Arcadia University Students Go to Sicily and Learn About, Among Other Things, “The Invisible Line.”


I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Ralph Ellison

Footprints

Walking the line

How it Began

Being passionate about what you do can be a double-edged sword: you want everyone to understand what you have come to know. You want to “convert” people at the most extreme. At the very least you want to open their eyes. Somewhere in the middle, I suppose, you want to get them to “think.” You know what you know and you love what you love and you want others to do the same.

When I brought 22 students to Sicily last month as the travel week in the class that I teach “This Sea is Not My Home: Immigration, Migration and Social Justice in the Sicilian Context,” I don’t know think I was fully prepared for their reaction to what we had been learning.   The class is a “Preview” class—-six weeks in the classroom before travel, one week abroad, and two weeks back in class, culminating in a “Global Expo”—-a true showcase of 16 countries, with roughly 24 students in each class.   My university, Arcadia University in the suburbs of Philadelphia is Global in a myriad of ways. In this program, these classes go to such diverse locations such as China, Cuba, Romania and many others, giving students a “preview” of life lived elsewhere, while focused on a particular subject or aspect  germane to the country  they will visit. The approach is reflective, experiential, intense and “global” in both theory and practice.

My class of students was different than any other I had encountered. I can boast that in and of themselves they were an incredibly diverse group from various countries such as Peru, Columbia, China, Russia, Ukraine, Iran , Kenya, Benin,and other places   They were so much quieter than other classes I’d taught. I felt their eyes on me. I felt that they truly wanted to understand. And while they were incredibly excited about our week-long travel in Sicily, they were diligent in their learning and preparation, to say the least.   They would sometimes challenge me on points, which I saw as not only a good sign, but a sign that they were trying desperately to figure things out.

Teaching something you are passionate about is often difficult. I understand things in my head and I feel things in my heart that are often difficult to translate into understandable concepts. I take a careful approach, where I attempt to build on knowledge in a logical sequence. I provide a framework and then encourage my students to build upon that framework with their own knowledge. This means that they must dig deep and examine their own place in the world, first, and then examine the life of an immigrant or refugee in a place that does not want them.

I am hyper-aware of the fact that so much of what I teach them they will have to experience themselves.   We talk, we learn and then we talk some more. They talk to me and they talk to each other. They take a good hard look at their lives’ and their freedoms and compare their lives’ to the immigrants and refugees. We look at policies, we look at all the political aspects of immigration both in our own country and in the European Union. At a certain point in the class, we hit a fever pitch; they could no longer contain their excitement. They wanted to see and experience.

And they did.

 In Country: Sicily

In country, out and about on brilliantly sunny days, delicious gelato, wonderful activities scheduled for us from our center in Sicily, heartbreakingly beautiful Baroque structures and free time to discover, the students’ eyes were wide and gaping.   One of the core practices in the course is journal keeping.   I call the journal their “laboratory” and everything goes in it—class notes, reflections, reactions to readings, etc—-everything.   This journal will be the main requirement of the class—and should show me, comprehensively what they have learned.  In Sicily, I would often find my students writing in their journals. At cafes, out in the sun, on the bus from one location to another.   It meant they were thinking. Some had never kept a journal before, but expressed to me how it helped to unload the things they were carrying around in their heads.

Fast-forward to the  Arcadia University’s Global Expo this past Friday , the pinnacle of all of the Preview classes.  My students had put themselves into groups and each group focused on some aspect of the travel, the culture or the predominant theme of the class to exhibit. We had food, churches, Sicilian symbols, language and the invisible line. Yes, the invisible line.

While all of my students did a stellar job, and I really must stress this because they blew me away, one group did something a bit different.

The Gaping Eye

The Gaping Eye

Thinking Sociologically/In Their Own Words

In class we had discussed two facts: that the sea, a route many unfortunate refugees take to arrive in Sicily has a passion for erasure (refugees often die en route without anyone ever knowing their names) and that often, in society, they are totally invisible to those around them. They are the unseen—ignored and not integrated into society at all. Ximena first coined the term “The Invisible Line” to explain what they were all witnessing.

My students, Ximena, Lily, Raha, Christina and Megan decided to focus on this invisible line—sort of like the parallel play very young children engage in: they play side by side but not together. This group of students looked closer at the phenomenon at play in Sicilian society—literally, LOOKED. What they saw and what they presented in their exhibit was deeply touching to me, not least of which knowing this is how things are , intellectually, is difficult enough, but witnessing this with your own eyes is another. As the old adage says, “Truth is a hard apple to throw and a hard apple to catch.” And once you know something, you cannot unknow it. In various places my students observed the presence of both refugees and immigrants among the Sicilian locals, but never once did they observe any interactions.   I warned them of this fact, one of those things you tell students beforehand but unsure of whether or not they are internalizing it enough to find or even look for evidence enough themselves. This group did.   And not surprisingly. Sina is a refugee from Iran, Christina is an immigrant from Ukraine and Ximena is from Columbia. They were looking with a sort of double vision. Lily and Megan, both born in the United States did not approach the phenomenon in the same way, but when they all came together to discuss, they agreed—-they witnessed the phenomenon with their own eyes!

