Sengalese Author, Pap Khouma: No Longer a Stranger in a Strange Land, But Still Fighting for Others


 

Pap Khouma is a man to be greatly admired. I consider myself extremely lucky that he so generously agreed to answer my questions via e-mail despite his incredibly busy schedule.  It speaks to his commitment to the cause of immigrants and refugees in Italy—that he would take the time to answer questions and to help explicate  for those who still wonder or do not believe the suffering of refugees and immigrants in Italy.  He fights tirelessly for equal rights of the “New Italians,” astutely realizing (while many still don’t) that helping this vulnerable population, (a moral obligation)strengthens Italian society in general.  Thank you for reading.

You came to Italy in 1984.  You were a “stranger in a strange land.” I feel that so many people, who oppose those who cross borders fail not only to understand exactly the conditions under which people leave their homes, indeed, their native lands, but also they fail to recognize how soul sick it can leave one feeling for years and years.   Describe, if you can, what that mental and physical dislocation felt like.

Pap Khouma

Pap Khouma

I was among the first Senegalese arrived in Italy 30 years ago. Senegalese were a bit ‘more “lucky” than other immigrants, certainly we were in Italy for economic reasons , but we were free to return to our country when we wanted. For example, at the time, the Eritreans were at war for the independence of their country and the nostalgia of the homeland, dreams of return that plague many migrants or refugees were tied at the end and the outcome of that war. However, the laws on migratory flows towards Italy were almost nonexistent. Probably because Italy is considered a country of emigration, and not yet a country of immigration. Paradoxically, at the time a Senegalese could enter Italy without a visa, stay three months as a tourist and maturity had an obligation to share. He could not perform any work or try to obtain a residence permit. Those who remained after the expiration of three months, was exposed to the controls of the police or the police and could receive an expulsion. In our specific case, meant a deportation order that you forced to leave the Italian territory within 48 hours. Those who did not respect this decree of expulsion from Italian territory, was considered an illegal immigrant. At the time, the Senegalese, because they have black skin and thus more identifiable than other foreigners, were stopped every day by police, police, traffic wardens or financial police. Those who had received the warrant, was handcuffed, taken to the police station and locked up in a cell for a few hours or for about 48 hours. Every day, before you get out of our homes, we looked out first to see if a cop was not passing. When we were on the street, barely saw any man in uniform, a car that was flashing from the roof (could be an ambulance), we hid behind a traffic light, in the crowd, to ‘corner of a street, behind a car parked or mingling with the crowd. Who was stopped while carrying the business of street vendor, his goods were seized, appeared before a judge, who could sentence him to abusive work on public land. Snapped a fine and another decree of expulsion from the territory (expulsion) or in some cases a criminal conviction of a few weeks or months in prison. With very few exceptions, all the Senegalese in Italy in the first half of  1980 were illegal hawkers who squatted on public land. Obviously, the status of illegal immigrants exposed to too much abuse. I was more or less underground for three years. In 1987, my brother and I finally got a permit to stay, thanks to a law of general regularization.

Pap Khouma talking

But even in this situation, members of the security forces (police, police, police, financial police) coming home Senegalese night or day, patrolled their homes, carrying away the money they were and if they cared for them. Protesters were arrested and charged with resistance and violence a public official or other crime that he never committed, to give lessons to others. Samba ,my brother and I were victims of similar allegations when we were residents with regular residence permits. On the way, some individuals are allowed to spit in the face, insult or physically attack people with black skin. The tragedy occurred in 1989, with the killing of the refugee Jerry Essan Masslo by three white men in Villa Literno. He was a black guy who fled from apartheid in force in South Africa. What gave him the strength and hope as an African immigrant, was a part of the Italian public, unions, politicians, Catholic priests and Protestants who were  indignant that in the press, on television, and  against the rights denied and humiliations suffered by these people.

Many blame (in my mind, justifiably) the Berlusconi government for fanning the flames of hatred.  The Lega Nord (Northern League) was said to be perversely pleased with the (wrongly) proclaimed “human tsunami” that Berlusconi coined the wave of refugees coming to Italian shores.  Can you comment on that?

