Monthly Archives: October 2012

Interview With Lampedusan Activist , Giacomo Sferlazzo: “Trying to change the world and realizing that the biggest risk is to be changed by the world.”


Giacomo Sferlazzo

Giacomo Sferlazzo is a most gracious man.  He is also a very busy man so I am so grateful that he could take the time to answer so many questions.  He is thoughtful and selfless.  And an inspiration.   Those coming to Lampedusa from so far away are , amidst much misfortune, lucky to have the activists of Lampedusa, of which Giacomo is one, fighting, endlessly for their rights, every single day.  If you think you know the story of Lampedusa, you probably don’t.  Sferlazzo’s words paint a portrait of the island in ways I did not imagine.

You are an important activist and Lampedusa. How did  you  come to  do this work?
I do not know if there are  important activists. I have always wanted to improve things around me, certainly improve them according to my way of seeing life. Lampedusa has an important role in the Mediterranean, the thousands of people who pass by here, for me there are only humanity to be welcomed, but they are history, with all its injustices and its expectations. I became an activist because I want to work on the story, of course with the minimum means that I have, of course along with others, founded the Association Askavusa, to which I belong, was one of the decisions that have accelerated this process of politicization of my life . I believe in community and culture are a weapon. Thomas Sankara, who is one of my models, he said:
For imperialism is more important to dominate culturally and militarily. Cultural domination is the most flexible, the most effective, least expensive. Our task is to decolonize our thinking.

Thomas Sankara

What I do is in this sense, and I realize that every day there  is work to do on one’s self. Being an activist in Lampedusa means to be an activist in the world, we must first understand how much we do not know, as we are ignorant, because our mind is colonized.

You are an accomplished musician — and  you have an album that  is dedicated to Lampedusa entitled “Lampemusa” —- — implying that Lampdusa inspires you. Tell me about  this.
Lampedusa for me is a land  that is epic, magical, mythical, spiritual,  it is the periphery and center at the same time, we are in and out of the story at the same time. The sea and the sky in Lampedusa are like two bodies that love constantly, this huge blue and this always have in front of the horizon, you are faced constantly indefinitely. For me Lampedusa is the place where you are reborn, as they say many migrants, the sun, the moon and the stars you see in this way so sharp. I make a clear distinction between Lampedusa and feel like a living being and Lampedusa, and I make this distinction even between the world and its inhabitants. Lampedusa, we say we love our island, but in reality the processes  of capitalism / consumerism also made  Lampedusa an object to be exploited for profit. If I have to look at Lampedusa from this point of view, but also the world, I see it as a wonderful mother tortured by their children.

How  do you  use music as activism?
For me, music is many things. Among these there is also the political and cultural activism.

Sferlazzo in the studio
Photo by Fabrizio Caperchi

I can tell what is happening in their lives and to look at  this particular story is important to the universal, of course if you have a life in which the ultimate desire is to have a new car, a cell phone, lots of money etc. etc., then the songs that will come out will be of some militants in the sense that we understand it. Pass through music messages, position papers. I think that is  the key to all of this is. I’m not sure you’re right, I always leave room for doubt, but that does not stop me from taking a stand and do what I  can because this position will prevail. The thing that feels more dangerous to me is the absence of stances. When no one is  an express how they feel it leaves the field open to indecision, non-choice, then , with their  strong interests , they can act more easily, making their own interests to the detriment of the community. The music, like art, must take a stand if you want to be militant, and I think an important aspect of my music is this:I take position with my songs and say what I think on political, philosophical and cultural, but music you can add many adjectives militant music, religious music, folk music, etc etc. the music is not to be defined is a means by which we can improve things, they can increase men more effectively than they can do politics or science. In that sense, I hope that my music will become increasingly militant.

With regard to the immigration museum in Lampedusa, why is it important to be the curator of the objects left by faceless, nameless lives Has it had an impact?
It is an  extremely important thing is to save the history of mankind.  This means to preserve what many humans have brought with them on  the most important journey of their lives, a journey that is sometimes the last one they will have. It Means restoring humanity to these masses too often deprived of their individual stories, their bodies, their emotions, their ideas, their words. Among some time when the children, the grandchildren, of these people will come to Lampedusa to look for traces of their history will find objects, photos, letters belonged to their ancestors, this will be very important. There are two aspects: the spiritual and the political, which in this museum need to overlap, reporting and analysis of what is happening in Africa with the new imperialism, and the evocation of values, emotions, needs that are common to all the ‘humanity. These objects have the power to do this.

