I meet Aisha Silvia Romano in the Via Padova area in Milan. As I am approaching her, an Egyptian lady stops her; “Are you Silvia?”, she asks.
I decide to remain apart. I can’t hear what they are saying, but I can see two tears descending from the lady’s eyes.
Aisha Silvia smiles when they say goodbye. Our interview begins.
Before leaving and before the kidnapping, what was your take on religion?
Before the kidnapping, I was completely indifferent to God; I could call myself a non-believer. Some times, when I heard about one of the countless tragedies that hit the world, I said to my mother, “If there was a God, this evil wouldn’t exist. I think God does not exist. Otherwise, he wouldn’t allow all this grief.” However, I only rarely thought of these issues. Most of the time, I was indifferent. I lived my life following my desires, my dreams, and my pleasures.
How would you describe your ethics back then?
The only criterion I had for what was right and what was wrong was that it made me feel good. I can see now it was just an illusion.
Have you always had an impulse towards the weakest, to act against injustice, or you rather felt compassion? What was your drive to leave Italy?
Until my last year in college, I was not particularly interested in volunteering abroad. The topic of my dissertation, sex trade, helped me become passionate about social justice issues.
Did you become more compassionate?
I have always been compassionate, very concerned about children and women, and especially abused women. I always felt compassion, but I decided to go further only at the end of my bachelor degree. Then, I decided to take action. The idea of staying here and furthering my education did not suit me; I wanted to gain experience, to help others and grow as a person.
You grew up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood. How was your family stance on this situation?
I grew up and went to school in the Via Padova and Parco Trotter area, a multi-ethnic area. My parents have always been open-minded, tolerant; they never discriminated. I had friends from different backgrounds. My parents taught me to appreciate differences. I also travelled a lot with my mom. Every summer, we visited a different country: Morocco, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Cape Verde, just to name a few.
Did you have a chance to interact with Muslims when growing up?
Yes, but unfortunately my idea of Islam was not very different from the one people have when they know nothing about it. When I saw a veiled woman in Via Padova, I had the common prejudice of thinking that she was oppressed. The veil represented women’s oppression to me.
Could Silvia Romano be just another islamophobic?
I was prejudiced, but I was not afraid of difference, neither had any hostility. Even if I had a negative opinion about something, I would have never expressed it; I did not want to hurt people. My old prejudice helps me understand who does not know Islam and is loud about his opinions. Now, I can say that, at the time, I was ignorant; I ignored Islam and I still judged it. You may live close to people who have a different faith and form your idea, but you usually do not go and ask them questions, even if they live close to you.
Were there any Muslims in Chakama, the Kenyan village where you volunteered?
Yes, there was a mosque and there were Muslims. A close friend of mine was Muslim, but that did not encourage me to get closer to religion. I saw him wearing a tunic on Friday, and I knew people were going to the mosque, but that was pretty much it. I also saw little girls wearing veils on Friday, but I was not particularly interested on the topic.
When did you start to approach God? Was there a moment when you started hearing something inside? A thought that opened a gap in your consciousness, in your heart?
When I was kidnapped, at the beginning of our walk, I started to think, “I came to volunteer, I was doing something good, why is this happening to me? What did I do wrong? Is it a coincidence that it was I who was taken? Why not another girl? Did someone decide it?”
I believe that these first questions unconsciously brought me closer to God. Then, my spiritual journey started. During that journey, the more I wondered whether it was chance or fate, the more I struggled. I did not have answers, but I needed to find them.
Did this kind of questioning make you feel better?
No, the more I asked myself this kind of questions, the more I cried and felt sick. I was angry because I could not find an answer; I was getting increasingly anxious. I did not have an answer. I knew there was one and I had to find it. I understood that there was something powerful that I could not identify yet. I understood that there was a plan designed by someone up there.
The following step came after that journey, when I was already in prison. There, I started to think, “Maybe God is punishing me. He is punishing me for my sins, because I did not believe in Him, because I was too far from Him.”
I reached another milestone the following January. I was in prison in Somalia; It was night and I was sleeping, when I heard for the first time a drone air strike. I was in shock. I felt I was going to die. Then, I started praying to God, asking Him to save me because I wanted to see my family again. I was asking Him for another chance, I was afraid of dying. That was the first time I turned to Him.
Although kind, kidnappers are unfairly holding their prisoners. Their action is illegitimate. It is difficult to understand that a person can adhere to their faith.
I read the Koran and I found no contradictions in it; I immediately understood that it guides you towards a greater good. The Koran is not Al Shabaab’s word. I felt it was a miracle. My spiritual search kept going and I became increasingly aware of the existence of God. At some point, I started to think that, through this experience, God was showing me a life path that I was free to follow, or not.
Did you need strength to resist in that situation?
I was desperate because, despite some distractions such as studying Arabic, I was completely uncertain about my future. However, as time passed by, I had a stronger feeling that only He could help me and He was showing me how.
