On Forgetting and the Tragic Death of Aylan Kurdi: Will We EVER learn?


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.

Here she goes again....

Here she goes again….

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.

Oh no! Here come those Italian immigrants!!!

Oh no! Here come those Italian immigrants!!!

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.

Italian immigrant family

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…

HUMANS at Keleti Station.

HUMANS at Keleti Station.

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.”

Little Aylan Kurdi, right, in LIFE, not death.

Little Aylan Kurdi, right, in LIFE, not death.

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.

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Schiavi del Pomodoro in Italia (Tomato Slaves in Italy)


The summer sun in Italy can be relentlessly blistering.

If you are one of the lucky ones who is not a refugee, you can cool yourself off in the sea, lie in the shade during the blessed hours of siesta between, roughly, 1pm and 5pm , or you could drink the cold bottles of water from your refrigerator to cool the body down.   If you are not a refugee there are endless ways of enduring the often oppressive heat. Consider yourself fortunate.  But while your tomatoes are bubbling on the stove, you might want to consider how they came to your kitchen.

tomato slaves

The harvest that comes with a price.

If you are one of the unlucky ones, you may be laboring for 12 to 13 hours a day unprotected in the hot sun, picking pomidori or watermelons. For Sudanese refugee, Abdullah Mohamed, the back breaking work in the fields proved to be more than his body could reasonably handle. Over a week ago, the 47 year old collapsed and died while doing the only work many refugees are able to find in Italy—toiling in the fields, picking pomidori for the tomato sauce.

This is slave labor, pure and simple.   More often than not there is a lack of drinking water, lack of adequate bathrooms, or periodic shelter from heat and sun, save for tents that are put up for the workers, but this “luxury” is not always the reality.

Tent city

Tents set up for refugees.

Attempts are currently being made to ascertain whether or not Mohamed died from the unbearable conditions he labored under or whether or not he had a “preexisting” condition that ended his life so abruptly.   Oh my.   Three people are currently in custody on charges of manslaughter—-two of the owners and the overseer, which gives a pretty good idea of how many believe  this unfortunate man met his end so far from his home.

Mody and Pomidori

My friend Muhammad.

It has been reported in the Italian news media that Mohamed’s salary was roughly 6 or 7 Euro an hour, though with the cost of his transportation and his daily lunch and other expenses, he was likely left with 2 Euro . Is this the new slavery? Or is this the old slavery with new faces in a different part of the world? It doesn’t matter.  It is slavery. Schiavitù.

I have tolerated (just barely) the argument from some Sicilian-Americans that these refugees are taking jobs from Italians.  Really? Where? Please show me. Perhaps there are a few, somewhere, doing the slave work usually reserved for the exclusive exploitation of the (black) refugee, but I have never known one.   Italian padroni are unlikely to exploit their paesani, and few of the paesani would stand for it—they are, after all , Italian born—they belong, they know their way around.

Bold facts: the refugees are threatened, sometimes physically mistreated, berated, lied to and deprived of basic human necessities.   Slavery. But what is the alternative for refugees?

My friend Muhammad, who knew and worked with Mohamed, both of them refugees from Sudan, was appropriately outraged and sickened by the death of his friend, but in Muhammad’s world, these things, while horrifically sad, seemingly no longer surprise.

Today, Muhammad tells me that after pomidori season is over in Nardo, he may leave for France. Because he is my good friend and because I care about where he ends up in the world I ask him: “Is France the best place to be right now?” He answers in his calm and philosophical way: “ I don’t know where in this world the best place is, Michelle, I am just trying.”

I persist with my line of questioning, because I am anxious. Because I have known him for some time and I know his struggle. I also have known his beautiful smile and his brave face in light of the unspeakable loss and trauma he has been through.   Because I care for him and consider him my family. But I am happy, too that he has found a community of people who care for refugees in Nardo, Italians, who walk beside them and advocate for them in the struggle.

Still, he has witnessed the death of his friend at the hands of a immoral, illegal and brutal system, that he, too, has been a victim of , but tells me before he says a final goodnight, “Somebody who lives such a life will never care about what will happen tomorrow.”

I believe him. But I , in fact despise,  the utter reality that makes that statement true.

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“Commitment is What You Do When the Emotion is Gone: Refugees as the ’cause du jour’ “


Last week I received a comment on one of my blog posts.   The writer, “Johanna” from Finland responded this way: Problem is that we know too MUCH about them to ever accept them. There you have it.

