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.