Silvio Berlusconi is a billionaire and a shrewd media (newspapers, television, websites, radio, etc.)  mogul in Europe. It employs an army of journalists, political analysts, pollsters. Most of them put aside ethics and ethics and he used the powerful means of communication made available to spread fear and hatred against immigrants, political refugees, Muslims.

Umberto Bossi

Umberto Bossi

 

But the political movement that lit the flame of hatred against foreigners was founded by The Northern League led by Umberto Bossi, in the first half of the 1980s. Umberto Bossi was first elected Senator, I believe in 1986, because the corrupt politicians railed against the government and against the presence of southern Italians emigrating from the poor South to the industrialized north of the country. Before Bossi, the millions of southerners who for decades were to northern Italy to look for work, they were discriminated against by their fellow countrymen. The inhabitants of the many regions of Italy (Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, Emilia Romagna), refused to rent houses Italians of the south and their families. From the late ’80s, Italy, in full economic boom, has become a destination for immigrants from Africa, Asia, South America. Bossi changed target and foreigners became enemies to fight. Keep attacking the Southerners was risky for a political party. Why are Italian citizens who have the right to vote and can do weigh during the elections. While the alien has few rights, and is of course excluded from the right to vote, so it is a very easy target to hit. The Northern League in its propaganda was the amalgamation of the words immigrants, refugees, illegal, invaders, Muslims and earned the consent of the voters in northern Italy. Silvio Berlusconi entered politics in 1994, his newspapers, radio and television adopted the slogans of the League, not to lose ground.

 

Sengalese Vendor in Italy

Sengalese Street Vendor in Northern Italy

 

What has changed for immigrants, migrants and refugees since the time of your arrival in 1984?

Since November 1989, the date of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the citizens of the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, had regained the freedom that all Western countries strongly demanded for them for decades. I remember that before that date, every citizen of East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Albania, Czechoslovakia, Romania, etc., which could escape the “iron curtain” was celebrated as the victory of freedom against communist oppression. The dissident was welcomed in any country of the West. Received asylum in a short time. With the end of the Cold War, many citizens of the countries affected by natural disasters in Eastern Europe immigrated to the countries of Western Europe, who had fought for their freedom. But times had changed and they were no longer welcome as before. Migration flows are carriers of a humanity varied: refugees, honest workers and unfortunately criminals. The press pointed the finger especially against the criminals, did not hesitate to generalize and to criminalize all immigrants.

The various leftist governments have not addressed the immigration issue seriously because it is very unpopular and they fear losing voters. The detention centers (CPT), which today are called centers of identification and expulsion (CIE), were created in 1998 by the government of former communists led by Massimo D’Alema, in accordance with Article 12 of Law Turkish-Napolitano. Giorgio Napolitano is the current President of the Republic. The CIE are real prisons where they are locked up for months of foreign citizens, the children of immigrants born and raised in Italy, of asylum seekers, people suspected of being illegal immigrants. There are, of course, the normal reception centers where refugees are not prisoners.

The right-wing governments have exploited and stigmatized the presence of immigrants, because it is a move that led consensus. In 2001, Forza Italy, the party of S. Berlusconi and the Northern League (U. Bossi) have joined forces and together with other small neo fascist movements (including the National Alliance, the party heir of Benito Mussolini, led by Gianfranco Fini) and won the national elections.

Lega_Nord_logo

Paradoxically, in 2002 the government of Berlusconi right / Bossi / Fini has approved the largest law regularization of immigrants since the end of World War II. And the Bossi-Fini law is still in force with some modifications. At the time, the Italian entrepreneurs driven by the economic growth needed workers and on the market there were many illegal immigrants and refugee youth. The majority of entrepreneurs had supported the election campaign of the political right, and after the victory, were satisfied. However, during the election campaign the coalition  of Berlusconi / Bossi / Fini had promised that he would drive the foreigners from Italy and stopped migration. Broken promise, but the Bossi / Fini had become so rigid and few guarantees granted to immigrants and their families. The majority of immigrants have a residence permit only for reason of employment (Article 22 Bossi-Fini).