The way in which I responded was a chance for her to explain what she meant by that, but of course, I know exactly what she meant.   “What” exactly, does she, or anyone else for that matter, know about “them?” If she were to tell the truth, she might reply: actually, nothing. And yet, one gets the impression that she was not only speaking for herself, but perhaps for her country. Finland. Well, as infuriating as that comment was, she is far from the only one expressing it.   And “Johanna”, of course, never responded

In the intervening years in which I have dedicated myself, as so many others have, to the cause of refugees, most specifically those coming to Sicily, I , too, have been the target of some very nasty racist comments and attitudes, many from Sicilian-Americans.   I have quit many online Sicilian culture forums where I have previously enjoyed the camaraderie of the culture, until someone would start discussions about Sicily’s burden of receiving refugees. It became to much for me. What began, ostensibly as discussion about a worldwide phenomenon quickly became ad hominem attacks on me, personally. Why wasn’t’ I helping Sicilians who were also suffering?   How dare I call myself Sicilian/American while daring to “out” Sicilian racism.   Why was I such a n****r lover?   I felt soul sick.   As in the United States, it is a difficult and frustrating enterprise to attempt to explain deep seated , inveterate, structural and institutionalize racism to those who simply will themselves not to understand. Who, instead, will turn their financial and/or societal woes into be the fault of a vulnerable population seeking refugee from unspeakable horrors.   I became the hated and the reviled. A traitor to my own “people.”

The Gillard Government made a commitment in 2010 to release all children from immigration detention by June 2011, but still 1000 children languish in the harsh environment of immigration camps around Australia. The Refugee Action Collective organised a protest on July 9, 2011 outside the Melbourne Immigration Transit accommodation which is used for the detention of unaccompanied minors.

Racism and fear of the “intruder” is by no means exclusive to Sicily. In face, it must be stated here, how many amazing people I know in Sicily who have wholly dedicated their lives to the plight of the refugees, offering shelter, education, food, jobs and support. These people do this because it is right. They were tirelessly. This is not the cause du jour. This is a way of LIFE.   We know, by the many countries that have refused entry to refugees, that the resistance toward them is strong and seemingly not, in any way, abating. Why is that? In fact, many immigrants have found there way into any number of European countries—they travel far from home to make Italy, France, England or any other number of European countries in which they were not born, to make their homes there.   But where, is the resistance to those situations? Rarely, if ever, is there any. Usually, because those who do that are difficult to identify as “not belonging.” But the African refugee is instantly recognizable.   There is nowhere to hide.   Simply finding safe and affordable housing is often a feat of gargantuan proportions, because no one wants them to live among them. This is how ghettoes are formed. This is how people are relegated to the margins. And then many can assuage any feelings of guilt that are, frankly, unlikely to happen by saying: “well, what are they complaining about? They have a place to live!

invisible-line-sicily-3

To combat racism against these refugees means raising your voice. It means being dedicated to the cause of those who flee when no other choice is viable. Who would leave their home in the way in which they do, if not to save their own lives’?   Grand sweeping gestures are good (everyone is ready to go to Sicily to “help the refugees”) but there are so many ways that you can help from where you are. How do you speak about racism, how do you challenge and witness to those who are victims, daily, of a bias that at its base is so evil as to almost be unspeakable? How do you help where you already are? How are you lifting your voices?   So many I have spoken to are interesting: they want to help refugees, but would not dream of living next door to one.   We have to be suspect of that.   We are not perfect, but we have to begin somewhere.

cause-du-jour

Right now, the refugee crisis is the cause du jour for many who have not been paying attention for a lot of years. To those, I say: Commitment is what you do, what you have, what you enact when the emotion of the current event is gone, when it exists even though it has receded from the headlines.

Peace.

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Trying Times in the Wake of Migrant Deaths: Speaking in the Language of Crisis and Fatigue


Lately, the language with which many of us use to  communicate with one another feels and sounds fraught.   Maybe we feel irritable, sad, angry.  Maybe we blame it on overwork, lack of sleep, too much caffeine, not enough caffeine,  lack of love or world-weariness in general.

dead_migrants_on_italy_shore

Our language when we speak with one another is fraught, because we, ourselves are fraught.   We communicate in the language of crisis and fatigue.  Fatigue of crisis.  We look to one another for a moment of reprieve , but these days lately are tough ones and in one way or another, we are feeling it.

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I am writing this while watching “breaking news” on CNN who is reporting that a peaceful, but large gathering of people in Philadelphia , protesting the unexplained and tragic death of Freddie Gray , an African-American man who died while in police custody, have begun to “clash” with police.  Or, perhaps, police have begun to clash with protesters.  (note: protesters are citizens, not criminals, and they deserve protection!)  I suspect, but hope and pray otherwise, that the situation may get more out of hand as the evening wears on and darkness descends on the City of Brotherly Love.