Museo delle Migrazioni

What is a typical day in your life?
Fortunately I do not have typical days.

How  do the people of Lampedusa  feel about  the influx of immigrants to the island? I  have heard, for example, both extremes of emotion.
Many believe that it is a detriment to the island, others understand that Lampedusa save lives and make their contribution because it continues to happen. Let’s say that the island is divided.

Waiting on Lampedusa

You seem to give so much of yourself to the cause — do you ever feel that it is hopeless? That things can and will never change?
It sometimes I get this feeling, like impotence. I think the most important reason is the revolution we need to do each of us, of ourselves. That is the most difficult and complicated, but it’s something we can act directly and without apology of any kind. As for what happens outside of us there are so many factors that we can not control, when we want to change our behavior these factors are significantly reduced. To give a concrete example, decide not to eat meat and fish depends on us, and it is a very important ethical and political choice. Not to buy certain products depends on us, using cars less dependent on us, watch less TV, read more, strive for the common good and not the private etc etc. They are all little things that add up to make a big step forward. This comforts me and motivates me: I can change my life.

Please describe Lampedusa me. 

Lampedusa is a small rock in the middle of the Mediterranean island really is an island, because it is far away from the mainland. Lampedusa has a very unique history and place more meaningful, evocative and important, that sums up a bit ‘all the island’s history and character, is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Porto Salvo of Lampedusa. This site was created as a hermit, was a cave transformed into a place of worship, there was a hermit who officiated the double worship, Christian and Muslim, according to those who arrived on the island (Christian or Muslim), that between the ‘ other was a free port, in the sense that if two ships were making war, arrived in the waters of Lampedusa no longer fighting, he gave respite. In this sanctuary there was an oil lamp on all the time, which was fed by both Christians and Muslims, who left in the sanctuary: strings, cookies, working tools, oil, coins and many other things, a legend said that if someone took something from the sanctuary, leaving nothing in return, remained stuck on the island from the storms, and there are several stories about this.

Another great story is that of Andrea Anfossi, slave of the Turks who arrived in Lampedusa to stop and get provisions, they leave without the slave who had sheltered in the sanctuary. At that time (we are in the sixteenth century) in the sanctuary there was a painting of the Madonna and Child and Saint Catherine.
Legend has it that Andrea Anfossi dig a tree trunk and used the framework as a sail and came to the beach near the home of Taggia dell’Anfossi: Castellaro Ligure, where he was a church dedicated to Our Lady of Lampedusa and where it is still guarded the picture. Another church dedicated to Our Lady of Porto Salvo of Lampedusa is in Brazil, founded by slaves around the eighteenth century, who built with his own hands. Every year on May 12 in the church at Avenida Pasos, we celebrate the redemption of millions of human beings exploited and humiliated by slavery.

On 22 September 1843 Lampedusa was settled on behalf of the Bourbons by an expedition led by Bernardo Sanvisente who wanted to coincide with the religious public holiday, in fact September 22, is celebrated with a procession of Our Lady of Porto Salvo of Lampedusa. They lived on fishing until the mid-eighties, then Gaddafi in 1986 threw two missiles trying to hit the base born who headed west and all the media talked about the island. I was a child and I remember two things in particular of those years: the speed with which the island changed from year to year more and more tourists came, sticking more and more houses for rent, hotels, rentals, pizzerias, all built anywhere, without any criterion , abusively and many left the fishing for sightseeing. The other thing I remember is that suddenly appeared on Lampedusa maps, even there, we were there but not exactly where we needed to be, the Pelagie were represented in a square near Sicily, because otherwise it would stretch far the map to the south.

Immigration was another turning point for the island, for me it is a great opportunity that we have, in addition to saving lives Lampedusa can become a major cultural center in the Mediterranean, but now you have to work to get results in a few decade. The powerful have always used the island as a base or military or prison. Today there are so many things that do not work on the island and all governments at national, regional and especially local, have not done much to improve the situation, but we have not done much. The most critical are the school, which has adequate facilities to carry out educational activities, health: the island there is only one first-aid and specialists come once a week, there is a strong disease-specific mortality on this yet studies have been done, but the situation is critical. Transport for an island are of vital importance, remain precarious, especially in winter, and many other things that I’m not here to say, because it would take a lot of space and a minimum depth to understand better. I think that Lampedusa has an enormous potential, but must first look at its history and its recent past linked to the fishery and to a more communal life, we need to share more and talk more and then absolutely must create a network with the ‘ Linosa belonging to the same town of Lampedusa. The thing that I suggest to all who come to Lampedusa during a period of low season, maybe in the winter, because  it is then the island speaks and  knows how to listen can hear many things.
I know that people have a lot of misconceptions about what happens in the place where so many with so much hope at the end of the earth — what are some of these misconceptions