The financial crisis that erupted in the US in 2008 did not spare any Western country and led to the failure of many businesses and, therefore, each year tens of thousands of Italians and immigrants became unemployed. Immigrants who do not find another job because of the economic crisis affecting Italy still risk losing their residence permit and become illegal immigrants and their families even if they live here for many years, they have worked and paid contributions.

 I Was An Elephant SalesmanYou have made it your life’s work to write and speak about the experience of the immigrant.  Do you feel that this has effectively helped not only Italians, but also those in Europe to see those crossing borders with more compassion?

Although it is not relevant to the question, I answer with this extract from my book We Italian Blacks written in 2010:

The fear in small doses.

What follows Mr. Judge is a small example of how the fear of the different can be injected in small doses in the spirit of the people. In the early nineties, in Italy there were nurses, profession that was entered in the list of jobs not acceptable to young people. Because it was said that the rounds were grueling and the pay was not adequate. Meanwhile, the life expectancy of the population had increased and there were always older to treat. In Sydney, there was the proposal to open access of the profession to foreigners who did not belong to the European Union. They were on the market many foreign nurses graduates in countries of origin, which could not have pulled back in the face of exhausting shifts and the base salary. While waiting for the sick care, politics questioned the professional skills of nurses trained in the countries of the third world, which could be verified without wasting time in controversy in the newspapers and on television. There is hiding behind the law on reciprocity. That is, if the country of origin of the nurse there was a law that allowed an Italian citizen – who already refused to do it in a better condition to his home – to go there to play the same profession. Touched nurse immigrant or refugee demonstrate to the Italian authorities the actual existence of such reciprocity between sovereign governments.

Some politicians Lombard had declared:

“Our seniors are not used to being cared for by strangers! Will be afraid to be approached and touched by nurses Filipinos, Arabs and blacks. “

And then they had proposed:

“Let’s go get nurses in Argentina,” they said in the press. “There are our natives. Are italoargentini, our seniors will not be afraid of them. “

The proposal was put forward to the Argentine authorities who responded in

spades. Had invested money and facilities to train professionals. Why in the world would have to send them to Italy and deny care to their patients?

At this point, the Region of Lombardy agreed to pass a law that allowed immigrants to be able to practice as nurses. The elders did not manifest any fear towards them.

 

Your novel I Was an Elephant Salesman is an evocative narrative of possibly the most successful of all African immigrants—the so-called  (by Italians)”Vu Cumpra”  (You buy).  How did you come to write this novel and what did you hope to express in it?

I  was a seller of elephants” (“I Was an Elephant Salesman”) was written with journalist Oreste Pivetta and published in 1990. The purpose of the book was to take the floor and explain firsthand Italians the situation of immigrants, through true stories that I   lived by myself, by my friends and acquaintances. I just wanted to open a dialogue with the Italians in the simplest manner.In the book, which is written with some humor, there are stories of humiliation that we suffered at the hands of  the police force, but fought to overcome through solidarity by the people and especially the common hope of young Africans who dreamed of building their future lives in Italy. I Was an Elephant Salesman  was adopted in Italian schools as a textbook.

With the dissolution of Mare Nostrum and the closing of some refugee centers, it is said that Italy is losing both patience and compassion. Please share your thoughts on that.

The barges loaded with women, children, men from Libya, African parties are directed to the islands of Sicily, in particular in Lampedusa. People are fleeing war or dictatorship(s) in Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. Also landed families of refugees fled from the wars in Iraq and Syria. These refugees are exploited by traffickers of African or Asian men and then boarded the floating coffins. Happen many shipwrecks and sea of Sicily became the largest marine cemetery in the world. The Transaction Mare Nostrum was started in October 2013 after the massacre of 130 shipwrecked migrants October 3, 2013 near the island of Lampedusa. The aim was to monitor the ships of the Italian Navy, the Mediterranean Sea and the rescue boat migrants in distress. And ‘duration a year, was stopped on 31 October 2014 and replaced by the operation that Triton has few resources and a more limited range. A part of the Italian public, some newspapers, political parties (Forza Italy, the Northern League, 5 Star Movement founded the comedian Beppe Grillo, etc.) considered Mare Nostrum as encouraging Africans to immigrate to Italy, defined of these refugees illegal carrying of insecurity. It is obvious that as long as there will be wars, dictatorships, famine, ethnic or religious oppression as happens in the Middle East and in some African countries, people will try to survive elsewhere. The dictatorial regimes of Eritrea and Ethiopia are allied with most Western countries. Most Western countries considered rich and stable close their borders and there will be more human traffickers ready to set sail the boats laden with desperate people who will risk their lives for the dreamed paradise.