We are deaf

We are deaf

Last week, when over 800 migrants died in the Mediterranean attempting to escape death and chaos,  I was approached by more than just a few people on the “situation” “over there”.   I was feeling raw from the news,  sad in a deep place that I could not adequately articulate to anyone.  I have spent time with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, have witnessed to and for them with what I hope is care and responsibility and have never, ever, not even once , taken that responsibility lightly.   The ethical pitfalls of working with such a vulnerable population are many and I am all too aware of them.    It is not anyone’s responsibility to know how emotionally fragile I felt over the situation—-I have not even an iota of the vulnerability these brave men and women have to cross an ocean with nothing but the shirts on their backs, but I was amazed and dismayed by the lack of compassion for these people by those who did not have an understanding of the situation. And so, I began with great patience in discussing the situation .

A coffin waiting for a refugee

A coffin waiting for a refugee

I have been keeping this blog for almost 4 years, documenting the trials of the migrant, refugee and asylum seeker in the Sicilian context, but I suppose it is not a sexy enough subject for people to care about in their day to day lives.   I have attempted to methodically chronicle my thoughts , experiences and encounters from my ethnography in this blog and was (and still am!) grateful to anyone to whom it provides any enlightenment.  But to those who simply do not want to understand, who have already prejudged these people, who say that Europe has no responsibility  for the troubles the migrants are fleeing and therefore have no right to protection have left me feeling…well, here I am at a loss for words  And then I realized that people were baiting me in an attempt to clobber me on the head with their own opinions which, to be generous in a situation where I probably shouldn’t, were disturbing at best, sickening at worst.

One person asked  me, in an imperious and razor-edge tone ,’ if the migrants can afford to “pay” human traffickers so much money, why don’t they just buy a plane ticket and go to Europe like normal, civilized people?’ This person is highly educated. And, in fact, born and raised in Europe, but a naturalized American citizen.   I had no words.  I put my hand up to stop the conversation and willed deafness to be able to block out the senselessness that  was coming out of her mouth.

In essence, in her opinion and the opinion of many others who I have spoken to, the underlying problem, really, is that the migrants are simply the wrong color.   This should not shock or surprise anyone.  This is not new.   In the United States  right now, Baltimore is burning, protests are spreading once again across the country against police brutality  and  against racism that is firmly embedded and institutionalized.

What does this have to do with the refugees?  If you cannot see the parallels, I probably would not be able to explain it to you. And , unfortunately, my patience is wearing thin.  Because I thought that I could educate people, I thought I could “bear witness”.  But people will see, hear and believe what they want to believe. And it seems as though tragedy is polarizing us now, more than ever.

While Europe dallies,  and those who have been ignoring  a situation that has been going on for years act as if this terribly tragic situation just came out of absolutely nowhere, the migrants will continue to come.  They will not ever stop coming. They have the right to protection, which is not only a humanitarian imperative, but is a part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  

I had posted a tag one day on Facebook , in response to migrant deaths, proclaiming “refugee lives matter”  and was asked by a friend I respect profoundly  “when will we say all lives matter?”  I gently called him out on this.  I responded thus:  when the lives of the most vulnerable matter.  Plain and simply.  He sent me a message that meant a lot to me. He acknowledged my feelings.  As a thinking and feeling person, he felt the strain of tragedy himself and was looking for a universal answer–an all-inclusive message that we all matter.  And in fact, we do.   The point is not to value one life over another.  But one must, in the final estimation, look at how uneven the playing field is.   It seems almost criminal to even describe it that way.

I stand in solidarity with the refugees and will continue to act as writer/activist , with care and witness.   And hopefully, a multi-pronged solution can be implemented, but I fear it may be too late.   So many lives, undocumented in life and undocumented in death.

Indeed, refugees lives matter. So let’s start acting like they do.

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No End to Tears: Refugee Deaths in the Mediterranean


Those who work in the human rights arena are quite good at statistical information. Right now, all eyes are on the Mediterranean as authorities are claiming that the latest deaths of refugees on packed boats is the worst disaster to hit this body of water, ever.   This is a humanitarian tragedy, a massacre, disaster being too tame a word for the way I and so many others feel about these senseless deaths.

headinhand

Statistics on refugees are ubiquitous. The agencies that attempt to give this population aid and other services count their heads like herds of sheep, attempt to track their impact on the places in which they find themselves, small towns on mainland Italy and Sicily in which the unemployment rates are higher than one can even imagine they could be, and they live, these vulnerable people, in fear of being scapegoats for just about anything that ails a society. I am tired of hearing how only 10% of refugees who arrive in Italy arrive by boat. What is this statistic supposed to mean? My humanitarian standards, that 10% matters a hell of a lot.

