Monthly Archives: January 2012

Per salvare la propria vita. . . essere ciechi come un bambino: Mohammad’s Story

Mohammad Suleiman

Mohammad Suleiman is a thoughtful man, ensconced in a life that he can only hope will get better.  He arrived in Sicily just seven months ago. He immediately stands out from the other men at the refugee center:  he is taller than most of them, quieter, thoughtful, contemplative.  He is handsome in a refined way.

The men love visitors and clamor for conversation, which I am happy to engage in.  Their friendliness is overwhelming and a balm to me, because I, too, feel moments in Sicily that are incredibly hard to live through: alienation, loneliness, being unsure of myself, living in a country that often feels so closed, the people pulling in ranks and leaving you standing on the outside, looking in.  It is important, though, that I experience these feelings and feel uncomfortable: it gives me a glimpse, a mere one, to be sure, to how these men must feel.

Mohammad stands apart, watches, and waits.   When I go to him, he looks up and smiles with such warmth, as if he had know all along that I was going to choose him amongst the others.

There is not a quiet place to talk so our conversation must compete with the noise in the large, cold tiled room.  Here, the men gather to talk, dance, spend time on the computer or stand out on the small balcony to smoke.  Brittany Spears’ music blares from computer speakers, cell phones trill, a delivery is made at the back door and an summons from one of the, mainly, women administrators beckons to someone.  The broadcasts to no one at all.

  We sit side by side on the firm orange couch, one of only two in the large room  where I am having trouble hearing Mohammad’s soft voice.   I ask for clarification several times and he concentrates, recalibrating the competing languages in his head. When he responds his Italian is sprinkled with English, his English peppered with Italian.

Mohammad is from the Sudan, east of Darfur.  That he has found himself in Sicily is not at all unusual, as there are thousands just like him.  He is determined to work towards his goals and keep himself from sinking into the kind of despair that could be his undoing, and has, in fact, been the undoing of so many others before him.

I want to know about his family, but he demurs.  This is a sore subject for him.  He believes that a man in a family can never really be “free,” and even though he has traveled far from his home in search of a better life, he takes his responsibility toward his family, most particularly his sisters, seriously, but knows that if he can build a life for himself out of his war-torn country, in the long run, he will be in a better position to help them all.  In fact, it was his mother, knowing his ambitions, who urged him to flee the country or else be involuntarily conscripted to fight a war that has never made any sense.  ‘If you stay with me, ‘ his mother warned, ‘they will never leave you alone.’ An entire generation lost, knowing nothing but the fear and hopelessness caused by some of the most egregious acts of violence perpetrated by human beings toward one another other, all in the name of Islam.

I ask him how his family is getting on without him. He rubs his face with one hand and looks away.  Then: “Once you are out of the country, it is very hard to get word of your family.”  Without sounding entirely banal, one gets the enormity of the sacrifice, the utter risk it is to save your own life.

Mohammad is largely self-taught.  His determination is astounding—he presses on where others might give up entirely.  In his country, he tells me, one cannot think for one’s self. “If you have ideas, you can be sure they will empty your mind of them, “ he says, displaying the first flicker of anger I have seen in him.  In addition, he tells me, the government has an interest in dividing the tribes, to fuel the engine that maintains the war.  Divided loyalties become a way of survival.  Mohammad had many friends who wanted to leave the country, as he did, but there was always the danger of someone reporting your movements to the authorities.  So he left alone. He arranged for transport in a truck that was making deliveries in his country and left, going through Libya (a common route) and on to Sicily.  I did not ask the price and he did not offer one.   Understandably, he did not want to talk about details. “I am here now, “ he says, by way of explanation, as if those details have nothing to do with the present situation.

His main goal is to learn English and to be able to speak like a native.  His English is quite good, and I tell him so, but he doesn’t want to hear it.  “It must keep getting better, “ he tells me.  He remembers visiting someone in Sudan who had a book on learning English.  He desperately wanted the book, but was unable even to borrow it. Instead he copied the entire book out by hand to bring home and study.   At home, his friends chided him:  “Why do you want to learn English?  We are at war with America!  We are at war with Britain!”  But, he reasoned that if he knows the language he can “go and talk with these people.  Explain things to them.”