The Divided Line

The Divided Line

Here is Ximena Parades-Perez take on the phenomenon:

As we visited this incredibly beautiful location, we were in awe of its magnificence and rich history, which is loaded with diversity and a massive blend of cultures coming together in one small place. This blend of cultures has been a non-stop flux of people, traditions and beliefs, and we were able to see this first hand by the very contrasting differences between the locals and the newcomers. As we walked through the old streets of Siracusa and Ortigia, we could see that the people living there were split by their heritage, and their origin. The locals and immigrants/refugees that inhabit the island share the same location, they see the same things everyday, do the same activities everyday, but never blend together with the locals, they are never equal, and they are never together. If we looked past the beautiful buildings and friendly faces, we could see that the immigrants/refugees were separate from the locals, there was an invisible line dividing them, and it didn’t matter how many things they shared, they would never cross that line and be together. They are the same, but will never the same. 

 

Christina Zaveriukha put it this way:
The “invisible line” for me means that there are levels (with the lines that divide them) of people who live in Sicily and unless you open your eyes ans find them, you can’t see them.  A lot of people who come to Sicily, as tourists don’t want to see the “dark side” of it. They come to spend their money, enjoy the view and go back home to their daily routine. They don’t want to notice homeless people, refugees and pain – big but invisible for many part of Sicily.  

 

Sicilian Men in the Sun

Sicilian Men in the Sun

 

Raha had this to say:

I think it’s [the invisible line] isa powerful idea, and as I reflected in my journal, I was always baffled by the distinction of how we experience things versus someone who goes to Italy as a refugee,( I know this because I have the experience of going to a place as a refugee so I know that it feels very different ). For this reason, there is a line of division between tourists, locals, and refugees. There is a line, and maybe people cannot see it, or maybe they choose not to see it!

 

Refugees

Refugees

 

Lily Smith had this to say:

At the heart of the Mediterranean, Sicily was the perfect place to gain a deeper understanding of migration as countless civilizations have passed through leaving behind a rich collection of culture. Although Sicily was built on migration, it was clear to see how the newcomer immigrants and refugees were disconnected from society. They were invisible to those around them. The separation represents an unwillingness to cross cultural and social boundaries, a phenomenon identified by us as “The Invisible Line.” The locals and refugees live together, but they are not together. They do the same, but they are not the same. They are divided by the unseen but unmistakable boundary, “The Invisible Line.”

 

Variation on a theme

A predominant theme on this blog has been the nameless, faceless people who are fleeing their homelands for any number of reasons into a society that has yet to realize that its demographic is not just changing, but it has , in fact been changed.  My preoccupation has always been with the disenfranchised.  I believe, and tried to impart this to my students, that neglect, of any kind, is never benign.

“No Identity Boat”, Student Exhibit, Sicily Preview

My students, all of them caring, brilliant and sensitive understand this. They get it. They have witnessed it, processed it (are still processing it) and want to tell others about it.   So while we enjoyed all the beauty Sicily had to offer we were aware, almost painfully so, of those not able to both literally and figuratively bask in that warm sun.   In the beginning is awareness.     The rest is up to them. But to be a part of that awareness, in fact, that awakening, because that is what I truly see as one of the results of teaching about social justice and social injustices, is truly a beautiful thing. A true honor I have never nor will I ever take for granted.  I am encouraging this group to continue their work on the “invisible line”.   Perhaps another visit is in order.

Stay tuned. We’re not finished yet!  :)

 

 

 

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Migrant Resistance and Protest? All Sewn Up.


It is a well worn cliche to say that desperate times call for desperate measure, but we all know how much truth can be contained in such a cliche. 

Migrants held at Rome’s infamous Ponte Galeria  detention center, decided to literally sew their mouths shut in a display of solidarity with one another and as resistance against the denial of their rights, similar to what migrants on  Australia’s notorious Christmas Island have done.   While many migrants have had their applications for asylum approved and have , thus, moved on, there are those who remain in a limbo state, the ones who are not easily categorized, the one’s who fall through the cracks.
Migrant with lips sewn
As if the entire enterprise of leaving your homeland for greener pastures is not already rife with every danger trap conceivable, once the migrants arrive, they are held in poor conditions, often detained and treated like criminals and live in a sort of vacuum—where they wait and wait and wait but often hear little or , as is usually the case, no information on the the progress (or lack thereof) of their applications, how long they will be detained or where they may be sent next.   The lack of communication compounds the anxiety, restlessness, boredom and fear that they have, more likely than not , already arrived with.  They lack any autonomy at all—every aspect of their lives’ are regulated from the point of arrival.  It is a strange and paradoxical situation, where they are , once almost “non-persons” , but to whom a lot of (negative) attention is given.
They are protesting harsh living conditions—the small cells and mattresses on the floors, the lack of communication from a lack of Italian language skills as well as the fact that no information is ever offered or is forthcoming.   They lack any legal advice or assistance for mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.  The length of time their applications take to process is due to Italy’s notorious (and worsening) bureaucratic system .
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And so, a needle and a thread through their mouths and  their lips as a clear signal of protest and resistance.  One can only imagine to what point you must be driven to  do such a thing.
And yet.
Needle and Thread
The brave and novel act has garnered some attention and has made a difference , to at least a few who were released from detention and at least one who was reunited with his wife and children.
Italy is no stranger to the harsh criticism meted out to them for their treatment of migrants , immigrants and refugees. Turning a blind eye to suffering and failing to reconsider a harsh and restrictive immigration policy has made things continually worse , over time.
Once wonders when it will end.
Maybe Italy should realize that most migrants and refugees don’t want to stay in Italy anyway.
Anywhere but here
For now , the stitches that they sewed are out.  But none of the men involved have ruled out the fact that they will sew it all up , once again, if no progress is made.
Eventually, and we all know it , the law, simply must change.
 