I, and so many others, who have seen this terrible refugee phenomenon up close and personal in the Mediterranean, can’t help but feel that this latest tragedy goes beyond the pale.   The anger that I feel at a system that has failed, in any concerted and systematic attempt to alleviate these deaths in the cold waters of the Mediterranean,( what I have called a “liquid coffin” in this blog before), simply boggles the mind.

Refugee bodies

It has been re ported that Italy’s coastguard, coordinating the search for survivors, found only 28 who managed to keep breathing.   They believe that 700 people were on one of the boats and that refugees caused the boat to capsize as they panicked and all ran to one end of the boat, helping to sink it.

The water, thick and slick with oil is preventing divers from the recovery of bodies.

All of those bodies.

All of those young lives.

“It seems we are looking at the worst massacre ever seen in the Mediterranean, “ UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said.

Carlotta Sami

Carlotta Sami

Understatment. And sadly, almost certainly, not the last incident we will be witness to.

Have we not learned anything from the horrific Lampedusan tragedy of October 3 , 2013 where the deaths of Eritrean nationals, was said to be upwards of 363? The  sorrowful platitudes echoed for months afterwards, heads sadly and slowly shook from side to side, eyes downcast, fists beat against breasts.

And yet.

For years the refugees have been coming, heading for port cities, anyplace to  to build their  new lives. .   Does this seem an obvious point to make? I make it people begin need to begin  to pay attention(in case they have been living under a rock somewhere) when something incredibly awful happens, when the news media flood our eyes with terrible images. But the thing is, this is not new—-and—do you see what I am getting at? Anyone?

When does the breast-beating end and real solutions begin?

European Union???  The world is waiting.

The MED

As the political analysts weigh in, doing what they do, prognosticating with furrowed brows from a distance, the refugees will continue to flee desperate situations despite they danger and arrive in places in which their lives’ will be far from what they had hoped that they would be. A place where their very lives’ are very, very big business, for those who know how to make a living off of the most vulnerable. And there are many who are doing just that.

I have been in refugee camps and refugee centers and have witnessed the deep sadness, nearly pathological in the eyes of those whose future is uncertain at best. How does one even begin to think of a future when one’s most immediate past are memories of a journey full of fear, deprivation and exploitation?

Until then, the world will keep count.

But no one will be able to pretend, any longer, that this hasn’t been a tragedy all along, that each new massacre isn’t the first of its kind.

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Life as it is Lived: On Encountering Refugees


We tend to see refugees as the unfortunate refuse of the (mostly) African countries that they come from, because, well, so many also assume that most countries in Africa are wretched—that normal life cannot exist anywhere on the continent, so teeming humanity pile into boats in search of a better way to live.

Fact: most do not want to leave their countries—they simply have no choice.  This is the difference between an immigrant and a refugee: choice.  I have had this discussion so many times with my students and I have asked them: what could make you leave the only home you have known at a moment’s notice?  Most cannot begin to conceive  the kind of situations that  be so dire that they would need (not want) to flee with only the clothes on their back. I ask them to think it through, step by step.  The emotional and physical obstacles to simply leave one’s country is beyond my own comprehension, let alone, the enormity of making a new home in a culture so different in so many fundamental ways, that one must reorient every single aspect of their lives.   Resettlement is an often brutal process, often taking years before a refugee can feel a semblance of balance and normalcy.

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Recently, with my students in a Sicily we encountered refugees daily, on the streets, and in a refugee center where they lived a life that seemed tenuous, at best.    In the center, I  asked my students to look beyond what the situation seemed to be:

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young  men and one young women were extremely friendly, well-dressed, joked easily and attempted (and succeeded!) in making some wonderful bonds with my students.   They seemed genuinely pleased to have visitors their own age, to be able to relax and tell things about themselves to people who were interested—and who cared

We ate lunch with them. Afterwards, we all played various games and sang popular songs and posed for group and individual photos.  Not until  later, when two of the refugees led us on a short tour of their temporary home, did some of my students begin to feel uncomfortable.  A few expressed it to me, but , as one claimed, he “could not put his finger on it.”  Because some things must be felt and processed in the privacy of one’s own thoughts, I nodded knowingly and advised them to write in their journals and attempt to think things through.   I encouraged them to think about the reality of their lives’—not just what was presented to us, or what we wanted to see—to console ourselves that all is well—after all, they had food in their stomachs and a place to lay their heads at night.