 

What does a typical day in the life of Pap Khouma look like?

I work five days a week in a library in the center of Milan. In the evening, after work I often take part in debates on immigration or literature. During my two days off a week I go often in schools of all Italian regions and participate as a speaker, along with students and teachers, in debates on immigration, integration, or simply on the themes of literature. I direct the magazine online and free http://www.el-ghibli.org, which deals with the literature of migration and beyond. I find the time to take care of miafamiglia, my partner Anna and my son Khadim, now eighteen.

 

Pap Khouma at work

Pap Khouma at work

 

The condition of the “new Italians” is met with consistent resistance at many, if not most levels of Italian society.  Is there hope?

My latest book is titled “We Italians blacks” (We italians black) and deals with the theme of “new italians citizens”. In conclusion, if you have black skin, all you will consider a foreigner. You are a customer who has to bow your head and thank Italians always white. Certainly, all the “new Italians” are not blacks. There are the children of white Arabic, descendants of Asians or South Americans, children between blacks mixed African and Italian banks, etc. These kids or adults are called “second generation immigrants” and not “citizens of the first generation”. Sometimes even their parents were born, raised and educated in Italy, the country of which they are nationals and know little of the original land of their grandparents. But they stressed is the fact that you have a name and a surname “not normal”, to be people of “color”, to have traits sommatici “strange”, not to be Christian. My dream is as I write the last page of my book:

Google Chrome

“Do not struggle to the dreams of the great characters that I mentioned. But in my small way, I would finally the community were considering me, or at least my son and his generation, Yassin, Saba, Matthew and the other, not a skin color which bind the worst prejudices inherited from the past, but of citizens with equal dignity and equal opportunities. I wish at least my son does not know either hatred or suspicion, often so subtle, but instead, compassion. I wish no one has to defend themselves as to their identity of being Italian, as if a black Italian was a paradox. I wish no one would suspect him automatically if you do not find something in class, in school, and no one asked him the ticket arrogantly assuming that because black has to travel illegally. I wish the new generation of Italian blacks, can face all the choices of life and work on the basis of merit and ability. I wish that when my son will be great in the national football there were not one, but many Balotelli, and that thanks to them we won the World Cup, and he referred them to the skill and not for black skin. I want a country where my son can become healthy man, a country that is not afraid of ethnic, religious and cultural, but who knows how to exploit the best of its components. I wish my son could go to Senegal, uncles, to tell how good it is to live in Italy for him, and then returned to Italy to speak of his origins with pride. I know that everything will happen, Your Honor, it’s just a matter of time. The day was  coming when  blacks men and women are doctors, policemen, lawyers , and even controllers of public transport. That will be a great day, I hope to see it. This is my dream, Your Honor, this was the dream of my father. “

 

 

African refugee in Italy

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When Death Comes, it Will Come in Hoards: Italy Ends Mare Nostrum


The logic always seems a bit twisted and I suppose it would take the wisdom of a modern day Solomon to figure things out.

Disregarding the fervent pleas of those who work with refugees in Italy,  the country effectively ended the “search and rescue” mission Mare Nostrum and, instead, will now enact operation Triton—a mission led by Frontex, the European Union border agency. This will be a “limited” mission, but what that means, exactly, no one (yet) knows. Italy, having long ago lost both patience and compassion for those making the treacherous, to say the least, journey through the Mediterranean, claims that is has, in fact “done its duty.”

The horrible tragedy of October 3, 2013 in Lampedusa, remains in the forefront in the minds of so many around the world, a tragedy that brought attention to the plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean. In this case, the boat was leaving Libya, with migrants from mostly Eritrea, but also from Somalia and Ghana. With thanks to the Italian Coast Guard, 155 of those making the journey survived, though it is believed that more than 360 human lives’ were lost. That is an astounding number by anyone’s count.