Sferlazzo with ruins of boats

The idea of ​​an island invaded, many arriving on the island believe they will find thousands of migrants on the streets that “invade” the island, this was built by the Berlusconi government and the media have used this for their campaigns election, for their economy. 2011 was a special year and shameful and images of those months have gone around the world, speaking to many students who arrive on the island from all over the world, they tell me that the image is still that of Lampedusa, of ‘island packed with migrants. The other misconception we have on the island of Lampedusa, which we believe is Rimini or Ibiza Lampedusa, Lampedusa is unique for its history, for its role in the Mediterranean and has for its natural beauty, we must safeguard these beauties and encourage other models of life and tourism.

Can you share a story about hope of the island?
Yes: the island’s history is a story of hope.

What is the hardest part of the work you do?
Trying to change the world and realizing that the biggest risk is to be changed by the world.

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Askavusa, Lampedusa, and a Meditation on the Condition of the Refugee


Refugees live in a divided world, between countries in which they cannot live, and countries in which they may not enter. —-Elie Wiesel

Askavusa is a Lampedusa-based association which is doing their part to honor the  brave and often nameless , faceless hordes who have attempted to arrive safely to shore on the island of Lampedusa with their museum of immigration.  This museum is curated by Italian activists Annalisa D’Ancona and Gianfranco Vitale.

Italian activists, Annalisa D’Ancona and Gianfranco Vitale

In a small house in which they themselves pay the rent (their efforts are not publicly supported), they  maintain and house various objects collected from the abandoned boats, emptied of their human cargo, but leaving behind the precious momentos of life:  photos, letters, clothing, talismans, shoes, etc.  It is a simple and unadorned collection, beautiful in their starkness, each object telling a story of its own.  This collection is a testament to the migratory experience of the 21st century.

These boats arrived from Libya and North Africa overloaded with men , women and children escaping the untenable.  These vessels of life, but just as often , of death, are in various places: in public dumps, or inside of the military base of Punta Ponente.   Some will be destroyed.

Discarded boats at Lampedusa

Always on my mind is  the nether world of the refugee.  There are so many reasons why someone becomes a refugee–war, famine, politically motivated violence rendering one’s homeland a veritable hell,  but one commonality of the refugee experience is the “divided” world that the refugee inhabits.   The invisibility and utter desperation of  being a non-person, and having to justify and validate your own horror to the authorities in an attempt to save your own life  is a trial most of us could not bear.

I have a friend who tells me that people cross borders because they desire something—there is something that they want.   While I think that is true in the case of immigrants, for the refugee, “want” and “desire” seem so capricious, like a whim, the ultimate luxury. It implies a choice in the matter. In fact, the condition of the refugee  is the opposite: their’s is one of  dire need—-for safety, for food, for a roof over one’s head for stability in any form it may present itself.   Refugees do not have the luxury of waking in warm and cozy beds, and, while sipping their tea, deciding where they may want to travel—for a change of pace or for a better job.  The refugee is fleeing something horrible.  Something horrific.  Something that many of us could not imagine enduring. Loss  of a country, of a homeland, is another  a state of mind  altogether. This is a loss that sticks like glue. It permeates everything.

Darwish, appropriately, with his beloved coffee

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish most eloquently spoke to this condition in his extended prose poem, Memory of Forgetfulness , a gorgeous mediation, if one’s account of loss can indeed be described in such a way, of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.  Darwish, now deceased, uses doves, birth, death and his beloved coffee, his favorite beverage that symbolized , to him, normalcy and the civilized life, something that war and the denial of a homeland  deprived him of.  This deprivation is a universal condition when applied to refugees.

Mayor of Lampedusa

While  the activists of Askavusa Association and Giusi Nicolini, the compassionate mayor of Lamedusa, try to keep the plight of the refugees in the forefront of the public consciousness, they receive racist assaults by Gruppo Armato Lampedusa Libera (The Armed Free Lampedusa Group)  for their efforts.  Intimidation tactics aside, they continue their work. As for the amazing people at Asksavusa, I cannot say enough good things about them. To my knowledge, there is not another archive like this that exists. D’Ancona and Vitale are the custodians of these  precious personal items left behind by the ever-hopeful in haste as they reached the shore ; and of  those that never arrived—their small personal items, the only things they could carry,  surviving , with a sickening irony, the journey that  they themselves could not.