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Tunisian Activist Leila Hidri: Victim of Destiny Now Fighting Prejudice and Injustice


The role of women activists has become increasingly important on the global scene.  Women in Tunisia have traditionally enjoyed more freedoms than many other Muslim countries, but there is still room for improvement.  Leila Hidri, a Tunisian activist living in Rome fights passionately for social justice and human rights.

Tunisian flag

Tunisian flag

Leila was only 11 years old when her mother’s sister, living in Naples and working for a powerful family, helped her to find a job in Naples.   Eventually, she got a cleaning job and divorced her husband, thus escaping the misery that destiny, thus far, had reserved for her.    Leila and her brother stayed behind with their older sister who had just become married.   As a result, the brother and sister harbored a wish to join their mother in Italy and live what they thought was a glamorous life.

Every month their mother would send them money and beautiful Italian clothes, but deprived of her and desperately wanting to be reunited with her, they could only think of Naples.   They received the invitation to join their mother in 2001, but before they left , as a supreme act of faith Leila gave away all of her Italian clothing in the hopes of buying more in the place that will be her new home.

Leila and Mother

Leila and her mother

Sometimes dreams are just that—dreams, which have no basis in reality, but instead are just beautiful wishes.  Upon arriving in Naples, Leila felt her dreams shattered. The reality of  Naples to the uninitiated can be stark, especially when she realized that her mother lived in a poor neighborhood and that her vision of Italy as the “promised land” was a mere distortion, the wishes of a young girl. Her mother felt the pain of her daughter’s disappointment and made it her daily objective to send her back to Tunisia where she felt she truly belonged and should be raised.

Leila explains that most North Africans, particularly Tunisians migrate to Italy to improve their economic lives’, but roughly only 20 percent actually achieve that objective.    She claims that for most of them the Italian “dream” remains a mere mirage.

As she grew older she began working in a variety of jobs such sales clerk, hairdresser, house cleaner and others, until she discovered her interest in social justice and began working with various organizations as both an interpreter and mediator.  Very slowly and with a lot of dedication and hard work, she built her CV, moved to Rome by herself and started her life there. Once established, she invited her family to leave Naples and join her in the capital.

During a summer visit to Tunisia, she met and fell in love with the man who would become her husband.   She gave birth to two children and was determined to provide a stable future for them.   She has great hopes for their education and future employment.

Leila with her children

Leila with her children

Leila has known her share of discrimination and hard times. As an activist she fights hard for the rights of others within the infrastructure of various human rights organizations. Immigration and social justice are the two areas, which are dear to her heart.  She fully understands the plight of immigrants, their isolation and challenges and the resistance they often encounter in Italy.

When the “Arab Spring” began and the dictatorship of Ben Ali came to an end, her love of her homeland became rekindled, a new awakening of sorts, and she began to participate in activities with the Tunisian community that had arisen after the revolution.     Today, she is the hard working president of the Patriotic Free Union (UPL) in Italy, a political party that began in Tunisia, founded by the billionaire, and former refugee “Slim Riahi”.  The UPL positions itself in the center of the political spectrum and espouses economic liberalism.

Leila and Slim Riahi

Leila with Slim Riahi

Leila explains: “ I accepted this position because I am sure that Tunisia and Tunisians abroad are facing a big challenge—we need to keep thinking with a revolutionary mind —-we need a participative and active citizenship.”   In fact, Leila says that she believes in a secular democracy in Tunisia, and one that can offer full and equal rights to women.  She adds, “In fact, the Tunisian constitution has confirmed the equality between genders, and we are so happy about that.”

Leila Hidri in Office

Leila Hidri in her office

It is clear that Leila is a passionate and dedicated activist and human being.  She is involved in many efforts that are designed to help immigrants in Italy to gain their rights. As well, with her new position, she has plans to help to change the quality of life for Tunisians in Italy.  Her deep desire is to make people more aware of their rights and what they can contribute to both their new homeland and their motherland, Tunisia.