Italian police recover the body of a migrant who drowned after a shipwreck, at La Playa beach in Catania on Sicily island

After this tragedy, people seemed to take notice. When death comes in hoards, people pay attention. But yet, the loss, indeed, of even one life, in the liquid coffin that is the Mediterranean is enough to make one soul sick. I have spoken to so many on the ground in Sicily, who feel the strain of the arrivals in many different ways. I have heard the arguments that say “What more can we do?”   “How much more do we have to give? As well, “Why does the burden fall to us?” I understand a bit of each argument. And while I understand it, I do not necessarily agree with it.   I believe that there is inherent racism in these arguments and I often wonder if the boats were carrying white people, if the reaction would be the same. The truth is, it is difficult to be an outsider in Italy—specifically in Sicily, where, on a daily basis, one can be tolerated, and befriended, but will never belong.   What I feel is missing from the conversations, when, in fact, they occur, regarding, in particular African migrants, is how incredibly difficult their journey really is in terms of what they have fled, what awaits them.

African in Italy

 

In all of my  many interviews with refugees and migrants, as atrocious as the journey is, and make no mistake, it truly is, struggling and learning to live in an environment, a society that either despises your presence (most common) or merely tolerates it (less common) is a battle that never ends. The utter shock that most refugees and migrants arrive in a state of, is not alleviated in their new life, but is often compounded, as they look for jobs (of which there are rarely any) or housing (in which they are more often than not denied) or where a mere stroll down the street is cast in a suspicious light.

While refugees are often given the basics, such as food and shelter, there is a paucity of access to mental health services that the migrants and refugees are in desperate need of. They have often been trafficked, beaten, raped, held against their will in prison camps in Libya and their families have been threatened to send money to their captors. They have left their native country, left jobs, mothers, fathers, children, and wives. They arrive with a fragile sense of self and a lot of fear.

Admittedly,  while the Italian response to the Lampedusan tragedy was commendable, the decision to end Mare Nostrum is questionable and regrettable. Ending search and rescue missions, in my humble opinion, cannot guarantee that it will discourage those from making the journey. But it will guarantee that those who do will have even less of a chance than they did before.

It must be admitted that while many, many Italian citizens have offered those in need employment, housing friendship and compassion, the national rhetoric goes against that impulse, often fanning the flames of fear and distrust.

So then I ask, what price human life?

 

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Does the “Invisible Line” Separating Italians and Immigrants and Refugees Equal Racism in Sicily? An Alternate View by Susi Kimbell


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.

Language gap

A failure to communicate

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.

Migrants in Sicily

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?

 

contradiction

Contradictions are everywhere

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.

Martin Luther King Quote

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?

invisible-line-sicily-3

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.

Susi Kimbell

Susi Kimbell

 

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Being a Foreigner in Sicily: Guest Blogger Valerie Mai Hughes


 

I am so pleased to host Veronica Mai Hughes, who writes the wildly successful blog The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife.  Valerie, a UK native, lives with her Sicilian born husband and their two sons in a small fishing village in Sicily. She and I have both talked about the difficulties inherent in the “outsider” acclimating themselves to Sicilian society.  When I asked her to be a guest blogger, she agreed, and chose this topic.  While she and I may differ on a  few points, she offers here a very personal and very vivid account of her own experiences. Food for thought!  I ask the reader though, if Veronica, an educated , married and economically stable woman experiences difficulties in Sicilian society, just imagine the plight of the refugee.

Being a Foreigner in Sicily

By Veronica Mai Hughes

 

Ten years ago in London, just before I moved to Sicily, an Italian colleague told me
“You can’t go to Sicily. Outsiders can’t cope there.”

 I sometimes, perhaps often, wish I had listened to him and called the whole thing off, made my husband move to London, and continued thinking Sicily was wonderful by only visiting the place on holidays.

 Instead I came to live here, and discovered that being an outsider in Sicily means just that – being an outsider. Having a Sicilian husband does not always give you a free pass. I have attended many a social function where I was treated like an Imam at a Bar  Mitzvah.