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Interview: Fred Gardaphe, Professor of Italian-American Studies: “We need new ways of imagining identities that transcend the traps of nationalism to bring people of all cultures together”


In the midst of posting about issues on all aspects of crossing borders as well as the profiles of people that I meet, I like to intersperse aspects of Italian-Americana.  My interest in borders began very early on in my life, with my acute awareness of my own cultural identity.  So, in essence , I am continually crossing borders in my own life:  immersing myself in the quagmire of identity, the nation state, borders, immigration, refugees and all other texts and subtexts, from Sicily to my home in the suburbs of Philadelphia , etc. etc. etc.  So here, I cross another border into the world of the Italian-American intellectual by asking Dr. Fred Gardaphe, questions about immigration, identity , the future of Italian-American culture and other things.

In the spirit of self-disclosure, I want to say that  Fred Gardaphe is the very top of my list of Italian-Americans to admire—and my list is a long one.  I am proud of who he is. I have long followed his work and through his writings have found ideas that have both excited and challenged me.  I am proud, too,  of the fact that despite the stereotype of Italian-Americans as “anti-intellectual” —he is a true thinker; a man of ideas and scholarship.

Dr. Fred Gardaphe is the Distinguished Professor of Italian-American Studies at Queens College, The City University of New York. He was born of immigrants in the mean streets  of Melrose Park, a suburb of Chicago.   As a way to escape the increasing violence of the streets ; his father , grandfather and godfather all died lost their lives’ to violence. Gardaphe translated these tragedies by trying to understand them within the context of the Italian-American experience, playing a trailblazing role in the establishment of Italian-American studies in various Universities around the country.  To both escape and understand his experience, he became a scholar.  Dr. Gardaphe  readily agreed to answer my questions about the Immigrant and Italian-American experience.  While he would never claim to speak for all of us, his answers provide a new perspective and a new direction in how we think about “identity” in an increasingly complicated world.

The flags

Please tell me about the intersection of your identity as an Italian-American man and your professional academic life.

I don’t see the need to separate the personal from the professional and so there are many intersections between my work in Italian American studies and my identity as an Italian American.  My identity is as unconscious as it is conscious and in that I find a balance that takes me through life enjoying what I do for a living in that I live for doing, for being.

Fred Gardaphe

What are your particular research interests?

Right now I’m interested in humor and its affects on human behavior.  I’ve always been somewhat of a class clown, even as a teacher, and so I thought I’d better study it to understand it.  I am working on a book on Humor and Irony in Italian American culture, but before I write it, I am reading every book I can find on the subject and teaching courses so that I can learn more about it before I have my chance to write what I think about it.

Dagoes Read by Fred Gardaphe

What does (or doesn’t) it mean to you to be Italian-American?

Being Italian American means a unique way of being American.  I thought I was Italian American by just being born with this ancestry, but I find that to be a good Italian American I had to learn about all the other ethnic identities and then more deeply investigate Italian and American cultures so that I could draw the most out of both.  It’s more than physical, it’s more than material, there is a spiritual quality about it, especially when you study it, that connects you to the most ancient aspects of life.

How do you feel the culture is (or isn’t ) different from other “hyphenated” cultures?

Italian American culture is like so many other cultures in many ways.  What differs is the way we approach the idea of being American.  We assimilated so quickly into American culture, out of fear, desperation, hope, and need that we lost things like language and a sense of history beyond the family (and sometimes we even lost our family histories).  What happens then is that when you begin to study, to learn about what was, you begin to see things differently and imagine more.  I see much of being Italian American as a way of being connected to traditions that need to change in order to adapt to the changing world around us.  You have to know the traditions, know how they have affected our past, and use the present to imagine positive futures for the beauty and truths we uncover about our cultures.

What does Italian immigration to the United States look like today?

Today it seems to be that the Italian immigration is not much unlike the past.  It is the youth of Italy who look around and don’t see a place for themselves in the future of Italy—the same way my grandparents looked around during their youth and decided to take a chance elsewhere, and so they are leaving, not only the educated youth, but the adventurous youth.

The Art of Reading Italian Americana by Fred Gardaphe

(Mis)-Representations of Italian-Americans is legendary—one only need to look at the most recent spate of television shows, reality and otherwise , that are insistent in their portrayal of Italian-Americans.  Can you comment on this?

