The particularly individual human face of immigration in Sicily is not always easy to find. There is no lack of photographs of what Berlusconi so astoundingly termed a “human tsunami”— humans jammed into small , rikety boats, standing in long lines, sitting with backs against a wall as the Italian authorities make legal and moral decisions on their fate, as well as others who show the immigrant, the migrant , the refugee otherwise trying to begin their lives’. I often wondered about the men and the women patrolling the sea, those officials who made decisions that could bestow the opportunity of a new life to the men and women who made it to Sicily’s shores or send them back to somewhere else or, worse back where they came from.
My thoughts and perceptions will often drive my emotions to paint a situation with a wide brush and it will take a specific encounter to set me straight. In December of 2011 I met Antonino Audino through our mutual friend, Ramzi. Before my trip, and at Ramzi’s urging, Antonino penned a short , but intense account of his life as both an immigrant (to Switzerland) and , later, as a member of the Guardia di Finanza during the times of the most intense periods of immigration to the island. He encountered situations that made him often feel emotionally conflicted No matter what the political climate or the official party line on the status of immigrants, Antonino has always maintained a very deep respectful and caring stance toward the men and women who put themselves at risk of death to make the journey across the sea. While his immigration situation and theirs is as different as night and day, one thing is the same: that desperate feeling of being , often, not only far from home but despised and discriminated against, a discrimination often based on fear and stereotypes.
Since December, Antonino , Ramzi and I have met many times, mostly over coffee in small café’s in Sicily where Antonino ruminates over his own experiences, and expounds on his political thoughts regarding immigrants in Italy. He is a handsome man, tall and strong, fiercly intelligent and a bit combative: he wants to be heard and hates to be misunderstood, which, unfortunately for me, happened quite a bit. I would disagree with him and he would bristle. I have come to realize that objectivity does not exist: neither he nor I could escape our own point of view. I learned so much more when I shut my mouth and listened. And make no mistake, these conversations were so important: Ramzi mediated between the two of us and offered a lot of explanations, softening both Antonino’s views and my own for each other. He would often say “Wait! What Antonino means. . “ and then I would begin to see the point differently. He did the same for me . And then, Antonino , chin thrust upward, would say “Ahhhh. . . “
The Sicilian as Immigrant in Switzerland
Antonino became an immigrant in the early 1970’s . He was deeply attached to his home in Sicily and was stunned by life in Switzerland, what he called his “new reality.” Along with his brothers Angelo and Giuseppe, they began the difficult work of finding a job. Naturally, they were illegal immigrants so they found illegal work—in a hotel. After weeks of work, they were told they would not be paid since they were given a place to sleep and food. While searching for another job, Antonino desperately tried to make sense of his new environment and quickly discovered that the Swiss harbored the same old resentments against he and his brothers, Sicilians, that so many Italian immigrants experienced in the United States: dirty mobsters and womanizers. It was difficult for him to be thought of this way: at home he was loved and his family was respected. Temporary restaurant work followed , while his brother worked hard to find them a better place to live.
Tragedy far from home is often said to be a double tragedy, as Antonino would soon find out. In October of 1972 his brother Giuseppe had been killed in a road accident. His twin brother, Angelo, had lost his left eye and damaged his right one. He will never forget the look in his parent’s faces as he , his brother and some friends went to retrieve them at the airport the next day. The death of a child, no matter how old that child is, subverts the natural order of things. Life, really, would never be the same. At this point, Antonino desperately wanted to return to Sicily, to life as he knew it. But of course, without his beloved brother, life would not be the same there, either.
The Next Stage
In 1975 due to an economic crisis, Antonino was fired from his job in Swizterland and realized that it was a good time to return to Sicily. In retrospect he realized that his life in Switzerland had been a wonderful learning experience. In addition, he became used to a country in which everything was “perfect and tidy,”(if a bit dull) and where things were efficient. Everything worked in the way that one expected it to. In Italy, he grappled with what he calls “ugly and difficult years” . He returned to a country that was struggling with the terror of the Red Brigade, terrorism, and the workers’ struggle. Crime, in general, was rampant. Life in Switzerland was rather colorless, but serene. In Italy everything was different. But Antonino decided to stay and do whatever he could to try and contribute to improving conditions in his country. As it is today, finding work then, in Sicily, was not easy. Many months of doing nothing and feeling a mounting frustration began to take their toll. Antonino’s elder brother, Mario, suggested he take a look at enlisting in the Guardia Di Finanza, a job, at the time, not at all well-regarded by his peers; in fact, quite the opposite.
