In a recent post, I wrote about my students witnessing what they perceived as the “Divided Line” in Sicily, which is essentially, the parallel (but not interactive) stance that Sicilians and immigrants/refugees maintain with one another. In a discussion with my good friend and respected colleague Susi Kimbell, she expressed remorse that our students did not have enough time to work through why the subjective reality they were experiencing had other dimensions that she experiences and witnesses every day in Sicily. Her thoughts were so compelling , I asked her to gather her thoughts for this blog. What Susi, a circumspect and exemplar educator reveals is a different side of that divide, and does so with an intelligence and a compassion that is often missing from the discussion of immigrants and refugees in Italy. I am so grateful for her enlightening perspective.
Divided by ‘The Invisible Line’ – this is how American students described the situation in Siracusa as they observed the locals and migrants on a visit in March 2014. They noted the locals didn’t even acknowledge the presence of the foreigners, let alone interact with them. They saw an ‘invisible line’ of suspicion, of discrimination, perhaps even hostility.
Sadly, there is such a line.
But while it’s easy to accuse the Sicilians of racism, I feel it’s a line of misunderstanding – the old Sicilian men sunning themselves on the bench can’t talk to the migrants who, to them, are chatting in an incomprehensible language. They can’t understand so they can’t find out anything that would make the migrants ‘human’, someone they could relate to. The inability to communicate brings a deep atavistic fear of the foreigner.
Why are they here? We are all unemployed in the south, so why would they want to come here? They’re going to take our jobs.
They complain about the crucifix in our classrooms. Is there a secret Islamic master-plan to take over Sicily/Italy/Europe? To fill the continent with Muslims until the Christians are the minority?
When I look at Sicily today, I see how all the foreign invaders who arrived on the island’s shores have left their mark on the culture but also in the faces of the Sicilians – blue Norman and dark Mediterranean eyes, blonde and red hair from the North, brown and black hair from Greece, Spain or N. Africa. But all their languages, their traditions and religious beliefs fused over time to become a single, characteristically Sicilian culture. They lost their ‘foreignness’ to become part of a larger unifying and unified mosaic.
But how long did it take? The Sicilians are historically a suspicious people; the sea has always brought invaders and trouble, and until they can ‘place’ you in their mosaic, they are likely to be wary of you. How long will it take for them to place the hundreds of migrants who come to Sicily’s shores today in that mosaic, if indeed they want to?
Walking in one of the main squares in town today, I noticed groups of Roma, Asians, Africans sitting on the benches but the locals had gone. There were hardly any people I could identify as Italian.
There is no threat, there is no apparent tension, but the fact remains that on certain streets at certain times of day, the locals are the minority. You walk along roads or past parks or bars and are the only European there. So is it when you have that awkward feeling of being the odd one out when you are actually in your home-town that the defensive mechanisms kick in? Is this when you feel the basest forms of protectionism of your national identity and heritage and does this provoke a sense of outrage that you no longer feel at ease in your own town?
And what about the cost to the Italian State? 300.000 euros a day. Nine million euros a month. We pay our taxes and get nothing back – the migrants get housed, clothed, they get pocket money and they still go begging at every traffic light in town.
Every day, it’s “Emergenza immigrazione” – Can we blame the locals for feeling concerned when every day of calm sea brings around one-thousand immigrants to the shores of south-east Sicily? Twenty thousand in the first four months of 2014? How can a little town like Pozzallo, ‘l’altra Lampedusa’, of 18,000 inhabitants cope with hundreds of arrivals every day? And how can the news of 300 immigrants ‘on the run’ through Sicily after breaking out of a camp, looking for relatives or trying to make it to the north of Europe, not make the locals uneasy?
Various episodes illustrate growing tension. This week (May ‘14) a school trip was cancelled because the parents didn’t want their children travelling in the same buses that are used to transport the immigrants for fear of possible contagion. Today, a local mayor launched the alarm about cases of tuberculosis, scabies and HIV that have been identified amongst the arrivals, and the infectious diseases ward of the local hospital is full. I don’t know if the stories and the estimated arrivals expected over the summer (800,000!) are true. But I don’t think anyone can deny the scale of the phenomenon. And it is clear that the locals feel entitled to be worried.
But we are proud of our Italian navy for scouring the seas in search of leaking boats. We are proud of the men who help the desperate migrants make it ashore. We Italians have big hearts. We are compassionate and generous…
No-one here wants to see people drowning in front of them, to see the bodies washed up on the beautiful beaches. Many people I know personally have taken minors, who made it here without a family, under their wings and into their hearts. I see dedication and genuine concern. I read today about a cafè at Pozzallo where local students help the immigrants learn a little Italian and find out something about the place they have landed in.
So just how contradictory are the Sicilians?
I feel their contradiction is the contradiction of Europe – we as Europeans promote human rights, we are open and tolerant and accepting of diversity, but often it seems that these are just fine, empty words. Are compassion, tolerance and acceptance luxuries Europe can’t afford during an economic crisis? European leaders face a dilemma as they try to balance political pressures to restrict migrants with assistance for those desperate enough to risk such a dangerous journey. Where is our solidarity, either for the individual or for our fellow-EU members? Where are the other European countries when the migrants need a destination, a work permit or document? No-one suggests sharing the cost of the rescue operations or offers to take some of the tens of thousands who reach Italian shores. In the north of Europe, they are worrying about other forms of immigration from within the EU. They wash their hands of the problem. Sicily seems a long way away.
Here, however, the scale of the problem is enormous. All Italy can do is try to stop people dying during the crossing and give them food and clothes when they arrive. The infrastructures can’t cope so housing is over-crowded and basic. The call for personalized menus for each and every nationality that arrives is frankly quite unrealistic. Some sick people will slip through the net of health controls and of course there are a few terrible cases of lack of respect and loss of dignity. There probably is a ‘business’ behind the Mare Nostrum rescue-operation. But I can’t help feeling that we should give the local authorities, associations and volunteers their due and recognize the exceptional work they do in impossibly difficult circumstances. It’s too easy to point the finger at everything that isn’t done perfectly. And while the ‘Mare Nostrum’ operation may be far from perfect, at least we have not had to witness tragedies like the Lampedusa sinking in October 2013 where some 360 people lost their lives. And are there any straightforward solutions to the problem?
So, yes, there is an invisible line of incommunicability and incomprehension dividing locals from the migrants. But it’s not an insurmountable line, and perhaps, before we accuse them of racism, we should remember that the Sicilians have over time absorbed and come to terms with all the waves of foreigners who landed here. They have learnt from them and added layer after ‘foreign’ layer to their culture, till it has become their own, and one they are deeply proud of. I’d like to think they will do the same again.