 

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So what was it?

Upon our return back to the small , suburban Liberal Arts college , I met with three of the students who shared their uneasiness with me.   This pleased me because  not all will see or feel this immediately.

My students identified so many of the factors contributing to the  difficulties the refugees would experience.  They included the fact that they are non-Europeans now living and tryng to fit in a European culture.   That they are far, far, far from their homes of origin and therefore separated from any influence of their own culture, the culture that has formed them as the people they are today.   That  they seemed conscious of being the grateful all the time—in fact, the benevolence bestowed upon them fairly demands that they be in a constant state of thanking someone (or many) —which can be exhausting.  That the refugee did not necessarily choose the country in which s/he would land. And in the case of Italy, few want to stay.  They lack a great level of agency in the center, a place they are grateful to be in , but can in no way be called “home”.  In some ways they are infantisized: they are told when and what they will eat, etc. They can become anxious, hopeless, depressed, nostalgic.  And they may cycle through these emotions many different times.  Because , really, who can forget their home?

Often, the treacherous journey is just the beginning. What can be seen as the real struggle begins when their feet touch solid ground.   And soon, that ground does not feel so solid.   What will their lives’ become?

Much has been made of the news media’s coverage of the sea voyages of  refugees.   The rickety , unseaworthy boats,  the drawn and mournful faces of the survivors.  And some will, haughtily, declare the statistics: that less than 10 percent of these refugees arrive by boat, so why does the media insist on portraying these refugees?

 

Because , from a humanitarian point of view, this population matters. And they matter a lot.  And no sooner has the refugee survived perhaps the most perilous journey of his or her life,  reality sets in. This is a hard and brutal road.  Many I have spoken to wish they had never left home.

My students met the only girl currently living at the center—the rest are young African men. She is young. Her parents are dead. She has no relatives in Italy.  She is a beautiful girl with a warm and welcoming smile.  Yes, she welcomed us. She was eager to make a connection, especially with my female students.image

And my students listened to her and , I am proud to say, really, really heard her. And what was amazing to me is that they each sought commonalities , not differences. And they bonded over things that girls everywhere bond over.  What impressed me was their was no objectifying of her—she was just Blessing, a teenage Nigerian girl who simply wanted to make friends.  What she shared of her life occurred after she felt comfortable and she shared details of her own free will.

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One day , sitting at an outdoor cafe despite the chilly weather, I and my students encountered a Sengalese street vendor. Very tall and handsome,  the many approached our table and smiled immediately at one of my students and said: “You are from America—you are black, like me, but not as dark!” We all laughed and marveled at his perception.  This man had dignity. He was well-spoken. He engaged us on any number of topics, including all of the languages he can speak.  He was not pressuring us to buy anything, which surprised me.  Maybe he knew one of us would buy something anyway.  I had my eye on a trio of bracelets.  He caught my eye. “Ahhhh, he said.  You like these, don’t you?” He smiled widely.  He placed them on the table and I bought them.

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He said he needed to move on , but shook all of our hands, and then touched his palm to his heart. Nodded and said that he hoped he would see us again before we left.   Before he walked away, he told us that he lived in Catania. That he did not always look the way we were viewing him that day—with all of his various wears hanging about his body for sale.  ” You should see me when I am at home and not working!  I live in the city, I am different, not always working.  I have a life!”

Indeed.  And it gave my students, who will be trying to figure all of this out for a long time, something to think about.   A refugee who is making his way in his new life. Who no longer thinks of himself as a refugee ,  (nor should we), but instead,  just a man, like any other working and living his life.

An individual who deserves to be happy.

 

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The Unknowable Reality of the Refugee


“While every refugees story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage: the courage not only to survive , but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives.”

Antonio Guterres

The lives’ of refugees are often unknowable, unfathomable, though they are often portrayed in one of two ways: either as the noble and unfortunate sufferer or the unwelcome undesirables who should go back to wherever they came from. I understand and recognize the dichotomous thinking, how easy it is to be tempted to put a person or a situation that we do not know or understand, in a box, a category. In my encounters with refugees, I attempt to speak as honestly with them as possible . It is I that usually seeks them out , either in refugee camps, reception centers or on the streets of the Sicilian town in which they attempt to live and work and begin their lives’ anew. It is rare for them to initiate contact with me, but it happens.

