Fathima Haj Abdi lives in the the Via Slataper slum in Florence [Federico Scoppa/Al Jazeera]
The Slum

Italy: Hopes on hold

They dream of a permanent home in Europe but many migrants end up stranded in informal refugee settlements.

As part of the ‘Where I live’ series, the Al Jazeera Magazine asked people from around the world how their lives have been influenced by where they live. Meet Fathima, a Somali refugee living in a shelter in Florence.

Fathima Haj Abdi is 32 years old, but looks much younger than her age.

She wears traditional Somali dress – a long stretch of cloth across her body and a red scarf draped neatly over her head.

Abdi is one of the many Somalis who have left their country, fleeing war and political turmoil.

She arrived in Italy in 2008 on a wooden boat that landed on the coast of Lampedusa. From there, she headed to the Via Slataper slum in Florence. She had heard about the shelter, located just a few kilometres from the iconic Piazza della Signoria and Ponte Vecchio in a former regional government building, from a cousin who had already stayed there.

It is home to roughly 150 migrants, like Abdi, from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and is just one of many abandoned buildings across Italian cities and towns serving as a shelter for the tens of thousands of migrants reaching the country each year.

Many come from the horn of Africa or central Africa, often crossing the Sahara before entering Libya, where they can be exposed to abuse and imprisonment; others are fleeing the war in Syria or conflicts elsewhere in the Middle East, crossing the border into Turkey illegally before boarding a boat bound for southern Italy. There are far more than the official refugee shelters, hotels or dormitories can accommodate.

Most of the migrants are in transit – hoping to head north in search of better opportunities and possibly a job.

“It’s hard to find a job here for us Muslims,” says Abdi, who has only been employed in the city for a total of six months.

Initially unable to find work in Italy, she left for Switzerland. But returned to Florence in 2011, after fingerprint identification – “fingers” as the migrants call it – notified the authorities that she was not allowed to be there.

She remains in the city, living in a sort-of limbo in the shelter, which has – for now – become her home. But she knows that this is just another step on her long journey to an as-yet unknown destination.