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.