One day in the open market, I stood with a few of my bright, curious students, under a large umbrella, tasting cheese and otherwise enjoying our day, when a man approached me, by tapping me on the shoulder. I turned around and he stood in front of me , smiling. My students assumed that I knew him, but in fact, I do not ever remember seeing him before, but he insisted that I had.

He handed me a photo and a piece of paper in which he scrawled his name , some Arabic writing and a few other things. He asked me to help him find a job. And then, just to help him, period.

Refugee I met in the open market.

Refugee I met in the open market.

He engaged my students in some conversation, but , kept his eyes on me the entire time. He kept asking me to call him, to help him. Again, he referenced that he’d seen me in the camp and assumed I was an aid worker, in a position to offer, well, aid.

These are the times when I question the responsibility of my encounters with such a vulnerable population. There are severe limits to what I can do. There are limits to so much of what any of us can do for the refugee in any given situation. I saw the desperation in this man’s eyes. When I relayed the story to a friend upon my return home, she felt he probably wanted to exploit me, in some way, perhaps taking advantage of what he perceived to be my kindness. Another friend shook his head slowly, wondered if I knew what I was doing at all.

 

Notes, written.

Notes, written.

I saved his photo and the piece of paper. It serves to remind me of the limits of my work. It also reminds me of the importance of doing what I can in fact do.

I never saw this man again.

A week later, my mentor called me back home in the states.

Hey,” he said. “Remember that refugee who gave you his photo in the open market?”

I told him that of course I remembered him. I could not get him out of my mind.

I saw him surrounded by police the other day, on the street. They arrested him.”

For what?” I asked.

A soft,  chuckle on the other end of the phone, one of frustration, not of mirth.

That,” he said, “I do not know. It could be anything.”

In fact, my mentor was right. It could be anything at all. And no one will ever know.

The unknowable life of the refugee is the reason why I do what I do. Their stories matter. But in fact, it takes patience in the telling , in the understanding.

Their lives’ are often ones of desperation. They are not perfect people—in that way, they are just like the rest of us: imperfect in our humanity, just trying, trying every day.

But the playing field, as they say , is not a level one.

I do not know where this man is, what he wanted from me that day, or what might have happened to him.

But I think about him nearly every day and I still, I wonder. And of course, I hope for the very best.

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Storied lives: the Care and Witness of the Refugee


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We live storied lives, not storybook lives. The difference is an essential one.

Lives matter. And there are so many ways of saying something. So many realities to represent and a myriad ways of doing it. But first you have to look and then you have to “see”. You have to go deeper than the surface level. There are unknowns depths, but depths nonetheless. This is not my story. It never will be my story. It is not about me. And yet, it involves me somehow , because in my interest and my approach and my account of refugees lives’ comes from who I am, too. There is no objectivity. I cannot escape my own point of view. So representations comes in layers, laid upon one another like think plastic overlay, until they are inextricable from one another.

To tell of someone’s life is a great responsibility. To be an ethnographer is to enact care and witness. To do ethnography among a vulnerable population is to enact care and witness to the extreme. This is a responsibility that I do not take lightly. And yet it is fraught with responsibility, with pitfalls, ethical concerns and yet, there is joy, too. I find it in the spaces in-between the harrowing accounts of passage, the longing for those left behind , the nausea of finding yourself in a new place without knowing a thing of what it may be to survive there. Because most people live between the spaces of all that interferes with a trouble-free happiness on a daily basis. And the refugee, even more so.

 

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In Sicily, one encounters so many faces , some more acclimated than others. It took me some time to get used to what was expected of the refugee in Sicily. In the United States, we hold multiculturalism as the standard for newcomers—at least in theory. In Europe, and I will speak of Sicily, because this is the place I know best, the standard is assimilation. So the refugee must often contort who and what he is to fit in, if in fact, he ever does. Often, the measure of how well a refugee or immigrant is received is how well they have assimilated into Sicilian society. This often means a (gradual) repudiation of their own customs, their language, the very embodiment of their own culture.

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The backdrop is sun ,ancient stone and sea. The refugee who comes to Sicily knows the sea, knows it in a deep way that none of us would choose, knows it through the frigid cold, the dark night and the relentless bright reflection that blisters the skin, makes the mouth parched. Those who live to tell the tale, if in fact, they can bring themselves to, have a survivor’s pride. If one could survive a treacherous sea passage then one can find a new way to live in this new world. Life and death hang in the balance, but one does not cancel the other out. There is the want, the need, the destination, the death, the reckoning. And really, the dead tell their stories, too. And eventually, the sea gives up some, not all, who arrive, silent and stoic on sun-drenched beaches, when they are least expected. Their names are lost, along with their faces and their fingerprints. I tell the stories of the living. The dead tell their own stories, but their words, if we could hear them, would be like the memories that you wish you never had.

