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People are priorities.
With heartfelt thanks to my friend and amazing artist Cristina Mazzoni (MCM arts), here are her wonderful watercolors of a variety of birds found in Sicily as the backdrop for my reading of Birds of Sicily, the title poem from my collection of the same name.
I love when collaboration takes place like this so effortlessly. Every single day I look forward to Cristina’s amazing artwork, often representations of the natural world, paired with exquisite poetry from all of the poetic giants the world over. When she approached me about the idea for this little “movie” I felt so honored—she is such a huge talent and I am humbled. Her birds are so real in their rendering, so soulful and free.
My collection of poems, Birds of Sicily uses the metaphor of migratory and birds of flight to tell, in poems, the story of a man, my grandfather who fled Sicily and feared vendetta for his entire life.
If I juxtapose this with the refugees of today, I can see even in flight one is not free. It is hard to shake the chains of hatred, resentment and displacement, often what they find in most of the places in which they land.
Birds , to a certain extent can be free, because they have wings that can lift, propel and keep them in flight. But they are also caged, hunted and susceptible to many things that can harm them when they are out of their habitat.
In that way, humans — refugees, are like birds, too. Under great duress they flee for better , higher ground, but can never really know, ahead of time, what they will find
“Children are like wet cement whatever falls on them makes an impression.”
As surprising as it sounds, I have never given any deep thought to how children living in Sicily (and of course, other places) are attempting to grasp the migrant/refugee crisis, a crises of such epic proportions that parents, teachers and others must surely be in frequent conversation on the topic. Of course they must be influenced by the many vivid images on television news and print media. In fact, a child in Sicily is likely to see and encounter the very people who are the ground zero victims of the humanitarian crisis. What are these children to make of it? How do they process what they see and what they hear? And because of the natural law of growing up, they will not be small forever. How we talk to them of and about the crisis matters. It matters what they hear. A perfect time to ground them in compassion and caring. To bring them out of themselves enough to be aware of the things going on around them. Too young? They already “know”. And what they “know” will need to be nuanced and mediated.
On a popular Italian-American site the other day, readers were responding to an article about how some refugees had been assigned a chef to cook for them. Since I have encountered many refugees in Sicily, I can attest to the fact that the food they are given is not only unpalatable to them, but is given in small amounts. Pasta is the staple dish and their bodies are not used to the starch , nor the lack of calories. Food is incredibly important to our well-being, and the food of where we come from can often be the only comfort we have if we need to travel far from home—if in fact, we are fortunate enough to be able to shop and cook for ourselves. The comments on the site lacked an understanding and compassion of the migrants and refugees so much so that the sentiments expressed bordered on fascism. Cruel and horrific. “If they don’t like the food, why don’t they just swim back to where they came from!” Most all others cruelly missed the point entirely: “What?! They don’t like Italian food? It’s the best cuisine in the world!”
These thoughts predominate a lot of talk about migrants and refugees. This generation is listening. How we mediate and explain,with intelligence and compassion, will influence how this crisis of epic proportions will be handled in the future, by the very children who are now watching in unfold in ways both dramatic and chaotic.
My friend Davide’s son, quite poignantly, filled a little Lego boat with Lego migrants. One wonders what he was thinking when he made it. But, he did in fact make it. He’s just a little boy in Sicily. With the crisis unfolding all around him.
“I guai della pigniata sabe sol’ o cucchiao”
(The troubles deep in the pot are known only by the spoon—Sicilian proverb)
This collection explicates the cycle of immigration of a man who fled Sicily and feared vendetta for his entire life. The rough terrain of Sicily, both literally and figuratively figures prominently. The vagaries of displacement, adjustment, abandonment and the politics of place , juxtaposed with the migratory patterns of birds can be found in these poems. It is a timeless issue in a world that is ever on the move.
Bird the island with the naked eye and you come upon the rare, the accidental, the vulnerable, the extirpated. The island didn’t give them anything then. Beaks, sharp as the points of knives, strike before being struck. It is our way, they might say. By mountain, by sea.
O mare, O mare!
Nature has a passion for erasure, subjugation, for keeping the powerful unbowed. For survival, while feeding yourself with one hand, you deny your mother’s love, look askance at your father’s sad smile, with a fierce, but quiet disdain. There now, do not worry. Walk the sun baked estate with impunity.
Thank you for your support!
The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others
If one pays close attention, the traveller or more specifically the tourist in Sicily will see “need” at every turn. The evidence of poverty , homelessness and the displacement of refugees to those enjoying a vacation is an “inconvenient truth” , with most people choosing , whether consciously or subconsciously , to ignore what, in reality, cannot and should not be denied.