“ I see myself as a victim of destiny that has managed to make from weakness, something strong to begin the fight against prejudice and injustice.”

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“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board”


 

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they still sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time.

—Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Stirred but Not Shaken? A Philosophical Rant on Italy’s Reception of Asylum-Seekers, Refugees, Immigrants and Migrants and the Color Black.


Or is that the other way around?  Shaken, but not stirred?

This is my first blog since the end of August 2013.   I have been wondering, since then, the value of doing anything to alleviate suffering…not because it is not our duty as human beings, but because there is so very much need/agony/suffering in the world, it seems like a mere drop in a vast, vast ocean.  I needed time to process.

After spending time in the refugee camp in early October and in the wake of the horrific Lampedusan tragedy where more than 360 desperate Eritreans lost their lives’, I became overwhelmed by two things:  my sense of duty as a human and as an activist and the feeling that I was just bumbling around in the dark.    I saw anger, confusion, displacement, sickness, and fear of the unknown and profound homesickness in the camp.  I saw this up close and personal.  I had people wanting to tell me their stories.   These refugees were the Syrians.  They abandon their homes.   They were young, old, sick, lame, and pregnant.  You name it. They were akin to microcosms of their villages and reminiscent of the Palestinians’ flight years ago.   In fact, most of the refugees I met were Palestinians, living a relatively good life in Syria.  They support Assad.  They fear the rebels.  Everything I assumed was wrong in this picture. They were educated. They were well spoken.  They had dignity. They knew the unfairness with which they were being treated.  They were not unduly grateful. They very clearly wanted out of Sicily.

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After the visit I experienced a strange shift of emotions.  I felt depressed.  Looking at my field notes became painful.  Reading hard cold statistics lacked the narrative I felt (and still feel deeply) is lacking in truly understanding the refugee problem not just in Italy, which is my focus, but worldwide.  I am not a quantitative researcher.  While I am acquainted with the statistics, they do not impact me as much  looking into the eyes of a refugee, trying to find out who they are individually,  listening closely and plucking them from the masses.

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A refugee boat in Sicily

Anger is a strong emotion, and there is no dearth of media outlets that delight in reporting the right wing disgust at the refugee situation ( I refuse to use the word “emergency”) in Italy.  Days ago, an MP from the despicable Northern League, in one of the most disgraceful displays of xenophobia that I have ever heard of, “blacked up”—used black makeup to darken his face to protest Congolese-born Cecile Kyenge’s post as minister, who he accused her of  “favoring negritude,” while  claiming (God help me) ,“reverse racism,” because they are given free accommodation.  Perhaps someone should acquaint this idiot with what an asylum-seeker or a refugee really is.   The Northern League, refusing to be silenced or marginalized, has made in the past, and will continue to do so,  a stinking  roar over anyone of color aiming to find a better life in Italy.   How many times should I ask where is the outrage, but seriously, where is the outrage?

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Gianluca Buonanno “Blacking up”.

Are we shaken, not stirred to action?  Are we stirred, but not shaken enough to action?

Let’s not forget that last year, Cecile Kyenge was called an orangutan by another idiot in the Northern League.   While in Italy, I have seen her on television, quiet, wide-eyed.  I have heard her criticized by people whose opinion I value:  she is not doing enough, she is not qualified for her position, she is a token.  I feel disgusted by the rhetoric.  One wonders how she and her family, her Italian-born husband and children bear up under such blatant hatred.

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A stunned Cecil Kyenge

I spent a good amount of time in the refugee camp in Sicily just a few weeks ago. What I encountered there were the same conditions as befire, but the players were different this time.  No women, just men, mostly from Africa: Gambia, Senegal and Sudan, prominently among them.  These were the newly arrived.  On one day, I made mental judgment of the trauma I saw in some of their eyes. It frightened me. Their unwillingness to talk.  Or wanting to talk too much.  The hands that shake, the vacant stares, the proud bodies with shoulders slumped out of exhaustion, boredom or fear.    How anyone can spend any time with them and see what they have sacrificed, see the trauma they have suffered and how many years it will take for them (if they ever can) rebuild their lives’ deprived of their family, friends, culture, mother tongue, and meaningful work—and  still begrudge them the little (strong emphasis on little) assistance they get?  What manner of man or woman can do that?

Not me.

Am I emotional?  Okay, yes, I am emotional. Leave the statistics to someone else, leave the policy makers to do what they do best.   I write as a witness.  I write as an activist.  This is not an intellectual exercise for me.

Social justice is not socialism.

I return to my field notes, just 10 days after arriving home.  It takes strength to face the stories that I heard, the experiences I had there.  But it is nothing, nothing compared to what these men have already faced and what they have ahead.

The triumph of the surviving that difficult crossing by sea is short-lived.  They find this out almost immediately.

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I remember, in October, watching the big groups of Syrian refugees in the camp, preparing to leave.  While asylum must be filed for in the first country in which one arrives, the directors of the camp looked the other way as men, women and children, walked through the iron gates and down the long and barren road where the  cars with German license plates would be waiting to take them to where they would be offered automatic asylum—Sweden, for a price.  They would never be as vulnerable as when they left that camp.