Mohammad, maintains hope, but is realistic about life in Sicily.  When he leaves the refugee center, what kind of a life awaits him?  “I look around and see that even many Sicilians do not have work. “  He hopes for a life beyond Sicily, maybe France or, eventually, the United States. “One day I hope to go to America,” he tells me with a wide smile.

His aspirations are at once modest and daunting:  “ I am a Muslim and I follow the instruction of Islam.  I like to live among the “tutti.”  I keep my eyes on what is going on around me, study and live my life as normally as possible. “

And what about returning to Sudan?

“I will never go back or even think about my country.  It would be like being blind.  Someone would have to guide me,—I could not be on my own,” he says looking down at the floor, his voice deeper now, more resolute.  He uncrosses his legs, clasps his hands.   Hunched over, he looks up at me.   I nod.  He knows that I understand.

And, indeed, happily, with a small lurch in my heart, I realize that Mohammad’s deep brown eyes are open way too wide now, for that to ever happen.



Questo è come si sentono.




This is is not a photo that I took , but one, instead, that my friend Ramzi shared with me.   I credit him with drawing my attention to it—-it speaks volumes.  One would love to know the specifics, though.  How?  Why?

Translated it begs:  “Immigrants, please do not leave us alone with the Italians.”



“Tutti i miei sogni. . .” Habiba Elaschi, Tunisian Immigrant in Sicily

Habiba is a beautiful woman.  Upon meeting her one cannot help but notices her eyes, expressive in an almost indescribable way, save for the sadness there.   Her immigration story is one fraught with overtones of not only displacement and regret, but is also one of immense personal sacrifice.

Born and raised in Tunisia, Habiba was a very famous actress in her home country, a career that began in 1967.  Despite her international fame, she exudes an extremely humble nature.  Habiba speaks softly as she tells me of her acting career, a success story by any standard, and how she continuously was forced to abandon what she loved the most—screen and stage.

Her first marriage in Tunisia was to a man who was a singer.  She divorced him because of extreme pressure to stop working.  In 1989 she married an Italian man who quickly put an end to all of the various cultural activities that she was engaged in.  Again, her instinct for self-preservation was strong and she wanted to flee.  Fate, though, is a funny thing.   Her husband had been diagnosed with stomach cancer and so she realized that she needed to stay and take care of him.   While she thought that coming to Italy would have helped her to follow her dreams she found that slowly, over time, other concerns prevailed. Everything that she wanted to do creatively was once again stifled until it became non-existent.

Sitting across from the table with Habiba, I was struck my the fact that here was a woman who played a role in Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zefferilli , and both acted and directed in numerous productions, an accomplished woman, to say the least, but still, with so much regret.  She sat with her head tilted slightly to the side, carefully considering my questions, her hands folded in front of her—very little expression save for her beautiful eyes.

When I asked her about her immigration process and life in Sicily, she chose to paint this part of her life with a wider brush and does not really elaborate.    She realizes, now, that she could have had a better life in Tunisia, for sure.   In fact, her only child was raised in Tunisia for precisely that fact:  because she knew he would have a better life.

Although I pressed, she displayed a bit of reluctance to dwell on her life in the present, in Sicily, though I know her to be most beloved and respected.   I read a bit of resignation in her tone and attitude.   She tells me that her coping mechanisms are patience and poetry—-she is a great practitioner of both.  She is kind to people and expresses herself, creatively through many different venues and projects and is well integrated in the society of her chosen home.

I ask her if it all was worth it.    Characteristically, she gives me a gentle shrug.   She said, “ I would love to be able to answer you, but I don’t know what to expect outside of the life that I have.   I came here and restarted my life around the system.”

When asked if she has any advice to other Tunisians who come to Sicily and who are struggling to make it, she demurs, shakes her head gently.  She says, only,  “You can’t go back to where you came from—the pressure too succeed is so strong.”

Finally, she says, in her gentle way, “I cannot believe how time has slipped away.”