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The refugee is trying to come out of the shadows. The refugee wants to live life. Sometimes mouths move but nothing comes out. Never understand this to mean they have nothing to say. Care and witness to their lives’ is essential. It’s the  human thing to do.

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Of Lemons and Somali Women in a Sicilian Refugee Center


What one first notices is  the absence of things , or perhaps Things , with a capital T.  Walking up the winding , marble steps of the refugee center, this one , primarily for women refugees from Somalia, one is struck by the absence of sound. The absence of  voices. The absence of television.  The absence of the sound of children.  Women take up  so little space, do not cause the “sprawl” here in the center, where they live, as they would in their own homes.  One wonders. realistically, how anyone in anyway could construe this place as “home”.  And of course the idea is not to get too comfortable, but this seems extreme. At worst, unwelcoming.

The Somali women show mild interest in me and the two men that I am with: one a cultural mediator well versed in the realities of refugee camps and centers and the other , a  photographer from Der Spiegel.  But really, only mild interest.   I suspect, (and I think that I am right) that they are exhausted from perhaps being treated as “specimens” or ” artifacts.”   Their lunch is cooking in a kitchen that I cannot see, but the smells emanating from the room with the closed door are tantalizing:  roasted chicken and vegetables.   I look around the room which is as bare as bare can be, save for a few leather couches, alternately in navy blue and brown.  The large windows let in the strong winter sun, casting strange shadows across faces and walls until it dances behind the clouds that are in the sky.

The photographer, a tall and lanky man sets up his equipment. He  laughs when he is being friendly, and  when he seems nervous, which means that he  laughs a lot.  Laugh, laugh, laugh.   The  seasoned cultural mediator identifies one young woman who would like to talk with us.  At least I think she wants to talk with us.  Actually, on this day, I am no here for my own work; I just tagged along.   I feel incredibly conflicted in such situations—I clearly see the gender bias happening here,  knowing that these women and girls have already endured so much red tape, legal  processing and  have had to tell their stories many times before.  As well, they have probably had their photos taken  against their wishes.   I do not think that this particular young woman feels as though she can say no, though others that she was with  turned down the “opportunity” to speak with us.

No information is shared between the three of us and this young girl.  None is offered so she has no idea what this is all about. She speaks Arabic and Somali, so all I can offer her is a kind smile.  She does not know even the minimum: our names.  She runs to put on “makeup” but returns, instead, with a black cloth which hides her face, save for her eyes, which dance and sparkle.

Young Somali woman with director in background

Young Somali woman with center  director in background

She sits on the navy brown leather couch while the mediator asks her questions in Arabic and to which she answer in a soft voice, alternately switching between Arabic and Somali.

“Why did  you come here?” is the first question.

Often, when refugees are asked this question, they tend to give  a similar and sterile response. At least at  first. So many of the stories sound the same.  Until you get to know them. Or until you share something of yourself, so that what you are engaging in is not interrogation, but conversation, a setting in which people can trust, and open themselves up; where they feel a modicum of safety.

She worries her fingers under the leopard print hijab that drapes elegantly in her lap.  For the most part, she looks at the camera,  but occasionally, she turns her eyes to me. I smile each time.  I feel as though I should intervene somehow, but I do not know what to do.  I feel that the interaction lacks sensitivity,  that this girl had no decision in the matter. The short Italian woman manager tried to persuade a few  others, , but Bahjet is the only one who has stepped forward.

I could not help but think, as I always do when engaging in ethnography: “What’s in it for them?”

Then I see the lemons.

 They are like an offering. Virtually the only color in the room, save for a few cut out hearts and small pictures on the wall, above the table where the dish of lemons sit, seemingly untouched.

lemons and wall.

A large dish with Sicilian lemons, yellow and mottled with some green.  One is sliced open. There is a pear, nestled among them and two oranges.  And underneath this large dish, a brown table scarf with white scalloped embroidery underneath.  Besides Bahjet, these lemons are the  most beautiful thing in that room.  Lemons. They are so bright.  Something distinct and in this context, distinctly Sicilian.   The lemons are like a strange ray of hope.  I know, I am grasping at straws here.  I looked for some warmth in this center.