The long road in the long road out

And I watched as the different levels of police—literally turned their heads as they left so as not to be witness . One boy had tied around his waist all of the family’s winter coats.  It was October but still frightfully hot in Sicily. They moved slowly, but did not look back.

After witnessing that, I am incapable of ever being indifferent again.  In fact, it is hard to imagine how anyone could. I  simply can’t unsee or unhear.

Shaken and stirred.

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How desperate do you have to be? A meditation on compassion


More refugees will be coming. They are coming.

I wish I knew the names of even a few of them.   I wish I knew some characteristics. Their names.  The names of their parents.   I wish I did not have to lump them all into that unfortunate term “refugees”, but there you have it.   With the continuing unrest in North Africa and the increasingly unstable and violent situation in Syria (with possible impending US air strikes) the desperation of so many in the contact zone rises exponentially.

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Why do they leave?  How do they get where they are going? What do they bring?  Who do they leave behind?  Will they ever be able to return? What what the price they had to pay to leave?
But most importantly, will they survive the journey?
Witness this:  Just a few days ago in Siracusa , Sicily two boats with  carrying over 300 people between them were rescued.  Amongst all of those nameless, faceless people, on one of those small boats, on that most dangerous of voyages a new life came into the world.  A four-day-old baby girl, born at sea,  was found , miraculously doing very well—with part of her umbilical cord still attached.
For those who oppose immigration, make rash judgements about the lives’ of people who are just like us but who have found themselves in untenable situations, or who verbally bash and politically oppose their existence. think for a moment what kind of situation would make a heavily pregnant woman, step into a dinghy  to sail night and day , exposed to the heat of the sun by day, and the dark unknown at night?  These trips come with many promises, but, predictably with no guarantees.   Desire , hope, fear and desperation are prime motivators.  Those who oppose them their right to a life in relative safety lack what seems to be a rare commodity these days: compassion or at least the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
I have always found the belief in something, in theory at least, to be easy.   We can be anti this or pro that, but until something touches us personally, until we become the victim, the bullied,  the afflicted, the denied, the scorned, the hated and despised we don’t really know, do we?
So here is a personal appeal to those of you who think that Italy has too many immigrants, too many refugees, to those of you who have marched against them, denied them jobs, refused them service, beat them in the streets, or smiled benevolently to them within the confines of your social service agency but then pretended you didn’t know them when you passed them on the street: STOP. Just STOP.  Dig deep and find your compassion.  It could be you or me someday. And with the way the world is going, it probably will be.
black+baby+feet
Just imagine that baby girl being born at sea.  How fearful her mother must have been. The potential for disaster.  Then imagine: What kind of life will she have?   Now ask yourself:  how desperate do you have to be?
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What it Often Looks Like: 83 Somali’s Saved by the Coast Guard in Sicily


We hear about the boats.  We have seen pictures. They come in all shapes and sizes.

This video is both mundane and remarkable at the same time.  For the coast guard it is business as usual. For those coming off the boat, it will be a difficult, to say the least, way of life.  I am struck by the woman wearing a yellow headscarf, who throws her bundle of belongings out of the boat before she makes the climb on land.  She probably has no idea what life will be like from that moment on.  Or maybe she does.   This occurred on Saturday, May 11, 2013. This scenario is repeated many , many times in Sicily often in more dire circumstances. For those of us whose arrival in another country is by airplane,  imagine this human cargo.

 

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Say Hello to the New Apartheid: The Segregation of Refugees in Bremgarten


So of all of the crazy and inhumane plans put into place regarding refugees, the latest one  come from a town in Switzerland, of all places.    In the land of the impartial , the town of Bremgarten will ban refugees and asylum seekers from libraries, swimming pools, playing fields and most shocking of all—churches.

 

  Given the treatment of refugees in nearly every place in which they find themselves, this, on the surface , should not surprise anyone—and yet, it does.  It shocks. It infuriates.

 

The mayor of the town, Raymond Tellenbach claims that these measures have been made on the grounds of concern about “security”.  Every time someone’s rights are denied or curtailed, it is done in the name of “security.”  I don’t even know what this really means anymore. `

To say that the issue of refugees is a “hot button” issue is putting it in its mildest terms.   It is worse than a scandal.   Racism and restrictions on refugees goes hand in hand and is inextricable from one another, though those who speak out against refugees , condemn their very existence and have an appalling lack of concern for their welfare, is couched in terms that elicits the most heightened human reaction: fear.  And we know what the color of fear usually is.  The rhetoric surrounding the rights of refugees in particular and immigrants in general is usually aimed right where it will garner support:  your jobs, your land , your life.  Is it going to be THEM or you and your family.

