Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Mediterranean as Liquid Coffin: One Man’s Desperation is Another Man’s Golden Opportunity

Though in the traditional sense, we equate water with life, the past few years, with seemingly no let up in sight, the Mediterranean has been akin to a liquid coffin to those attempting to cross it.

This attempt is  sometimes a choice,  with the hope of a better life.  All too often, though, in the  worst case scenarios,  which we are now seeing with alarming regularity of late, so many must flee their countries of origin. And so , they take to the waters in overcrowded, unsafe, rickety boats without food, water or relief from either the relentless sun or the elements.  Their nameless, faceless traffickers always remain that way as they tuck their bills into their pockets.  And  then they troll for more “business.” Supply and demand is in sync in the most sinister of ways.

How many of these deaths could have been prevented?  What is really happening here?  Anyone who follows the news will remember the “left-to-die” case wherein a   boat , disabled and laden with 72 migrants drifted for two weeks in the Mediterranean, wholly ignored by both commercial ships as well as NATO forces that were patrolling the area. For two weeks.  Which, to any thinking and feeling person is an atrocity that is hard to wrap one’s brain around.  How could this happen?  The boat eventually drifted back to the Libyan shore, by which time 61 people were dead.  After the boats arrival, two more unlucky victims of circumstance and greed succumbed, for a grand total of 63.  While so many in positions of power, in postions to give assistance turned a blind eye.  Official inquiries ensued revealing a “catalogue of failures.”  Well.  What can one say?

Refugee Boat

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) gave a press briefing in in Geneva on January 31, 2012.  Their spokesperson, Sybella Wilkes stated that according to their estimates, 2011 was the deadliest year for the Mediterranean region, where more than 1,500 people  ‘drowned or went missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.’  Also noted was the “previous” high of  630 “dead or missing” in 2007.  Even 630 seems unconscionable, and yet, even that grim figure has been surpassed.

ANSA  news agency reported,just days ago a migrant ship , thought to be carrying 150 people, originating in North African ,sank off of the coast of Sicily.   Those  rescued were pulled from the water.  Others were found on the island of Lampion.

Sicily remains one of the preferred entry points to the European Union, along with  the island of Lampedusa. Despite attempts at stricter controls, it appears that it will remain so for the foreseeable future.

What is the Price of a Life?

While in the meantime. . . So many boats.  So many people.  So many unnamed , anonymous (to us) lives.  Human traffickers are the opportunists who play on the fears and desperation of the desperate.  They are connive and lie and no matter how many people die in the sea, no matter how many bodies never retrieved despite the best of efforts, no matter the stories one human being tells another of the tragedy of someone they know, or knew, the traffickers will always have business. And plenty of it, too. Because  one man’s utter desperation will always be another man’s golden opportunity.





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Guest blogger: Monique Clark on the Italian-American “Gravy” vs. the American “Sauce”!

At my invitation on one of my former posts (August 12) for guest bloggers who want to share an aspect of immigrant culture, Monique Clark rose to the occasion and sent me this wonderful piece about the peculiar and sometimes confusing term that Italian-Americans stubbornly and perhaps a bit defiantly refer to as “gravy” –the red stuff they put on their pasta.  This is an interesting  aspect of  immigrant culture —-related to food, that will never go away.  It is sometimes said that those who travel far from home to live in a new country will often keep their culture alive by the food that they eat—and when all ties to their food are gone, so is, for all intents and purposes , their ties to their culture. I don’t think Italian-Americans will ever have that problem.

 By Monique Clark 

“What that means, to me, …. the smell of my mother’s ‘gravy’ (Italian-Americans NEVER call it “sauce”) bubbling on the stove just like every single home in our neighborhood.”

It was Maryann Maloney who first introduced me to “gravy.”  I was 19 and worked part-time at Corestates Bank, and we sat next to each other in the MAC Operations Department. Maryanne was a robust woman with curly thick blond hair, a hearty laugh and her no nonsense attitude defied her saintly patience.  We loved to cook, and eat, and bonded over talks of our common loves.  A bond that surpassed the fact that I was a young African-American and she, an Italian three decades my senior.

“I simmer my gravy for hours,” she said one day during one of our talks.

My brows furrowed deeply.  Gravy, over pasta?

“Gravy!” she said, noticing my perplexity.

Gravy is some variation of brown.  Goes over roast beef, chicken, rice. Not pasta.

“I don’t put gravy over pasta,” I finally say.

“You do!”

“No, I use spaghetti sauce.”

She slammed the pen on her desk.  Startled, I jumped.