The women come in and out of closed doors.  They wear brightly colored and contrasting skirts and blouses. All of their heads are covered.  One older woman dressed in a sea foam green hijab and a bright orange skirt warns me away with a look; she stares from me to my IPAD as if  daring me to take a photo.  I do not move a muscle.  I smile at her. The smile is not returned.  The cultural mediator, astute, tells me “They all have different personalities”.  In fact, I liked the fact that she did not smile at me.  She has agency and she showed it.

I wonder what they do with all of the lemons.

The photographer finishes is photo shoot, laments that she spoke so softly that the translator who he sends the tape to might not have anything to work with.  He asks if I would like my picture take with her.  I look at her and she instantly puts her arms around me.  She takes off the black fabric that had been wrapped around her face.   I ask her how old she is.

Ventuno” she answers shyly.  I am surprised by her Italian!  Just twenty-one.  I feel grateful that all of her time is in front of her, that this place , devoid of color and joyful sounds, will not be her last stop. At least I pray that it isn’t.

She gives me a big hug when I stand to  leave,  then disappears down a marble hallway and into a room where she closes the door.  The most prominent sound I heard nearly the entire time I was there,  was the sound of doors opening and closing; it was nearly continuous.

She is very shy,” I say to the assertive woman who is in charge there.  “Yes, until they get to know you, then they won’t stop talking,” she laughs, gesticulating with her hands.

I want to go back there soon.   Learn more about her.  Not the same old story, but the real story.  Her story.  How and why she came ALONE. Not why she came.  I think we all know that story now.

And I want to count the lemons.

Sicilian lemons

I want to see how many may  still be on that porcelain dish when I return.  Or if they will have been replaced with a more seasonal fruit as time inevitably  marches on.  And I wonder if Bahjet will still be there, or if things go as they should, she will have moved out. That will mean that her life will have begun. For the second time.

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Vu Cumpra? The refugee street vendor in Sicily.


My friend and I are sitting in a cafe in Sicily enjoying the warmth and the coffee on a  particularly and unusually (for Sicily) cold day.   I see her look up. She says , in a low voice , “Here comes a vendor.”  Before I could ask her to elaborate, I look up and right beside be is a full-figured woman, her hair beautifully wrapped and her arms laden with cheap plastic bracelets and various other trinkets that she, along with many other “Vu Cumpra” , sell on the beaches and on the streets of nearly every Italian town and city in which refugees have made their home.  In fact, I have met up with this woman, who has never told me her name, many, many times in the past.  The routine is nearly always the same,  her approach unfailingly cheerful and high-spirited. It goes something like this:

Where are you from?” “What is your name?” Then: “I would like to give you a gift!”   

Cornicelli

Amulet, Cornicello

 

Before I know it, as in the past, she has placed a bracelet on my wrist, tossed a trinket into my lap, or otherwise has placed one of her wares so near me and with such seemingly good intentions that to deny her the pleasure of bestowing the “gift” would seem crass, a gross social faux pas, at the very least, mean.  At first I mildly protest, and then am ashamed of myself. She has given me a charm called a “cornicello”—in this case, it is a small bunch of “cornicelli”, which is an amulet said to ward off the evil eye and fashioned after a red pepper which it is often and understandably mistaken for. She insists.  I lean over to grab the wallet from my bag to look for change.  I find a 2 Euro coin which I give her. She winks at me, smiles widely.  She seems to recognize my companion, who , in fact, says she came in contact with her a few days ago. The woman,  a Senegalese refugee , does not attempt to give her a gift.  Just me, since she has not seen me in a while.   Once the coin is in her hands, she leaves as gracefully as she entered, wishing us wishes for a good New Year.  “Auguri!” she calls softly. “Buon Anno!” her voice trails as her eyes dart around the crowded cafe, looking for another opportunity.

As annoying as these interactions are, I understand them and I hate the story behind them.  It is not the first time I have been “gifted” an item from her.  In fact, I have a growing collection of these trinkets in a box at home.  I say “growing” because I will never not accept what I am offered.  Really, what does it cost me?  The Senegalese are an extremely enterprising immigrant population in Italy—and are said to be the most hard working and, as a result, the most successful.  I admire them for so very many reasons.  And while their appearance while eating dinner or deep in conversation over coffee while with a friend, can be jarring—they often seem to come out of nowhere, they are trying to make a living.  This is not the work that they would like to do, most of whom are educated people.  It is not easy to ingratiate yourself to people who you know will not want what you sell, who have no need for the cheap trinkets, poorly made ( and illegal ) knockoffs, but until something better comes along, IF , in fact, something better comes along, this is what they do.

So when they ask “Vu Cumpra?” (roughly, “you buy?”),  go ahead and buy.

 

 

 

 

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