No matter where you stand on the religious divide, whether you are a believer or not, Pope Francis,  a humanitarian, spoke out against the treatment of refugees, which he called a “global indifference.”  But I would take exception with Pope Francis on only one issue:  the so-called “indifference”.  Indifference seems to imply a turn of the head, a closed eye, a “not my problem” kind of an attitude. But no. This is worse. What the world is seeing now, is the rhetoric of hate, aimed to hit its target. Aimed to intimidate an already vulnerable population of people, who , for the most part, had no choice in leaving their homes.   It seems that the world has forgotten what a refugee really is.  They have no choice. They leave everything.  Change is difficult . For the refugee that change comes at the highest human price they will ever have to pay.

But instead of Mayor Tellenbach realizing what a difference he could make in his small town and how these refugees could, no doubt , contribute to community life, in time, with the support of those around them, he chose to, in essence quarantine his own people against what he perceives as the enemy. This is stupidity on such a grand scale, I don’t have a name for it , but give me time and I will come up with something.

Raymond-Tellenbach-300x247

To make matters worse,  the head of  Switzerland’s immigration office and a host of other politicians, most of them local, support Tellenbach’s decisions.

Right now, Switzerland, formerly very welcoming to refugees, has more asylum seekers currently  than any other country in Europe.   While this has caused worry and resentment, politicians would do better to educate their citizens and put measures in place to help acclimate refugees so that they can live productive lives.

If the citizens of Bremgarten are afraid, can you only imagine the fear of the poor refugees who find themselves there?

Historically, poorer countries take in more refugees than anyone else.  For a town like Bremgarten in a country like Switzerland who has resources but nothing but ill will , there is no excuse.

Unfortunately , with measures like this, racism, segregation, and hatred will not only become the norm, but will become an accepted response in other places around the globe, in the future.

wave hello

Say hello to the new Apartheid!

 

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Lament of the Refugee or Thank God for Pomodori


…How many years shall we sleep as guests on the sea?

…Nothing of our ancestors remains in us, but we want
the country of our morning coffee
we want the fragrance of primitive plants
we want a special school
we want a special cemetery

—Mahmud Darwish, “Guests on the Sea”

 

 

Place is important.  I do not need to hold forth here on how our sense of “home” shapes us—far more talented and insightful people have already done that—and you can search them out anywhere. Suffice it to say our first home, or even our sense of home can be carried  with us, coiled tight in our DNA wherever we go. But the memory, albeit  readily conjured whenever we want it is but a poor substitute for the real thing.

For the refugee home is a transient place, the place in which one never really arrives at  but dreams of. Home is more often a place one can never return to.    In fact, home is as much a place as a state of mind.  “Home” denote a level of comfort.  Perhaps even more than comfort, belonging.

But where does the refugee belong?

HOME

I step out of my office for a few minutes to phone Muhammad  because he has not been on Facebook, the place where we can easily and most readily keep in touch with one another in between my trips to Sicily.  I have left messages that have gone unanswered, left silly pictures on his profile that say “Mi manchi!” (I miss you) that have not been commented upon.  The heat is scorching on the east coast of the United States—there is barely relief in air-conditioning.  I cannot imagine what Muhammad, currently without a permanent place to stay  might be suffering during the Sicilian summer.

I dial his number and the familiar overseas ringing of the phone, so different from our in the United States sets my teeth on edge. The phone rings and rings.

Finally, he picks up.

“Micky!” he yells, and I can ‘hear” the voice in his smile.  I am sad , though, when I realize how distant  this amazing though vulnerable person is from my well-meaning and protective reach.

My friend Muhammad has moved . Again.  Because the life of a refugee is often an itinerant one , not by  choice but by sheer necessity.  He has left the island  and traveled to  Italy in search of work.  Anything.

He is in the Apulia region, where, soon, they will harvest pomodori, if all the conditions are right.  During the backbreaking work of harvest, Muhammad will be one man among many.  These men will be of various ages, and have various permissions to stay in the country or to work.  Many of them will accept the work of picking tomatoes because they will simply be without any other viable options for employment.  All employment is conditional, seasonal, of course, intense and , it goes without saying does not pay much.

tomato
Muhammad cannot stay in one place any longer. “I must keep moving, do you understand me, Mickey?” he asks me several times. I realize I am  nodding instead of answering his question, which, really, requires no answer. Nevertheless, I say , “Yes, Muhammad, I understand.”

I have never known such rootlessness, homelessness, the utter despair and longing for want of a place to live or a place where you would hope for the least of what another human being can offer another:  to tolerate your very existence.   Muhammad is a brilliant man.  He understands his status as a refugee and the many in Italy who oppose his right to live anywhere there.  But he knows he cannot go anywhere else. Surely, he can never return to his home in Sudan where his mother  waits, day after day for word from him.  He tells me he does not talk to her very often because he does not like to lie to her and would not be able to tell her of how difficult his day to day existence is.

African Feet
I ask him where he will live. What he will eat.  He does not answer me.  I ask him , foolishly, if he is okay.  He laughs, “Mickey, really, I am fine, Mickey, but I worry about you!”

Isn’t that always the way?  The one who suffers comforts the ones who worry.