What was your relationship with the Koran?
The first time, it took me two months to read the Qu’ran, while the second time I took my time to reflect more deeply on what I was reading. Every day, I felt a stronger need to read it, until I embraced Islam. Many verses really hit my heart; it was as if God was talking directly to me. I also read some verses from the Bible and learned the common points between Christianity and Islam. Ultimately, the Qu’ran seemed to me a sacred text with clear principles that could guide me towards God.
Is there any surat you are particularly fond of?
Before I became Muslim, I learned verse 70 from the surat Al Anfal: “O Prophet, tell the prisoners in your hands , -if Allah is aware of any good in your hearts, He shall grant you better than that which was taken from you, and will forgive you- Allah is the Most Forgiving, Most Merciful.”I also learned the first surat of the Qu’ran, Al Fatiha, and started to pray even if I did not know how to do it properly.
Another verse that greatly struck me was: “How can you be ungrateful to Allah when you were dead and He gave you life? Then He will make you die and bring you back to life and then you will be led back to Him.” Koran 2/28
And also “If Allah helps you, then none can overcome you, and if He leaves you without assistance, then who is there to help you? Only in Allah should the belivers trust.” Qu’ran 3/160
It seemed like these verses talked directly to me.
When you became a Muslim and started to pray, what was your attitude towards your destiny? Did you think that everything would have gone well? Were you ready to accept anything?
Faith comes in different stages and mine developed over time. When I became a Muslim, I looked at my destiny with more serenity. I was sure that God loved me and He would have guided me towards what was good for me.
When I was scared and when I was anxious about my family and my future, I found strength in prayer. The more my faith grew, the more I asked God for strength and patience, especially when I was sad.
What are your thoughts about being now a different person, about accepting something that was extraneous to you, about a choice that radically changed your life?
Before accepting Islam, at some point, I already thought that Islam was the right path to follow. At a particular moment, I even thought that I was ready to accept it, but I feared how people could react. I often prayed to God to strengthen my faith and to prepare me for what was coming, to help me face all the offenses that I knew I would have received.
Were you already aware of the hostility you are now experiencing?
Yes, of course. I developed this awareness by studying the life of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions; it helped me to get an idea. Muslims has always been persecuted.
Why is it so, in your opinion?
Because Islam goes against a system based on injustice, the power of money, corruption, and falsehood. Such a system can perceive Islam as a threat.
It seems that people reacted negatively to your conversion to Islam because they thought that you were free to go wherever you wanted, to do whatever you wanted, to dress however you wanted, but instead you chose a religion that, according to them, takes away some of your freedom and makes you submissive to men. How is it possible?
The concept of freedom is subjective and, therefore, relative. Many people think that, for women, freedom means being able to show your body, to dress how you want to dress—although you must always dress how they want you to dress. Before, I thought I was free, but I was actually subjected to constant judgement. It became clear when I showed up dressed differently and people started to attack me.
There is something deeply wrong in this society if freedom only means to be able to discover your body. For me the veil is a symbol of freedom. I feel inside that God asks me to wear it to elevate my dignity and my honor; I know that by covering my body, people will first see my soul. Freedom to me means not being sexually objectified.
Do you feel less free to move, to work, and to meet people now?
When I am outside, I feel people glances on me. I do not know whether they recognize me or it is because of the veil. I think people are surprised to see how I dress, being Italian. But it doesn’t particularly bother me. I feel free and protected by God.
How did you choose your name?
One night, I dreamed that I was in Italy. I was taking the subway and my name on the metro card was Aisha.
Do you feel you are a better person today?
I am much more patient, much more respectful towards my parents—this was not always the case, more generous, and much more compassionate. When someone wrongs me, even if they offend me, I do not feel any resentment or anger. I do not feel like replying with some offense, but instead I try to understand that person. I think that he acts that way because he suffers. If I can, I must help him.
What expectations did you have of the Italian Islamic community?
I could not wait to know Muslims, but I thought it would have been difficult. My plan was going to Via Padova, entering some shops or Islamic butchery and say, “Assalamu aleikum.” I could not imagine people recognized me as much as they do. I thought I would have spent Ramadan alone. Instead, I received gifts, uncountable letters, and the video La Luce published with the support of many Muslims from all over Italy. I was amazed and profoundly grateful.
What surprised you most about the community?
First of all, I did not expect there were so many Italian Muslims. I thought I would have met mainly Egyptians, Morrocans, African Muslims. Instead, I first met Italian Muslims, and it was a great surprise. I was struck by the solidarity of the community, not only in Milan, everywhere. It feels like a second family to me.
Then I discovered a new reality, made up of many associations related to the Muslim community in Milan and beyond, which are committed to helping the weakest, the most vulnerable, victims of injustice. I feel especially close to the Progetto Aisha, which deals with gender issues. All these initiatives are encouraging me to participate, to take action.