I am not much of a tourist. In fact, I never have been. The place where I love to dwell, literally and figuratively, is in everyday life. I have a friend that used to joke that I was a true member of the often-castigated “hoi polloi”. I am proud of that. In general, I am not interested in seeing whatever is in a guidebook and I am quite certain that no matter where I have found myself in the world, I have missed things that are deemed by the venerable guide books (that people clutch like the Bible) a “must see.” Honestly, I have never really cared about such things.
For the past 4 years I have been lucky enough to lead my students to Sicily each March, which is the travel component of my class, “This Sea is Not My Home: Immigration, Migration and Social Justice in the Sicilian Context.” As you can glean from the title, what started out as class that on the vagaries of immigration, migration and refugees, has slowly morphed into examining the realities of not only migration as a worldwide movement and phenomenon, but, perhaps more importantly, the lives’ of refugees themselves. The people, not just the geopolitical situation.
I have staunchly defended (and still do) the rights of people to migrate from one place to another, most particularly for reasons that people seek asylum. I could also reason the cruel irony of how protected merchandise is and how easy it is to cross borders ($$$$$) though masses of people are seen as a scourge. I have had to listen to Sicilians and Sicilian-Americans, often with fingers in my face trying to tell me how bad the situation is for Sicilians in their own country. I sympathized—how could I not— but my particular focus was on refugees into the country, not those suffering from a decimated economy resulting in an unemployment rate so high , the first time I was told what it was, I though I had misheard. But, in fact, I would have to be cold, hard, shiny plastic not to care. ,
Last week my students and I helped out at a Catholic Relief Agency one evening. The students were tasked to shop during the day for the food in the open market. On the menu was fruit salad, green salad and chicken stew. We washed and chopped and the wonderful men and women at the agency did the actual cooking. But my students and I portioned the food out. And we served. We served a hungry, possibly homeless (at least some of them) and grateful bunch of people. Among a group of perhaps 45 there was a family with two young boys. There were approximately 4 refugees that I could easily identify. The others were Sicilian.
To think of them now ties my heart up in knots. I have listened to, read and discussed the situation in Sicily with people I deeply trust there: friends, advocates, cultural mediators and educators, all on the front lines , involved and passionate. I have come to the conclusion that at least one of the reasons that many are opposed to the influx and presence of the refugees is that many themselves are also suffering—and they perceive (not accurately) that their jobs, or at least the possibility of employment will be taken from them. How can you possibly convince those with that mindset otherwise? It is hard to be compassionate in the face of your own fear and suffering.
What I know is that in that room when the bell was struck for the Our Father before the eating of the meal, everyone in the room stood and there was utter silence. There was respect, too, that everyone in the room had for one another: young, old, black, white, immigrant and refugee. In that moment, everyone was connected somehow, and our differences did not matter.
With each plate I set before someone who was waiting to eat, I said “buon appetito”. Every single person responded, warmly, with a smile and a “grazie.” This is not to fetishize those in need—far from it, but I see poverty of every kind as a sort of equalizer—it reduces us to the essence of our humanity—and it elevates us too, when we lend a hand, in any way, to help alleviate it.
When we passed out the fruit cups, the two young boys very carefully enunciated “thank you” to me in English. I replied in kind. The mother looked up at me and asked, in a bit of an embarrassed way, if I could maybe find a cup of fruit with more oranges. “The boys really love oranges,” she said
The reality of having to bring your children to a social service agency in order to feed them, hit me in a very vulnerable place. While intellectually, I know this a sad, but common occurrence, I’d never faced it so up close. It felt personal Most people who will read this blog post will be very far from such an experience. I looked at those kids and I felt my face flush. Time seemed to stop for just a moment.
I will continue to seek and narrate the voices of refugees in Sicily—I am committed to this work. Sicily is , a complicated but wonderful place, and my eyes are now more open to the need everywhere. It is not like taking sides: refugees need very particular help, being such a vulnerable and at risk population. The homeless , poverty stricken , the addicted, the forgotten, need help and compassion, too. Compassion for everyone can go a long way.
At the end of the evening, one man came up to my students and jovially observed , “You can’t understand me and I can’t understand you, but yet, here we are together!”
After all, hunger in the belly hurts us all in exactly the same way.
Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It is a day of “service” to those in need, to working for social justice, to further the cause. My interest and my (very) humble work (I do a mere fraction of what others are doing for refugees) is based in my personal philosophy of service, inspired and sustained in me by MLK.
Today, do something in service of the plight of the poor, the homeless, the disencranchised. Do this from where ever you are and in any way that you can.
Small steps, small gestures mean so much. And they add up.
I hate a cynical outlook, particularly my own. Right now the world is a scary place. The plight of Syria refugees is front and center, where I believe it should be, but the rhetoric I am hearing is annoying at best, astounding at worst. What I have learned through all of this is that talk is rather cheap.