But I can’t stop worrying.  But I think of how he so desires work ,any kind of work, how that is all he has ever wanted since arriving in Italy, to be able to take care of himself.

And now, he has some work. Thank God for the harvest and the Italian love of tomatoes.
So for now, pomodori.
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Padre Carlo of Church of Bosco Minniti,Sicily: Arms Open Wide to Immigrants and Refugees, Social Justice in Action


I have met Padre Carlo, once before, but briefly.  On the day I am to interview him, I feel a bit nervous.  Padre Carlo is a man that is, in so many ways, bigger than life, but quite humble.  He is, at once, a plain spoken, often abrupt man, but  a man that is unique for his  world view and acts of charity, amidst an environment that is often uncomfortable, if not downright hostile, to “newcomers” of color—namely the influx of immigrants and refugees, particularly those of color.

That he is a priest is sometimes a fact one can forget in his company—he does not talk or act like the ways in which we have come to think that they should act. In fact, he does not act at all.  He does not pretend to be pious, or holy or better than anyone else  He is simply Padre Carlo, a man with a mission of social justice.

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My friend Ramzi and I arrive at the offices of the Church of Bosco Minniti one hot and waning afternoon for our appointment with Padre.  We wait for a while as is usual for most appointments in Sicily.  I have been  late for a good many myself.    We meander in the narrow foyer and  look at a lifetime of Padre Carlo’s experiences and ministry with the marginalized, the immigrants, the refugees.   Art work by refugees graces the walls as well as photos in frames covered in frames of so many people being welcomed and embraced by this Sicilian priest.
Interviewing Padre Carlo

Interviewing Padre Carlo

Bosco Minniti is a church in Siracusa with Padre Carlo, in his mid  fifties at the helm.  It is situated on a busy street, behind wrought iron gates.  Late in the day, Sicilian rush hour, everyone looks tired and the sun is relentless.  Outside the church are young African refugees from different countries in the continent, gathered, smoking, talking.  One is fixing a bicycle , another lazily dribbles a soccer ball.   We walk past them, greet them and they greet us back, a bit curious, but only a bit.  The refugees are used to visitors here.
The courtyard at Bosco Minnitti

The courtyard at Bosco Minnitti

When Padre Carlo is finished with his other appointments and preoccupations ( it seems everyone wants time with him) he brusquely ushers us out to the garden area of the church.   He leads us to a table with a bench and sits beside me.  I feel  emotionally moved by the enclosed area—great effort has been made with the gardens: the flowers are beautiful and well kept.  I felt peaceful there and thought how the refugees and immigrants who stay must take comfort there, too. Padre Carlo lights the first of several cigarettes, and Ramzi smokes one, too.   Blowing a stream of smoke sideways, Padre makes a gesture with his right hand, waving it in the air a bit and says, with blunt force:  ” So talk. What do you want to know?”
It is difficult to prepare for interviews.  Preconceived notions and prudent planning are often blown to bits when you actually sit down with someone .  How could I tell Padre Carlo that I wanted to know everything?  Where would I begin?
It is quickly revealed that his work with immigrants and refugees was not a “planned project.” His view of his vocation , of his mission, of the Catholic Church in general is one of “hosting and reception.”    He believes and enacts hospitality in one of the most open and fair ways I have ever seen.   He is confused by the fact that I am impressed.  I feel ashamed, as if I am revealing the fact that helping others is , well, radical.  I call him a radical.  He laughs.  “I am no radical! Look, it is so, so simple.  You see the statue of the Blessed Mother in the church–she has hosted life inside of her.  Our Lady is symbolic. All are welcome.  Church for me is an open door. And when you leave, the care you have been given here should help you to face your life.”
I praise him for giving the weary a place to sleep.
He laughs, a bit irritated.  “A place to sleep is for dogs.  You give a home to humans. It is a life project.  People who come to this church need a friend.”   His ever present cigarette and its smoke is wafting in my direction.   “Sorry,” he says, without looking at me.
Padre Carlo

Padre Carlo

Padre seems to sense that I waver between hero-worship and skepticism.  He is a man who has a keen perception of people—his eyes are focused and narrowed. He does not smile often.  This is one of what I perceive to be many of his contradictions.  I am all over the place conducting this interview.  I am both tape recording and writing things down and I find halfway through the interview my hands are shaking. And Padre Carlo has not looked at me once.  It is then that I realize that he has given this interview reluctantly.   He is not at all interested in admirers. Or publicity.   Clearly, I puzzle him.  I want to ask him about the ubiquitous racism in Italy.  I want to ask him if he comes from a family of civic-minded people, or, if he  is an outlier.  I want to know the very essence of him.  It is when I sense that I will not get that, that my hands begin to tremble.
In the Church

In the Church

I dive right in and ask him if his family shares his worldview of love and charity.  He answers quite simply, sweeping the air around him: ” Do you see my family around me?”
No, I do not, I told him.
 
