The first time I met Ahmed Saleh was in refugee center in Siracusa, Sicily in December of 2011. I was introduced to him amongst a dozen other men staying at the center, having made their way to the island from Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, and Afghanistan among other places. Because I tend towards being shy, particulary in crowds, I focused on the friendliest of faces. Ahmed’s was one of them. I have spoken here before of the smiles that one is greeted with, and Ahmed’s was no exception. Tall and thin , with a handsome and boyish face, he exuded an innocent sort of optimism that was absent in the others. I did not get to speak to him that day, but of the visits I made to the center, he was always there , on the periphery. I noticed that the more animated of men are as eager to find out your purpose there , your own story , as much as you want to hear their’s. But Ahmed was not one of them. For a long time he would be on my mind.
This past May, I was in a classroom in Rizza where a Civics Class for refugees was being conducted. I looked up to see three men walk in. My friend Muhammed, Ahmed and one of their friends found out where where I was and came to see me. I was thrilled. After the high emotions died down, and good strong hugs were exchanged, Ahmed told me that I looked “different from the last time.” “Uh oh,” I thought. “Better?” I asked. “Worse?” I pressed. The men burst out laughing. “Better, better,” he said. “Maybe more relaxed.” He was right.
I’d gone to Sicily in December after a bitter, sad and life-changing personal experience that had settled into the marrow of my bones. It was something I couldn’t shake. I remember being on the plane from Rome to Catania and not being able to stop the flow of tears, something that concerned the flight attendant to distraction. I thought that I would not be able to get far away enough, but once I was the emotion flowed and I was unable to stop it. But I had work to do. I knew what I wanted to do in Sicily. I knew I wanted to lick my wounds and conduct research on immigration. A tall order.. Not(yet) being able to engage in what real ethnography calls for—living with and amongst those I wanted to study—I conducted interviews with as many people as I possibly could and tried to balance my questions so as not to be too intrusive. No easy feat. No one is a stranger to pain and suffering and while I desperately wanted to know about the lives’ of those who had come to Sicily seeking a better way, I had no intention of dredging up what hurt the most. I knew all too well how that would feel. I don’t know whether that makes me a bad ethnographer or a good one, but I’d like to think it makes me a compassionate one.
Because the mood was such a lighthearted one with Ahmed and the men, I couldn’t bear to start questioning him in the way I would have liked. He likes to laugh and joke around. In a little café where we all ordered cappuccino, he was quite taken with the beautiful young barista behind the counter. He spoke to her, but kept looking back at us , laughing as we urged him on. She seemed shy and intimidated by the number of us in the small place on the way back from the school. When we left he told me that he was going to back the next day, “alone.” We all laughed again. But somehow, I intuited a heaviness in Ahmed’s laughter, and the expressions of deep thought between the joking around. A sense that he was not very rooted, and was young enough to be impatient with what he had found in Sicily. The only thing he would tell me was that he worked a job that had ridiculously long hours, little pay and absolutely no breaks at all, which sounded to me very much like the work that immigrants and refugees are granted. The eyes will often tell a story that the mouth won’t dare. The look in his eyes confirmed to me that this was true, although at the time I did not know why. Hardship of various kinds is with the immigrant or refugee nearly all the time and every day living can be a challenge for the body and the mind as it is an exercise in survival. Chances are , for most of you who might be reading this blog post, you are not subject to the constant weight of desperation and displacement in a setting in which you feel you do not belong. Or if you are, you can understand why Ahmed had to leave Sicily.
Ahmed recently left Sicily in order to find a better life in Norway I first learned of about Ahmed through our mutual friend Muhammad, Ahmed’s best friend. Muhammad , older and possessing an eternal patience, knows why Ahmed left, but doesn’t share his enthusiasm that life will any better in Norway than it is in Sicily, something we discussed. I communicated with Ahmed by e-mail which left me exasperated , because I desperately wanted to know that all was well. Ahmed is anxious to receive his Norweigan docments and had been hoping to be able to stay there for a good long time.
Curently he is staying with a friend and looking very hard for work . He was overwhelmed with the kindness that he was greeting with upon his arrival in Norway. He claimed a huge difference between the Norweigans and Italians, but would not answer why, specifically. Instead, he said “ I want to tell you something. After all this welcome that they gave me in Norway, money and everything, they will not call me ‘settled’.” Norway has rules that a refugee must seek asylum in the first country in which he arrives in Europe. Ahmed, in an incredibly ironic twist, is considered an Italian to Norweigian authorities and so will allow Ahmed to stay for six months.
Ahmed, originally from Darfur, Sudan, now resides in that in-between space of finding happiness in a country (Norway)in which he is not welcome for the long term and returning to a place(Sicily)that will have him but where he does not feel that he can be happy. Still, I feel hopeful for Ahmed. He has been through a lot. He traveled to Sicily via Libya on a small boat, paying “the man” 500 dollars for the “privelege” while others paid 1,000. During the frightening journey he said he saw so many people give in to hysteria , attempting to fling themselves overboard, often succeeding. When I asked him how he endured, he characteristically answered plainly and without embellishment: “I wasn’t concerned for myself. I tried to catch some of them. Some of them fall.” Life in Sicily began for Ahemd with a landing in the Port of Pozzalo. Ahmed worries now about having money and a place to sleep when he must return to Sicily. I ask him if he can to back to the refugee center. “I don’t know,” he answers and even through e-mail I sense a bit of desperation. “Do you know?” he asks me in return. I don’t , but I tell him I will try to find out.
Ahmed is young , strong and optimistic. I hope that the worst is behind him and that his return to Sicily, where there are people there who love him , will be dolce. Muhammad will certainly welcome his friend with open arms. Second chances are a gift.