 Perhaps because Sicilians have been invaded so many times, they have a profound mistrust of anyone or anything from outside the island. Over centuries, they have failed to fend off foreign invaders over and over again. Instead they made their foreign enemies’ lives as troublesome as possible by shunning them, lying to them and tricking them at every turn.

 

Fitting in

It’s difficult to fit in sometimes.

When I am having one of my bad days, I sometimes feel that this Sicilian way of treating foreigners has become such an integral part of their culture that they do not know how to stop.

 This suspicion of anyone from outside their island, their town, even their own family, is so profound that cousin marriage is still very common. So common, in fact, that when you are admitted to hospital in Sicily, the folder for holding your medical notes has a special box for the doctor to tick if your parents are blood relations of each other. That way, the doctors are alerted to look out for genetic disorders. Despite the vastly diverse origins of their gene pool, this inbreeding means that a whopping six percent of modern Sicilians have Mediterranean Anaemia, a devastating genetic disease. My husband’s parents are cousins and his family carries this disease. Before we in-laws could marry into the family, we had to have a test to make sure we were free of the deadly gene.

 If you are an outsider in Sicily, you will always be one. I am still routinely charged double for fruit and vegetables, given the bad bits of meat, and even overcharged in the supermarket. I have to be vigilant every time I buy something, adding up the prices and checking my change. I have to be subtle about it too. I had one woman ranting about “foreigners who come from who-knows-where” outside my son’s school once when I had been too obvious in the way I checked the change she gave me.

Ummm, okay.

 

I have found it supremely difficult to make friends with Sicilian women. This baffles me, as I have made friends with hundreds of people of all nationalities with ease – and kept those friends for life. Do the women of Sicily feel threatened because I have a masters degree in Classics whereas most of them have a University of Life diploma in ironing tablecloths and a doctorate in stain removal? Do they think I will use my Protestant background to subvert their children’s Catholic indoctrination? Do they feel it is a waste of time making me like them, because I have no social network here and will therefore never be useful to them? All of the above.

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One Sicilian friend of my husband’s, who is about ten years older than me and one of the few people who has been genuinely friendly to me, told me she was shunned by her entire village when she did her degree. They disapproved of a woman having an education.
“I was more evolved than the rest of them and they felt threatened,” she said. “It made me an outsider. Once you’re an outsider, you can’t get back in.”

outsider

Out for good?

 

I remind myself of this every time I feel that invisible line separating me from everyone else. Sicilians don’t just shun foreigners like me. They do it to each other too. Whilst this is not a positive thing, it does offer me a little consolation on those awfully lonely days when I feel like crying.

 Sicilian society works on the basis of doing favours and making others indebted to you. Then you call in favours when you need them. I have made many “friends” who happened to need something translated into English. I spent hours doing free translations then, when I asked for a small favour in return, they just said no. When it comes to outsiders in Sicily, they can break the rules. We don’t matter.

 

favors

The foreigners who live in Sicily form their own support networks. There is a ghetto of Bangladeshis in central Palermo.
“They don’t want anything to do with us,” one Sicilian man moaned to me. “Why do they come here if they don’t want to mix? The Vucciria market has died because the foreigners who live in that area only buy their food from each other’s shops.”
“How many of those foreigners have you chatted to? Or invited to take a coffee with you in a bar, or come to your house?” I asked him.
He looked at me strangely.
“What would I want to do that for?”

 

It is just a cup of coffee!

At last, after ten years, I have made two close Sicilian friends. Their children go to my son’s school, so I see them fairly often when we collect our kids. One of them was rejected by former friends who decided she was not rich and thin enough to be a part of their clique any more: she knows how outsiders feel. The other caught tuberculosis and was treated, literally, like a leper by all the other parents at her son’s preschool.

 Perhaps this has given them special insight into how outsiders feel. Perhaps they are just nicer than the average Sicilian. Whatever the reason, I am so grateful for their friendship. Without them, I would have given up by now, and fled this beautiful, irrational, maddening little island.

sicily-map

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Even in Death, Inequality


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.

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The Trafficked

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.

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Inequality

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 ?.

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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.

 

 

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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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