On days when I am likely to bemoan the vapid and alienating aspects of social media, in particular ,but not limited to, FB (which I have attempted to quit more than once) I am reminded by my friend Ruslana, a thinking and feeling person, wife, mother, linguist and a Ukrainian who truly cares, to remind me that some revolutions like the one in her country, were started with the use of FB. And she is right. Ruslana says it like it is and I appreciate that. Still, I have a difficult time separating the wheat from the chaff on FB. Let me explain.
For those who do not want the refugees to come into the United States, I BELIEVE you. I don’t agree with you, not at all, but I believe you. Their often xenophobic, racist and reactionary rants sad and sickening as they are , are quite common on this side of the pond. This rhetoric, though, is not exclusive to Americans. I can hardly deal with this viewpoint, but I recognize and respect that those who express it have the right.
Now, those who I relate to most—liberals, because, I AM one, I have more trouble believing you feel what they say they do. It is because of the way they express their outrage. When does the rhetoric of support become more than just—well, rhetoric? My FB news feed is literally inundated with seemingly clever (please don’t force me to describe them—you’ve seen them—different takes on the “first” refugee family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Pilgrims and Indians, the Holocaust—you get it) memes which I find particularly offensive because they are so reductive. That the horrible, horrible crisis in Syria and the lives’ of its people, are even ideologically reduced to a meme on FB offends my sense of decency as well as my sense of reality. I imagine Syrian refugees would be offended, too, if they had time to think about it,but they don’t because they are busy trying to save their own lives. But of course, everyone to his own.
I have quite intentionally decided, quietly, not to participate.
Do these memes make a difference? I don’t think for one minute that they do. So then why post them? I suppose it makes the one posting feel good in some abstract way, a pseudo-activist sort of a syndrome might be going on here— but it does nothing for the situation at hand. If it does, please tell me how, because it would honestly make me feel better.
My other objection becomes the fact that these posts are often mistaken by those posting them for some sort of social justice action (see , above “pseudo activist syndrome”), but really , NO: far from it. Who are they trying to convince with the memes? The friends who already share their views? Not necessary. The people who disagree with you? Not possible.
A lively discussion was taking place on the FB wall of one of my friends. A very enthusiastic and righteous fellow proclaimed “I’d house refugees!” Excuse me while I open my eyes in incredulity! Really? REALLY? Would you really? Because, dude, no one is stopping you. Because in REALITY, that is what is needed. But there is where it stops, for most. Right on that FB wall. Here is the sad truth: there exists a terrible, terrible need in every single town and city in this great country of ours. Here is a litmus test of your true intention:
PERSPECTIVE: Before you post that meme, maybe initiate a REAL conversation of what is possible and doable on your page and get some real action going. More than intentions are needed.
I have met so many Syrian refugees in refugee camps in Sicily and can say, with all honesty that they have been some of the kindest people I have ever had the opportunity to engage with, even in their dire circumstances far from home their grace impressed me—something I will never forget.
They deserve more than our memes, more than our empty rhetoric. Talk is cheap and ubiquitous. There is so much we can’t do. Let’s put our energies into something we can.
And to quote my friend Eric, a man who has done much to alleviate the suffering of Africans in their own countries : “If you can’t point out Syria on a map, maybe you should stay out of the discussion.”
Here are some organizations that you can get involved with or donate to:
Here is viewpoint I never get tired of offering in this blog. You may be tired of it, but not me. What I AM tired of is trying to get people to understand, but I’m going to go for it again. If you read just the first few sentences, you might think that this narrative is something it isn’t. If you persist, you might get my point . Here goes.
The immigration of my grandparents and great grandparents happened over a period of time in search of the proverbial “better life”. They were not fleeing war or starvation. That needs to be clear. What is consistent among all of them, as it is for many of the immigrants of the time, was the burning desire the aforementioned “better life.” That sounds cliché now, doesn’t it? “A better life.” Whatever that meant to them at the time, in the context of their own lives’ and whatever it means now, it seems to me to be a fundamental right. So they travelled from their small towns to the nearest ports (often at considerable travel for a significant amount of money), tickets and paper “passports” —such as they were at the time, to travel, most commonly and, one would imagine, quite roughly, in steerage.
Many already had a husband, a sister, a brother-in-law, or at least a family friend already living in America, who would look out for them, help find them a job, or put them to work in their own homes, watching their children if need be. Their lives’ were uncertain to the extent that many of them expected better, much better than what they encountered when they arrived. In short order, their “dreams” did not come true. But we know that take generations. Anyway, they came from a culture they felt was (and is!) beautiful, down to earth, close-knit and highly civilized—the land of the Renaissance, for goodness sake! But instead they were met, from the outside of their own culture with hatred and derision. They were mocked and reviled. We all know the immigrant’s narrative, no matter the country of origin: the boat, the poor health, the barely livable conditions, and the struggle with the language upon arrival and for many years ahead. Many immigrant narratives are similar in vain, because while each individual experience is different, the overall way populations migrate or immigrate and the conditions under which they happened were often the same.
