One of the predominant themes of this blog has been the inequality between immigrants and refugees in Italy, and while my emotional, physical and intellectual interest is specifically in Sicily, there is an inequality in all of Italy, as reported not only in press, but as witnessed by the citizenry (and often admitted by them) as well as human rights’ groups the world over. This is troubling for many reasons, but, from a sociological point of view, interesting as well.
I, too, am an outsider, when observing and writing about what I see. It is often difficult to cope in Sicilian society if one has not been born and raised there. Imagine, if that is true for me, imagine what a refugee , specifically an African refugee might experience in the country. My friend, mentor and co-researcher, Ramzi Harrabi, President of the Council of Immigrants, in Siracusa Sicily gives a stark and eloquent account of some of the realities of the refugee(s) in the camps. How many times is the account that he gives here repeated all over Italy? I have been witness to much of what has been described here. What Ramzi does here, what I do, and what we do together, in our work, is not only bear witness, but advocate, as well. Ramzi, here, bears witness that , even in death , there is often, at best, no justice or, at least, equality for the refugee.
Even in Death, Inequality
The last time that I visited the Umberto Primo refugee camp was last month where I had an in depth chat with the manager. Now, he doesn’t see me as someone who is there to check up on the situation but finally understands that I have no hidden agenda against the camp and that the only motivation of my continuous visits is always the same, which is, to inform Syrian refugees how not to be be victims of the local micro-trafficking system.
Once the manager understood that the American woman who came with me last December was not from the UN and was only interviewing the refugees for academic purposes, under my direction, he was more at ease with the situation. I told him to google “Sempre Sicilia” to see that my friend Michelle is not a threat, but is a scholar who , among other aspects of her research, maintains this blog about immigration and refugees in Sicily .
I spent more then half an hour explaining to him that my personal position is so different from certain activists who blindly attack the policy of the camp and the way it is handled .
I underlined that my priorities were to be sure that the men in the camp were being respected culturally and ethically, moreover, that they were being well fed and having their respective religious diets followed. A small example of this being that the majority of Africans are not used to a daily consumption of “ Pasta” yet they are fed it twice a day.
Yesterday, I received a phone call from a journalist asking me to comment on the terrible death of a Gambian man only 29 years old . He died in a mobile hospital managed by Emergency NGO that operate inside the camp. I replied to the journalist , that first of all he should remember that three refugees also died last summer during their voyage , and that two of them were buried in Siracusa and the other one in Malta. The local council of Siracusa became involved in the case and organised an interfaith funeral which took place in the most symbolic square of the city , the Duomo. She was a Syrian woman called Izdihar , she was 21 years old with diabetes, the trafficker threw her suitcase containing her rmedicine in the sea .
Unfortunately, in my opinion the Gambian man who just lost his life will not receive like treatment. This is due to the fact that Siracusa is no longer candidate for the European capital of culture 2019.
Last summer the city was still in the midst of promoting itself as an intercultural city with concerns for refugees and diversity. For instance, refugees coming to Siracusa were like a gift from destiny. Why , you might ask. The answer is because they were in the position to be used by local politicians as points for their candidature in Europe. They failed , Siracusa is no longer candidate and no one from any institution is acting on behalf of the Gambian dreamer of freedom who was crossing the mediterranean in search of a better life.
This poor man’s death serves to remind us that charity is never enough , that the smiley faces and caresses of the camp workers alone will not help these people.
Next day the newspaper wrote that I had said , “ I am a refugee myself” ( which is not true) and that only a refugee like me would be able to understand the needs of refugees.
However, what I was trying to point out is that this man had come to Sicily four days before he died , in which case why hadn’t anybody taken care his needs or given him medical assistance. Nobody had deciphered this dangerous situation. Why hadn’t the doctor used a mediator to interact with his patient who did not speak any Italian or possibly English? I came to know that the Gambian refugee had been assisted only by his compatriots who had lifted him on their shoulders from the rooms in the camp to the Emergency medical Bus which is 200 metres from the rooms. where was the nurse of the camp?? Where were the operators of the camp??? Why is it that a camp with more then 50 Gambians doesn’t have a Gambian translator ?.
There is a simple answer to this question, a Gambian translator would never vote in Sicily, so no politician can assign him a job where public money lines the foundations of the business of the camps.
Everywhere I go I continue to hear locals complaining about the arrivals and how much the country is spending to keep refugees in camps. The general public is convinced that immigrants are a burden on the Italian welfare system which does not provide for Italian citizens. I always answer that these poor people are here because Italy signed the Geneva agreement in 1951 granting asylum and protection to all persecuted people in this globe and that thanks to the arrival of these refugees many Italian politicians and those who vote for them have jobs.