“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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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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