Does he try to convert the refugees to Christianity?  He laughs out loud, throws his head back, recovers and the smile is instantly gone. He is serious once again.  “Absolutely not. It does not matter one bit to me what religion they practice.” He remembered one man who was so grateful for the generosity received at the church, he asked to become a Christian.  Padre counseled him : ” Be yourself.  Faith is not an exchange.
Bosco Minnitti

Bosco Minnitti

This excites me and worries me.  Padre Carlo is saying all of the things I want him to say.  I worry that somehow I am misinterpreting him—an occupational hazard of this kind of work—reinterpreting words that you want to hear.  Almost as if reading my mind, he says, “Michelle, this church is different.”
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That is evident.
But how different?
I do not know of another church anywhere in the vicinity like it.  I have never known a priest like this man, though I am sure they exist. I did not expect to find one in Sicily.
I am heading toward a question that must be asked because it has been on my mind for a very, very long time.  And because I am Italian, I think I can ask this.
I ask Padre if he believes that Italians are inherently racist, as so much has been made of Italy’s hostile dealings with such a vulnerable population.  Padre does not hesitate and he answers me without any hostility.
Our culture has been in a bit of stagnation, though, after all, our culture is a consequence of so many cultures passing through.   People try to hide their racism, and some people don’t even know they are racist.  But if people only see refugees as a force of labor , then that is racist.  Seeing immigrants as simply a working resources or only seeing their misery and as people consistently needed our help is to never acknowledge their roots, their intellectual capacity.  No one seems interested in deciphering their intellectual capacity, their mentality.  This can easily be called racism.  This is what I mean by hiding racism.   We are a Mediterranean country for goodness sake, hospitality should be the first thing we offer!  Anthropologically, we are so far behind.  We have animal instincts and we act on them.  Only animals mark their territory in such a way.  Humans have begun to close themselves off into groups.   When we can look at racism in this way, put into an immigration perspective, it is easy to see how even the most ignorant imbecile will perceive himself to feel superior to any immigrant.”
Italians Protest Against Racism
I want to know how far back the seeds of social justice were sown in Padre Carlo’s consciousness and he tells me of the superior seminary training he had when he was a very young  man.
  “My teachers did not try to fill my head with doctrine.  They encouraged me to become a free thinker.   They told me to strive to decipher spirit, life and society.   They taught me to read the evangelists, to be a door to help everyone all over the globe.  I have become convinced, since then, that for so many, the daily life of those who call themselves Christians, really has nothing to do with Christianity.   To be a Christian in this life of materialism is to take a big risk.   We Christians life in the world but do not belong to it.  I will give you an example. People speak of globalization merchandise wise  buy out Christian vision is internationalization of roots and to allow people to go where they want and need to go.  People get sent away, but money and merchandise can go around the globe easily.
He stops and lights another cigarette.
I stop talking to write and think a bit.  I am writing so fast and while I do , Padre and Ramzi smoke and joke around.  The courtyard garden is starting to become filled with some of the immigrants who are staying at the church. I feel so conspicuous writing so seriously in my notebook.
Peace

Peace

An amazing 20,000 people have passed through this church and have been helped by Padre Carlo.  Only 3,000 of them have been Christian, but Padre could not care less.   Padre Carlo is only 54 years old, but looks just a bit older.  He holds the care of so many in his hands.   He has spent 21 years at Bosco Minniti.

A lifetime,  40 years traveling around the globe helping others and , he says, “I am proud of that.”

A smiling woman, someone employed by the church, comes over to embrace Padre during our interview.  They greet one another with affection and enthusiasm. I see that the immigrants need Padre’s attention. He is looking in their direction and I am reluctant to end the interview , but I  know that I must.   I want to know if he ever feels discouraged.
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I am discouraged a lot of the time.  So often.  Automatically, I take a few steps behind and jump over the discouragement and get past it.  I have a lot of people coming to me.  I cannot say no to them.  I am working with other people to change the life of these immigrants.  Work helps to make people independent.  I help them to build a future.  I cannot allow myself to be discouraged.  I do not have the time.”
Entrance to Bosco Minnitti

Entrance to Bosco Minnitti

It is 6:10 and the church bells are ringing.  I quickly write a few notes and give Padre a hug. I thank him warmly, though he is business-like with me.    As soon as I do, he excuses himself and walks toward the some of the people who have gathered to see him.  He appears to have forgotten that I am still in the courtyard.  It takes me weeks and weeks  to process an interview like this.  I know that this once will take me a bit longer.  He has said so many things that have resonated with me. He is not sentimental. He is not unrealistic.  He is committed to social justice.  He has validated for me what I have perceived to be the right attitude to truly be a champion of the marginalized and the vulnerable.
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 He does not hate those who hate others, who have spoken against the immigrant, ignored the plight of the refugees. He does not hate anyone  When I asked him what he does feel for racists he says, quite simply ,with his deep voice and serious face, ” I feel sorry for them.”
Padre Carlo with his people

Padre Carlo with his people

Though he would not like to hear me say this, I felt that while I was with him, I was in the presence of a great man.   There are over 20,000 other people (and more) who would surely agree with me.
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