When I first met Muhammad Ali I was sitting at a small cafeteria table surrounded by orphans from ages 5 to 18, all of whom carefully awaited my reaction to the large dish of risotto they prepared for me earlier that day. Upon first shaking his hand, I found it coincidental the young man shared the same name as one of the greatest American boxers of all time. However, after spending a day in the life of Muhammad Ali and 69 other residents of La Citta dei Ragazzi, otherwise known as Boys Town of Italy in Rome, I discovered these boys possessed the same, if not more, strength than any American hero.
My last name, Esposito, was a name given to Neopolitan orphans after Italy’s civil war in 1861, which unified the once divided northern and southern parts of Italy. It was during this time my great-great-great grandfather was taken to an orphanage in Naples, Italy. I suppose it was this that inspired my family to become involved with The Boys Town of Italy, an orphanage created 100 years later in Rome, where rescued refuges were taken during World War II.
When I studied abroad in Rome this past fall semester I knew I had to visit this peculiar place my family dedicated their lives to for so many years, a place that helped reshape the lives of young boys abandoned by their parents or by the wreckage of contemporary war. However, when I finally made it to the small city 15 miles outside the capital, I realized this was not a typical orphanage – it was miraculously run and inhabited by only children.
As Ali, 16, from Afghanistan, and The Boy’s Town of Italy Supervisor, Nicoletta Romoli, showed me around the city, I witnessed young boys managing their local bank, learning to cook in cafés, cleaning their own homes and listening to Ali, The Boys Town of Italy Mayor, during town hall meetings. I was astonished by this structured and self-governed city that felt like and resembled Never Never Land but contrarily provided homes to dozens of boys willing to grow up and make lives for themselves.
This unique city was created in 1945 after WWII by an Irish priest, Msgr. John Patrick Carroll-Abbing. Since the war left thousands of children homeless around the world, Carroll-Abbing was determined to create a fraternal society where young boys could reconstruct their lives through education, career preparation and self-government. After Carroll-Abbing passed away in 2001, director Nicoletta Romoli carried on Boys Town of Italy’s traditions. This exclusive city gives lost boys a chance to rebuild their lives by learning responsibility, how to work, educate themselves and how to build strong relationships. They govern themselves, make decisions on their own and learn what it’s like to be responsible.
I thought of Boys Town of Italy for the first time since I’ve been back due to the recent natural disaster in Haiti. Before I left the city, I remembered the supervisor telling me the most heartbreaking part about taking in orphans is that they are living representations of all the cruel and tragic happenings of the time.
I remembered Muhammad Ali, who told me he was only 12 when he and his uncle escaped Afghanistan in hope of a better future. The two hoped to cross Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and to eventually find themselves in Italy. However, Ali’s father did not survive past Iran.
At the young age of 12, Muhammad was homeless and alone, trying to find his way to Europe where he would have a better chance. It was a year later when Italian social services found him and turned him over to Boys Town of Italy where he was able to legally stay without being labeled an illegal immigrant.
I then thought of the four 16-year-old Egyptian refugees who lost their parents to war. They were the newest addition to Boys Town and were undergoing “the beginning stages” where they had to learn to cook, clean up after themselves and do chores. They had to re-learn their purpose and how to be civilized after spending months on the streets.
A few months ago my best friend’s parents decided to go to Haiti for a community service project to help the people of this impoverished country. They left a week ago only to find themselves stuck in one of the world’s most deadly earthquakes. Although they put their lives at risk, it is the charitable, selfless acts of kindness like these that allow us to survive the most horrific and unexplainable happenings.
What I learned from my trip to Boys Town of Italy last semester was not how unforgiving the world can be, but how compassionate and charitable we can be for each other when the most unexpected events happen. When I visited Boy’s Town I didn’t view it as a place of sorrow or defeat, but rather as a place of second chances. I will always remember the inspiring people I met and wonder if young boys from Haiti will be fortunate enough to get the same second chance at rebuilding a life better than before.
When the world seems to turn upside down the only thing we have is each other and until you lose that, you haven’t lost anything.