adds, taking her hand. “It was an unusual way to find out my origins. But we took the embassy’s input and went back to where our family’s story began.”
It was a misty day on August 13, 2014 when the Livadiottis landed at Catania International Airport via Rome. While most Syrians were headed north towards Germany or Scandinavia that year, they were among the few who went south instead.
On their arrival, the city seemed deserted, as mid-August is peak holiday time for most Italians. “We weren’t familiar with Italian culture, so the first impression was ‘where have we ended up?’,” Rasha recalls, laughing.
Alberto explains that getting around with no local contacts or Italian language skills felt like learning to walk again. When they started searching for an apartment, no one would grant them a rental contract because they were now seen as unemployed foreigners.
It was then that Rasha realised the paradox of their status. “We were Italian, yes, on paper. But in practice, we were perceived as refugees from the Middle East.”
After a week of going door-to-door, asking about available accommodation, they finally found a three-room apartment in the western outskirts of the city. It is the one they are still renting today. As newcomers with no references, to secure the landlord’s trust they had to pay one year’s rent up front, which was covered by Rena’s life savings.
The weight of years living through conflict, the nervous waiting in Lebanon and the uncertainty about their future in Sicily began to take its toll on Alberto. Shortly after their arrival, he had a heart attack. The family came to rely heavily on fellow Arabic-speaking worshippers they met at the local mosque. “As we didn’t speak the language or understand the healthcare system, we were grateful to the few people who offered help in such a hard time for us,” Rasha says.
These days, all members of the family speak excellent Italian. As Italians, they were eligible for state support when they arrived, but also found help from the Muslim community.
Although he had a Christian upbringing, Alberto converted to Islam 20 years ago before he married Rasha. From the start of the refugee crisis in 2012, Catania’s mosque has acted as a hub for the many refugees arriving by land and sea, including the Livadiotti family.
Just three weeks before the Livadiottis’ arrival, around 180 refugees and migrants had perished while trying to reach Sicily. Among them, many Syrian bodies were found on the shores of Lampedusa in southern Italy.
“We are all brothers in our community, we make no difference about nationality and try to help each other,” explains Abdelhafid Kheit, the imam at Catania’s mosque. When he heard about Alberto’s poor health, Kheit provided him with medicine, spiritual support and a job opportunity.
Once recovered, Alberto invested the last of his savings in a food business with a Tunisian acquaintance of Abdelhafid’s in early 2015. Back in Damascus, Alberto had worked as a car salesman, selling Italian cars to Syrians. He thought offering Syrian delicacies to a Sicilian audience, whose culinary tradition is often considered a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, would be a pleasing reversal of this. Today, his One Thousand and One Nights restaurant is a thriving business located in the historical city centre and supports the whole family.
The restaurant specialises in Syrian fast food, such as falafel sandwiches and shawarma. Its staff is made up of migrants from Africa and Southeast Asia who, like Alberto, have had to begin again in a foreign land. It is a small, but cozy, single room decorated with arabesques and colourful mosaics reminiscent of Middle Eastern architecture. It caters to a diverse clientele, from young Sicilians curious to try new flavours, to refugees and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa who are longing for a taste of home.
Coming full circle
Almost six years after their arrival, the Livadiottis finally feel they have taken back control of their lives. They eventually developed a network of locals who care about them and who no longer call them refugees, but friends and neighbours.
“There’s no reason to return to Syria now. We already interrupted our lives once, now we will continue our path here,” Rasha says.
Italy might be their new home, but Syria remains a constant presence in their house. Frames of Quranic inscriptions and photographs taken in Damascus five decades ago hang on the walls, the only objects they managed to bring, along with some clothes and documents. “We want our children to not forget their origins, so we always tell them stories about Syria. But just the positive ones, for now,” Rasha says.
Fajer was too young to remember anything about her time in Damascus and her older sister, Farah, was just five when they left. The youngest of Alberto’s three older children, Emad, now 15, also lives with them, while his older siblings live independently in Catania.
Rasha says it is her job as a mother to heal their traumatic memories. “When they remember the bombs, I remind them of Ramadan food traditions, or the big Christmas tree lighting up in Damascus’s main square every December, instead.”
In her now fluent Italian, she adds that, in return, her children helped to heal her initial wounds of displacement. Unlike her husband, Rasha was unable to bring her parents along; they remain in Syria. “When the kids began going to school here, I learned Italian while trying to help them with homework. They encouraged every little progress I’d make, showing me I could handle all this,” Rasha says, relieved they are now in a place where they can continue their education.
Although their lives have taken an unexpected turn, Alberto is grateful for that thread across history that saved his family from an otherwise inevitable and dangerous boat journey. “We know that, amidst the tragedy, we’ve been luckier than others,” he says.
As they add photos from Farah’s and Fajer’s birthdays spent in Catania to the family album, next to those taken in Syria, Alberto realises his family has come full circle. “I prefer seeing our family’s journey as a story of return rather than exile. It shows that history and migration are cycles, and that similar experiences can happen to anyone, in different moments and places.”