“No, no, no,” she said.  “It’s called gravy!  But that stuff there – no, no.”  She wagged her finger at me and spoke to me in an unwavering firm voice.  “I’m going to bring you some real Italian gravy, and you’ll never eat that stuff again.”

I was game and looked anxiously forward to this “gravy.”  It had never occurred to me that someone somewhere was simmering gravy for hours on the stove instead of popping open a jar of Prego or Ragu or Classico.  Nor had I known that store bought spaghetti saucewas a second rate (and depending on who you talk to, an unacceptable) substitute for real gravy.  

Two days later, as promised, Maryanne handed me a medium sized Mason jar, sealed tightly and still warm to the touch.  I excitedly unsealed the jar, and inhaled the smell of tomatoes, garlic and basil.  All fresh, she assured me, with no sugar – another taboo.  I let my index finger run slowly around the brim of the jar, coating the tip of my finger, before I put it to my mouth.

Hmmm.  Different.  Good.  

“What are you doing?” she said.  “Don’t stick your finger in there!”

“It’s mine.  I’m tasting it.”

She lowered her voice, rubbed my shoulder and handed me a bag.

“Take it home.  Share.”


I met Nan fifteen years later.  She is so connected to her Italian heritage that it’s hard to believe that it runs through her mother’s bloodline only. My gravy recipe is one that was passed down to her.  I, though, add finely chopped carrots. They satisfy the sweetness that my palate craves.

I make a pot of gravy once a month on a Sunday.  That day affords me more time; the gravy must simmer for hours.  “I’m going to bring you some real Italian gravy,” I recall each time I stir in the curly parsley, fresh garlic, onions, sweet basil and carrots. Sometimes I add some type of Italian sausage, sometimes beef, sometimes nothing.

I attach the lid and before long the aroma bombards the air. It’s pleasurable.  My mind rests at a beautiful countryside almost nine hours outside the United States where acres of sunflowers bloom brightly in July and confirm that yellow is indeed the “happy” color.  At a communal table at San Marco, where fifteen, sometimes more of us – diverse in age, culture and gender – greet each other every morning with a hearty “buongiorno.”  At a place where there is no shortage of wine or watermelon or Carla’s fresh tomatoes.

A place of no shortage of ordinary people with welcoming arms.

My mind skips through the quaint towns of Bevagna, Spello, Assisi, Spoleto.  Through spiraled and hilly cobblestone streets, as wide as alleyways with stoned-wall apartment-like homes lined on each side and littered with red and green and purple and yellow blossoms of sorts. Cloth ropes unabashedly lined with panties and tee shirts and other items of importance, lead me back to my Aunt Lily’s backyard in Smithfield, North Carolina where three cloth lines serve her faithfully.  Her whites never dull.  They need fresh air, she always says.  I rest at the thoughts of midday at the village square where natives and visitors alike gather for fare and wine and good company, and I remember the people who smiled and posed for me as I captured a snapshot of their lives, in their space, so that I could recall those brief moments forever.

Grazie, grazie.


The bubbling of the pot always brings me back, and I hurry to check on its contents. I lift the lid slowly to avoid any splattering and inhale.  Then I stir just a little. You don’t want to bother it too much, Nan admonished.  At that moment, I find delight in the thought that someone somewhere — here and abroad — has a pot of gravy simmering along with mine. And, I feel connected.

I will pass my gravy recipe (yes, I have claimed it) down to my granddaughter.  She is to promise never to prepare it under time constraints.  She will recognize the importance of allowing it to simmer, and I will implore her to sit in the midst of the aroma – if only for five minutes – and breath it all in:  the tomatoes, the basil, the onions, the garlic, the bubbling.  In honoring Italian custom, she’s to NEVER call it “sauce, ” and she’s to promise to pass down the recipe, and the stories – both mine and hers, of what the smell of her Mi Mi’s gravy, bubbling on the stove, means to her.


Monique Clark is a writer who lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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Parere: Percepire che pensiamo l’immigrato è — la percezione di un lettore di Diana Mirea

Perception is a tricky thing.  Perhaps, to be misunderstood or misperceived is one of the worst feelings.   And dislodging preconceived notions of something or someone is, in so many cases, impossible.  Prejudice survives, in fact thrives in nearly every corner of the world. It is insidious.  It has gradations.  How we perceive the world and the people in it has a lot to say about who we are and where we have come from.

