When we think of the plight of the refugee, we may tend to think of them in the abstract. As fully formed men , after the fact. Already have arrived. We tend not to see what came before their lives’ in the new land. As a matter of fact, we may tend to think of them as not having had lives before they were refugees.
A Meditation on the Refugees Who Landed at Fontane Bianche, Sicily
As a matter of fact, we may tend to think of them as not having had lives before they were refugees. Impossible, you may be thinking—everyone has a “before.” Well , of course they no, but one of the ways either consciously or unconsciously that we don’t think about that , is because it is so damned easy to negate the life of the refugee, the immigrant, with their unseen faces. They are like figures that move , stealth, in the dark and go out of their way to remain unnoticed.
How do they get here? Many come on boats, dinghies, “unworthy” sea vessels, such a benign way of describing the carrier of human beings—-human cargo. On a recent visit to a beach in Sicily, I an my friends, parked the car in a small dirt pathway across from a stony field of grazing cows. Past the cows, was a beach with a large and small stones, porous and worn away by the salt water. While one of my friends perched herself on a rock, her leg in a cast and unable to move forward, I ventured after the two men who had gone before me. I was only wearing flip flops, which were immediately wet, causing me to slip on the stones. My friends called out to me to continue, but I felt uneasy, my balance was way off and some of the stone and rock looked sharp as knives. All manner of detritus floated past me and I tried to take it all in.
The men were heading towards a small boat with Arabic writing on the side. Refugees had landed in this place—actually, more than once. Intellectually, this was a detail that I knew. But emotionally, I could not grasp what it must be like to flee your homeland and to endure a rough (in every sense of the world) voyage to a place with only the clothes on your back. You are thirsty. You are grief stricken. Scared. Exhausted. Maybe sun blind. Imagine climbing out of the boat onto the craggy and dangerous rock. Seeing the placid grazing of cows, their empty eyes, chewing their cud. Even the cows know their place.
The men return. One is holding a soaking wet banner, with Arabic writing on it. He holds it up . I want to touch it but I don’t. It feels almost sacred. It feels like grave robbing, though, of course, nothing was stolen. The sun is like a continuous blaze and the beach is deserted. My friend, her leg propped up on a rock holds her hands up to her eyes and squints. “Are we ready?” she asks. “Ready,” I say because the place depresses me. Not only because refugees have landed and most likely will continue to land there, but because people will forget or will not know the desperate humanity that washes up there, occasionally. The men with their Speedos and the women with their bikini’s , intent on their bronze skin and smoking their cigarettes, will not know (or care) what that beach is capable of holding , or what the sea has yet to give up, but one day, eventually will.
On our way back to the car, I see one track shoe, laying in the dirt. Just one. I did not miss it on the way in—I , just like countless others with any number of details pertaining to refugees, did not want to connect that shoe to a person who was surely fleeing. One shoe is , perhaps, worse than none.
I stood for a quick moment, sent up a hasty prayer to the man in charge. For what , exactly, I don’t even really know. The needs is so great. My influence so small.
I wanted to take the shoe with me, but I didn’t. Others should see it. But really, I imagine that it just may be kicked around like a soccer ball by a bunch of kids who may find it. Or maybe it will just remain where it is, eventually worn down to nothing by the elements. Maybe like the man who wore it.
Before we pile into the car, me and my friend look back. “It’s a shame, really,” she says softly and with appropriate reverence. In that moment I appreciate her so much because she understands.
“Imagine,” I say, but really, I can’t. Even my imagination has limits. So many boat stories they become a motif instead of the stories of actual human lives’.
It is time for riposo, but before we do we stop for some beers, limonata and some pizza.
We sit in the shade, gulp our sweating drinks and sigh. I was thinking about the remnants of human lives, pieces of ourselves that we leave like breadcrumbs behind us. I closed my eyes. Took a gulp of lemon soda like my life depended on it. Like I really didn’t have a care in the world. But then again, once you know something, you can’t un-know it. No matter how hard you try.