Silvia Romano, an Italian aid worker was kidnapped in November 2018 by gunmen linked to the Somali armed group al-Shabab in northeast Kenya. At the time of the attack, Romano was volunteering for an Italian NGO in an orphanage.
Finally, word surfaced in May that she had been released after 18 months in captivity. Italians were overjoyed after weeks of gloomy coronavirus-driven news. The joy, however, was short lived.
When she stepped off the Italian government plane wearing a full green hijab, her welcome not only turned ugly, but also dangerously hostile.
The conversion of Silvia to Islam opened the door of insults on social media. She has also been met with threats. Right wing media and politicians left no stone unturned in criticizing and spewing hate against Silvia.
Not all took part in the mudslinging however. Many, including liberals and the left-wing, condemned the hate and celebrated her return home. The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano urged Italians to be more compassionate. Commenting on her release after 535 days in captivity, the paper said that instead of joy, her release produced “a tribunal of thousands of judges, almost all operating on social media, issuing sentences,” which it called a “list of horrors.”
Muslims in Italy Welcome Her
Aisha (Silvia) received overwhelming messages of support from her new Muslim brethren in Italy. Initially she had thought she may have to spend Ramadan alone. However, she received gifts and uncountable letters. La Luce published a video of Muslims from around the country welcoming her with a heartwarming message.
She did not speak to any media organization during the chaos. However, she later gave an interview to La Luce on what led her to embrace Islam.
What was your take on religion before the kidnapping?
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.
You grew up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood. How was your family’s stance on this situation?
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 traveled 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.
Were there 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 approaching God?
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. […] 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… (In prison), 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.
On how she embraced the faith of her kidnappers.
I read the Qur’an and I found no contradictions in it; I immediately understood that it guides you towards a greater good. The Qur’an 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.
What was your relationship with the Qur’an?
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.
Any surahs you are fond of?
Before I became Muslim, I learned verse #70 from the Surah 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 Surah of the Qu’ran, Al-Fatihah, 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.” (Qur’an, 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 believers trust.” (Qu’ran, 3:160) It seemed like these verses talked directly to me.
How faith strengthened her
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. 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 would react. I often prayed to God to strengthen my faith and to prepare me for what was coming.
Did you expect the hostility you are now facing?
Yes, of course. I developed this awareness by studying the life of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and his companions; it helped me to get an idea. Muslims have always been persecuted.
Why 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.
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
People don’t seem to understand how you chose a religion that takes away your freedom?
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 judgment. 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, work, and meet people now?
When I am outside, I feel people’s 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 dreamt 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 Muslim community?
I could not wait to know Muslims, but I thought it would be difficult. My plan was to enter some shops or Halal meat shops and say, “Assalamu aleikum.” I did not imagine people would recognize me as much as they do. I thought I would spend 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 (native) Italian Muslims. I thought I would mainly meet Egyptians, Moroccans, and African Muslims. Instead, I first met (native) Italian Muslims, and it was a great surprise. I was struck by the solidarity of the community, not only in Milan, but also everywhere else. It feels like a second family to me.