When I posted the piece about Diana Mirea, an immigrant from Romania living in Sicily, I thought her representation about herself balanced and in many ways, brilliant.  She spoke with some desperation of her situation, but also with sheer guts and determination of knowing herself—knowing who she is in the world and not afraid to be vulnerable in the piece.  She is a woman, living in the world, grateful for what she has, but understands she deserves more.   She has experiences many prejudices due to the fact that she is a female, Romanian, and immigrant and educated.  You are probably wondering why anyone would discriminate against her for being educated.   Well, think about that.   So we have the first parts:  female, immigrant, Romanian.  If I just gave you those three words, perhaps you might form a picture in your mind of the stereotype of the “Roma” the gypsies of Romania.  Your minds’ eye may very make Diana or someone like here look like this:  gold tooth, long skirt, uneducated, rude, aggressive.  But Diana Mirea is not a Roma.  And she is not a gypsie.   And she fits none of the descriptors I’ve listed above.

Romanian immigrant, Diana, in Sicily

That did not stop a self-professed “occasional reader” (of my blog) from e-mailing me , somewhat confused about my latest post.  His confusion seems to have stemmed from the fact that Diana Mirea simply was not what he was expecting in my immigrant profile.  She was too beautifulToo educated. In addition, she seemed to be getting by without any of the breast-beating angst and poverty he felt befitting of someone who deserved sympathy.  Make no mistake: Diana Mirea does not need nor want sympathy from anyone.  She wants a job befitting her level of experience and education, which is impressive, to say the least. She wants a chance at having that just like anyone else.  My reader was not rude—not at all, and, as I would with my students, used the opportunity to seize upon a “teachable moment.”  I needed time before I could respond to his message.  I wanted him to understand, but, in the end, that would be his responsibility, not mine.

This is how it works

Shahram Khosravi, an Associate Professor of Social Anthropolgy at Stockholm University,  details in his  2010 book Illegal Traveller: An Auto-Ethnography of Borders, of how those who cross borders are expected to present themselves in ways that fulfill the expectations of what many believe, in Khosravi’s case, a refugee, to be.  But this applies to immigrants, migrants and asylum-seekers, too. That often means speaking the language in a broken way, groveling, or of acting with an air of bad luck and willing to bear the responsibility of what is wrong in any given society.   And perception rears its head, once again.

And so, I wrote to my “occasional reader.”  I began , “ I want to challenge your perceptions. . . “

I waited, not sure how long it would take him to respond.  But he did, in short order.

I held my breath and read his words:

“I accept your challenge. I’m listening.”

Understanding often begins this way  and these are the kinds of conversations i love to have  And I am grateful that I have the opportunity.

Diana Mirea, Immigrata Romena in Sicilia: La Lotta Contro Tanti Pregiudizi

Diana Mirea, gives a first-person account of her life as a Romanian immigrant living in Sicily, and fighting to survive against many different kinds of prejudice and discrimination.

I came to Italy in 1997 as a handball coach for La Polisport Siracusa Seria A1 (  a top league for women’s handball ), I ended up playing also, even though I was a bit old , but to make sure they payed me , I had to play all the games because we needed players.

Diana Mirea

When I left this field , I was so shocked  when I decided to stay and live in Siracusa, Sicily.  I could not find   find a job to satisfy  my university title.   I have a degree in economy and society managing.  People kept  offering me jobs as a house maid job  and  a cleaner ,  but  nothing else was offered .  They would   only look at my citizenship  not at my CV.  Once they would they meet me in person, then they would just want to go to bed with me.  I am tall and blond and even though I am 51 years old, men here are only interested in getting in my bed or taking me in theirs.

Sometimes I want to scream.   I want to say to every body :  please read my CV! I want a job ! I don’t want to be the “baby” of  the man in charge. . .

I have suffered enough here, for sure.    I love siracusa , I love sicily , and  I have many good friends , but as an immigrant I suffer, as a single women I suffer. As a Romanian I am not appreciated . My son Robert came here with me to Sicily and went to Italian school.  He  went back to Bucarest to work after earning  his diploma here.  Now, back at home in Romania where life is easier for him.  He goes to university and has a job, he is enjoying his life , he is doing well, and that  make me feel better.

I can go back home to and have a great life. . . but that would mean , that I failed, that  I failed in making my way , in affirming my stay here. . .  so I accept the challenge and I will stay to fight for the next generation of good Romanians . . . I know very well that there are Romanians doing bad things here, but this does not mean that we area all the same! And it doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve to live in peace and with dignity. . .

I have noticed that people don’t want to give a chance to others only for one reason…  they want to dominate us . . . to keep people like us  under their wing … and  all of this reminds me of  the regime that we had in Romania .

When I ran away from the life I had and from my husband, I knew what I wanted, but I feel left all on my own by those who call themselves “ethical,” who think they do things to help other people.  But , you know what?  I am a winner, because I will never accept a compromise.

