All Those Amazing Smiles (Christmas Celebration at Stella Maris Refugee Center)

Stella Maris Refugee Center, Sicily


It is quite cold here in Sicily, but the sun shines brightly, nonetheless. It is starting to feel like Christmas.

Yesterday, my guide Ramzi, my friend Elizabeth  and I attended the Christmas celebration for the men at Stella Maris Refugee Center, a place where men can live up to 6 months upon arrival in Sicily.  They are well taken care of, counseled , give English lessons and in general , are acclimated into Sicilian society.

The men greeted me warmly, not a one of them the least bit shy.  They thrust their hands forward , offering gentle handshakes , while a few of them proffered their cheeks, in the ubiquitous Sicilian air kiss–first one cheek and then the other.

Ramzi, who is so easy with people, respectful, always,  in the most unassuming of ways, greeted the men who were thrilled to see him. A musician, he immediately grabbed a drum and began to beat on it.  Another man grabbed another drum and they drummed together.  The young Afghani placed himself in the middle of the circle that formed so naturally and danced while the other men urged him on.  One of the women, a resident director danced with him.  For a long time I heard the drumming that didn’t seem to stop. I felt it right through my chest. Thump, thump, thump. It was a wonderful sound that seemed to go on forever.

One can over- think an experience like this. How to be with these men who I wanted to interview and photograph?  Photographs?  “Go right ahead,” I was told. And, in fact, not a single shy one among them.  They love the camera, they pose, they gather others for the photo shoot, aiming to leave not a single one among them unaccounted for, not represented.  One does not need to prod to get them to speak. They will talk about their country.  Their difficulties in their new found home.  Their politics.  YOUR politics.   One young Afghani resident  asked me “Why hasn’t your new president done anything about the war in my country?”  Before I could answer, an lively discussion ensued between him and a man from Sudan.  Neither listened to the other—the only expressed their opinions, loudly, simultaneously.  I listened, because I intuited they did not require, nor really want a response from me.  In fact, I had none, as is usually the case when a question begins with “Why does your country. . . . ” or any variation there of.  The men smoked , and we all leaned on the railing, in the sun.  When they finished their cigarettes, they slapped each other on the back. Friends again. After all, they must all coexist in this place and from what i can see, they do it with ease and respect.  At least on the surface.

My good friend Elizabeth and I sidled up to the snack table, had the obligatory Panettone which we washed down with a splash of Cola.  Nibbling the sweet cake kept me busy, while my gaping eyes took it all in.

The Sudanese pulled me aside to tell me that he was so grateful to have someone that he could speak English with.  Italian does not feel right in his mouth, he told me and he is proud of his English speaking skills.  We talked about this and that and every once in a while  he would furrow his brow, and I knew something was rising to the surface, something he wanted to say. “If my country ever gets back to normal, I am going home,” he finally said, shaking his head, in the slow, thoughtful way that thinking , feeling people often do.  “I don’t want to see anymore little children with machine guns.”  I told him that I could not imagine this.  “You don’t have  to  imagine this,” he said. “It is real.”  Then he told me that Sicilians are difficult people.  Tough.  “Do this. Do that.  Like we are house pets without a brain of our own.”  What could I see to this. This feeling of inadequacy is one that I do not like, one that I try hard to combat in my everyday life, when I am not in Sicily and not thinking  about immigrants  and refugees. The impulse to just want to wave a wand and make it all better is strong one.

We were still on the balcony and it was very cold.  Down below, the clothes that they wash themselves hung on lines, over railings and one piece of clothing on a tree, with dry branches, no leaves. Stylish jeans , button down shirts and hoodies.  The men take great pride in their appearance.   The clothes flapped like so many flags.   The furrow in my friend’s brow was gone. His brilliant smile was back again.  He put his hand on my shoulder and ever so gently, ushered me into the hall where the party was winding down. Still, the men in the corner thumped their drums, a little slower now, a bit softer. And still, all those amazing smiles.


One thought on “All Those Amazing Smiles (Christmas Celebration at Stella Maris Refugee Center)

  1. Michelle,

    What a gentle and beautiful entry. I so appreciate how vividly you draw a picture of your experience and capture snippets of the experiences of the men you’re working with.

    Thank you,

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