In the simplest terms, the Guardia di Finanza are the “police of the sea.” This force is responsible for dealing with smuggling and financial crime. It is the primary force for dealing with the drug trade . Currently they maintain over 600 boats and ships and more than 100 aircraft in order to patrol the territorial waters of Italy.
Antonino began the required course of study at the prestigious School of the Guardia di Finanza Marine, based in Gaeta, a town 200 kilometers south of Rome, a place that Antonino found rich in both history and natural beauty. Upon completion of the degree in April of 1978 with the status of Radio Operatior, he was moved into his first division: Command Naval Station Taranto. In those years he experienced what he calls “the phenomenon of maritime smuggling of tobacco and druges from Greece and Eastern Europe.” Those were days of long nights sailing and lack of sleep, but satisfaction for a job done well.
Back to Sicily
In August of 1984 he was transferred back to the Naval Operation Section of Siracusa. At last, back to his beloved Sicily.
It would be back in Sicliy that he would experience the heart of darkness that beats at the very center of all illegal immigration experiences. On the night of December 26, 1988 the sea was calm and nothing extraordinary was happening. It was the feast day of Santo Stefano, a day , traditionally of lighthearted festivities. Upon leaving the port of Siracusa, they checked some small vessels, as usual. Upon arrival at Cape Passero, they headed in the direction of the island of Malta, when something appeared on the radar: an Italian trawler sailing toward the Italian coast —about 26 miles to 219 nautical degrees from Cape Passero. Closer and with further inspection revealed dry fishing nets—usually a sign of some sort of illegal activity such as smuggling.
What they found was the attempted smuggling of about 39 Phillipino nationals. Under interrogation it was revealed that these people were illegal immigrants who had left Manila approximately 20 days before. They brought the immigrants to the barrachs of the Brigade of Finance Guardia in Portopalo , about 300 meters from the port. The staff of the State Police of Immigration had arrived as well as the magistrate on duty and other officials, but , unbelievably, it was difficult to figure out: at the time, Italy had no law in existence regarding the situation of illegal immigrants, though the crew members were under arrest for brokering the unlawful movement of illegal migranti workers for employment. Antonino was stunned as he had never heard the words “illegal immigrant” since he was a “clandestino” in Switzerland . Staring at the 39 faces of the new arrivals he felt a deep compassion—and immediately, his experience in Swizterland came rushing back to him.
What is so amazing about the experience that I have just described is the fact that Antonino, and presumably others, believed that what had transpired with those immigrants would be an isolated incident—he never imagined that ti would become the future—that people would be trafficked in the same way as drugs and cigarettes—cargo packed into boats and set out to sea. The Neopolitan journalist, Luigi Necco, upon hearing of the incident ,told Antonino that he believed it was only the beginning of a great migration. . . with flows coming especially from North and Central Africa and the Middle Middle East and that it was time to legislate. The incident described above , as told to me by Antonino is well documented in the popular press. In the telling, Antonino bore the countenance of a man who had witnessed the beginning of something big. He still seemed in awe of what had transpired and indeed he should be.
Antonino retired from the Guardia di Finanza in 2009.
He cannot ever forget eyes filled with fear of the unknown, children asking for a cooki to eat, and all of the many stories scared and vulnerable trusted him with. And as a parent, too, he thinks of the mothers who had to say goodbye to their sons or daughters who only wanted a better life. And he can never, ever forget the number who lost and continue to lose their lives’ on the journey. He has contempt for the traffickers who have no conscience, no respect for their fellow man,especially when he recalls the swollen eyes of the cadavers that he had to recover, dying alone and without dignity, their loved ones often unaware of their fates’ , buried in unmarked graves, their hopes and dreams halted in the sea.
As a man of strong faith, a faith that has sustained him the whole of his life, he is philosophical about his experience and has come to realize that we are all more the same than we are different in our humanity. Man is sacred and we all have the right to inhabit the planet with dignity.
The talks between me , Ramzi and Antonino will continue. We have a deep respect for one another and a lot to share about our immigration experiences. When I talk to Ramzi and Antonino I realize how much there is to learn. And Antonino , himself, credits his often heated (but good natured) discussions with Ramzi as the starting point for learning about difference and acceptance and to challenge his own views.
Because Antonino is a thinking and feeling man, I am not surprised when he tells me, “I often walk the promenade at the sea and look out. My thoughts almost always go to the ones I found there.”
Antonino told me so many stories that to recount them all here, in this one post, would not do any of them justice. I plan on posting on this topic again.