I want to try to restart my life, investing all my knowledge and experience do great things.  I want to really be able to feel at home. . . not a house, but to feel wanted.  I also want to help people who are in need.   I know very well that I can help people where I am here in Sicily .  But I need a chance.  Only a chance.














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Progetto di Claudia Cipriano di unità: Altremaree Music Festival, Floridia, Sicilia

Altremaree, a music festival in Floridia, Sicily was the idea of Floridian Councilor for Culture, Claudia Cipriano, who had a vision of  unity: east meets west in a celebration of music and culture.  When celebrations of this sort take place, people begin to see the similarities in eachother and not the differences.  Music is a universal language, one that you need not be educated in; music only asks that you respond to it and enjoy it.

Assessore, Claudia Cipriano, Floridia

The Tunisian Artistic Director, Ramzi Harrabi,who received honorable for
Intercultural Dialogue Mediterranea,  worked with Claudia’s vision in order to blend the Italian culture with Tunisian culture.  This was done in surprising and often ingenious ways.  For instance,  a “casbah” was constructed within a mini-eastern district, placed in the heart of Floridia, including Berber tents and other aspects of Tunisian culture.

In Floridia

Tunisian immigration is very prominent in Sicily, thus necessitating the constant interaction between Sicilians and Tunisians that span all aspects of both business and social situations.  This festival has brought together business people, artists, designers, and others in a week-long cultural exchange.  Events were inventive and fun, including cooking classes, poetry readings, dance classes and some events specifically targeted to children.

Musica e Popoli

Claudia Cipriano sees the importance of reaching the younger generation in order to foster an environment of acceptance and understanding of different cultures and seeking to dismantle the old preconceived notions of immigrants in generations that have come before.   This event involved children from the Youth Council,whose participation is seen as a positive step towards the awareness and acceptance of a more open society that goes way beyond the confines of Floridia itself, and out into the world.

Tunisian Flag

While heavy rain fell on Sunday , nothing could dampen the  great strides the festival will have undoubtedly made towards  cultural awareness and interfaith understanding. Smart women like Claudia Cipriano know that effects of such a festival  can influence so many people in so many places, for the good of all.

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“La vita per chi come noi è molto difficile”: job rate for immigrants in Italy drops

My friend Mody, a Sudanese immigrant in Sicily, is looking for a job.

In fact, for Mody, looking for a job is a full-time job in and of itself and one that he is serious about.   For the most part, immigrants, particularly men in Sicily, will work jobs in agriculture—farm work that requires long hours in the hot sun, for minimal pay and few, if any breaks.  This is work that Mody is willing to do, but even that is hard to find.  During one conversation, I try to be encouraging to Mody, telling him things will get better, that work will, eventually, be found.  “Really, Michelle, you have a too a good view of things here. . . “, He said, and I felt utterly ashamed.  Platitudes are rarely, if ever, helpful, and they are really as hollow as they sound.  Now, I just listen.  He often sounds utterly desperate.  And his time at the center is dwindling.  Then he will have to leave and will be expected to make his own way in Sicilian society, which includes, of course, work that can sustain him.

Mody’s dirty job; snakes and other encounters

But what is the reality?

ANSAmed reported in August, that the fallout form Italy’s financial crisis is causing a ‘decrease in hires’, which translates into approximately 22,420 less new jobs for non-season jobs—work to be found in small companies.  Reportedly, this will affect mostly regions in Northern Italy, where, previously, 27,000 more jobs were available last year.  ANSAmed also reports, though that overall, companies are still expecting to hire a maximum of 113,000 foreign workers and that for jobs there will be a very slight hiring increase.  Which jobs they will be, exactly, are not indicated.

Mody's Tunisian friend

Like platitudes, statistics mean nothing to Mody and others like him.  He had worked in Arabic translation for an oil company, for a time. Such opportunities do not present themselves very often, though.  He longs for independence and wants to live the “quiet life.” Only a job can make that possible.  But this is the reality of life in a new and unfamiliar country. Of late, he found a temporary job of cleaning plastic  along with his Tunisian friend. It is a dirty job; often they come upon snakes and other things in the dirt.  But for now,  it is something, at least.


Cleaning the plastic

Mody tells me that in about five months the center in which he and other men from various places have been staying, will release them into the world to make it on their own. “It is all just a matter of time, “ he says.

Long days in the hot sun

The summer has been long, drawn out  and hot .“Mamma Mia , this heat, “ he says.  Then he turns reflective.  “ Life for people like us is very difficult.”  I say nothing.  No platitudes, no empty promises, no pity.  Just the hope that his situation will eventually change for the better.  Still, and amazingly so, he is grateful for whatever it is he already has. And it isn’t much.

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