Generations later, and far removed from the horrific struggles these immigrants endured for the sake of not only themselves but for the fully assimilated current generation that they perhaps knew, in an abstract sort of a way, would some day exist, so many oppose the moving of desperate people across borders. And here is my point : I cannot understand, cannot wrap my head around the fact that we forget. Don’t we? Selective amnesia. Reminds me of the arrogant attitudes of those that build houses in previously unspoiled Shangri-La’s but then lobby to keep everyone else out. Or white Westerner’s who go where ever the hell they please—-but how dare anyone else attempt to do the same.
I have engaged with many in the Italian-American community who are happy to be in the US, proud of their heritage and enjoy beating their breasts about their parents or grandparents—but, just don’t let anyone else in. And certainly don’t let anyone else in Italy! I have heard “bootstraps” mentioned, as in my grandparents pulled themselves up by their bootstraps…..but it is far too irritating a topic to even get started on. I once spoke with a now, rather successful former refugee in Sicily who at one time struggled in his new home of Sicily, but felt so removed from the experience, that he disparaged other refugees their lack of dignity, how they seemed so desperate and unruly, ready to grab at anything that was given to them. Listening to him was a shock to my system. I remember looking at him and feeling a different way about him after that. What it said to me was: I’m here, I did it, I survived, but those people… That kind of rhetoric never helps. In fact, it hurts.
I write all of this as a segue way into the horrific stories coming out of the European Union these past few months, and for years before when no one was really paying attention, because after all there has got to be a LOT of deaths in dramatic ways that are broadcasted on cable news networks before anyone really pays attention. I don’t want to get into political specifics here—I am not a political scientist and never wanted to be. I am not an “expert” on immigration, nor do I desire to be—far from it. What I am is a human being living in a world that seems to have gone mad. What would it take for the inhabitants of the earth to become….human again. As I write this, “migrants”, “refugees” or perhaps, just HUMANS as the case may be, are crammed into a steamy stew of humanity in Keleti Station in Hungary where they are in what I like to call “Limbo-land”—and going nowhere fast. Read past the headlines to learn about a situation that is out of hand in the worst possible way and still the borders of certain countries are clamped down like a piece of bread between the jaws of the hungry. It is a pathetic and horrific scene of which I have witnessed from the safety of my living room couch. But this is not entertainment, it is tragedy.
I have heard the arguments about unemployment, no jobs for the people who already live here (insert country here___________), blah, blah, blah. I also know that every generation, in time ,will oppose those from another country who are trying to find a better way to live. As if the pursuit of safety and happiness were a sin. My point in the beginning of this piece was to exemplify that my people came for that “better life” I keep mentioning and were hated for it—but they were not fleeing war! And now, in this point in time, we have people in the fight for their life, and we cannot open up a space in our societies for the most vulnerable, we can’t even find a space in the knotted , nautilus chambers of our twisted hearts. We shame them, corral them into a (Keletri) train station , and yell at them to go home. I understand the practicalities. I do. I really do. What I cannot understand is the rhetoric of hate, the opposition , the total lack of any kind of empathy or understanding…
I was going to write this entire post about the death of Aylan Kurdi , the small boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach a few days ago. He and 11 others died on a boat in an attempt to eventually get to Canada. I was going to write about Aylan, but I thought: what’s the point? Also , because a researcher I just met told me in a rather disturbing and halting tone that the contents of my blog seemed….familiar. Hmmm. Perhaps because I will often write both conditions I witness in Italy and those on the news. And I realized that so many have already written about that poor, small boy, I won’t attempt to write prosaically about a situation that questions everything about this world we live in.
But indulge me this small bit. Aylan Kurdi. The picture of his tiny body, face down in the sand in the Turkish city of Bodrum , a few men way off in the background are sinking their fishing lines into the sea has been everywhere on the Internet, which in and of itself is beyond what I can handle. When I first saw the image I thought it wasn’t real. When I realized it was, I was distressed to the point of distraction, to true soul sickness. Life is always elsewhere, isn’t it? There but for the grace of God go I….. in reality it could be any one of us at any point in the future. He died along with his brother and mother, fleeing the strife of war and displacement in Syria. I cannot help but wonder how his father feels at this image. And yet, people need to see it, heart breaking as it is. And then Aylan will be forgotten until another body surfaces, as they tend to do, on beaches, while the locals blissfully soak up the sun. The photographer will win an award, for sure.
Here is what we need to know. Read these words and try to understand what Aylan’s father told a CNN reporter, how he must have felt:
“I don’t want anything else from this world. Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.”
How you can read something like that and oppose , even in theory, the right for people to cross borders? If you can, there is nothing that I or anyone else can do to help you understand.
And those migrants in Keleti station? Still there. Of course they are! We have forgotten already.