This happens because others have lead the way in representing Italian American culture to the masses.  What we have before us today is simply fodder for entertainment that gets confused for education.  Italian Americans have never done much, as a group, to reveal the realities of what it means to be Italian American, at least not on a level par with what has been done in mass media.  If we took the time to develop our youth, to educate them as to our histories, to reflect their realities in our media, then we might not have such one-sided representations.

How do you feel the immigrant experience changes someone?  

Typically it takes someone out of their comfort zone and challenges them to be able to find ways of surviving.  The key is to find and maintain the confidence that one’s ancestral culture has values that can be shared by others.  We need to understand why it is people immigrate, what happens to them when they do, and then we will all see that everyone goes through similar experiences as them progress through life. 

Leaving Little Italy by Fred Gardaphe

Are you acquainted with Italian immigration policies and controversies?  What do you think of them?

I’m not connected to the legalities of it all.  I see much of it as a throwback to the old notions of nation building and in this transnational, transglobal world of today; the old ideas are wearing thin.  We need new ways of imagining identities that transcend the traps of nationalism to bring people of all cultures together.

In your opinion, What is the worst stereotype of Italian-Americans?  For instance, mine is that we are anti-intellectual.

Stereotypes are necessary in story telling, but dangerous in history telling.  The most dangerous ones for me are the ones that we ourselves believe.  We need to acknowledge those qualities that have been shaped into stereotypes (such as those that come from the working class experiences), and show the world that there is more to us than the surfaces of those stereotypes.  Whether it’s the gangster, the old, sainted mothers, the stubborn, protective fathers, the inarticulate beauties or the stupid brutes, these stereotypes won’t matter much if Italian Americans can stand with the confidence that comes from truly knowing our own histories and acting on our informed imaginations.

From Wiseguys to Wise Men by Fred Gardaphe

Finally, what do you think of the future of Italian-American culture, such as it is?

I think that the old notion of Italian American culture as practiced in the public organizational models will die out.  A greater diversity of what it means to be Italian American will rise out of its dust and there will be many ways of being Italian American.  Through identity-building and identity-stretching education, future Italian Americans will no doubt look very different from what we consider the Italian American is today.

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Morrocan Immigrant in Salina: Mohamed, 11 years old


Walking through the winding, steep streets of Salina one day with my friends, we come upon a boy with his father—acquaintances of my companions. The boy,  Mohamed, as I would later find out his name, was one of the most handsome kids I’d ever seen. He greeted us in the familiar Muslim fashion along with a gesture I have come to love as the epitome of sincerity, goodwill and gentleness:  the touching of the heart with the right hand.  A few pleasantries were exchanged and then father and son went their way and we went ours.   The sun was so hot that day and the heat nearly unbearable as we made our way up the steep hills .  I could not get Mohamed out of my mind.  I wondered what his life is like in Sicily.

Mohamed

Sicily has a decent Moroccan population  on the island of Salina.  It is a very tight-knit and organized community.  In general, my inquiries coupled with my own observations are testament to the fact that the immigrant and native populations get along very well.  In fact, most immigrants, despite the dearth of work on the island, are quite happy to be there and do not complain of the alienation or maltreatment that immigrants in other places in Sicily are plagued by.  This could be , of course, due to the simple fact that it is prudent to live in harmony on an island—-everyone knows everyone else and live in close proximity to one another, pass each other on the same roads every day and market in the same limited choice of markets.

Sitting in the front yard one day, I see a small handsome face looking at me through the wrought-iron gate.  Mohamed was asking me if my friend, Ramzi, was in.  I told him he was and he came in and sat down  with his hands in his lap and waited.  I grabbed my notebook (never far from me) and began asking Mohamed some questions in Italian.  Polite to a fault, he answered quietly and with a dignity that many three times his age do not possess.  I find out that Mohamed is eleven years old.  He has two sisters.  He was born in Morocco, and came to Salina at the age of eight.    He loves Salina, truly. He tells me.  “Questa e Il mio posto.” (This is my home/place)

Mohamed speaks Italian  and is learning English as well as Arabic in order to keep his roots to his homeland. Many of these immigrants will return, unfortunately, without skills, to their mother countries, only to become immigrants, once again, in the country in which they were born.  Mohamed, hopefully, will be one of the lucky ones. It is particularly a difficult situation for girls, though.

My friend tells me that he and Mohamed are friends on Facebook and when I feign disappointment and ask him if I can be his friend on Facebook, too, he breaks into a radiant smile and says “Prego!”

He stays for a bit and eats some pomegranate seeds  picked right from the tree in the front yard, out of  glass with a spoon, slowly and carefully.  I look at Mohamed and feel my heart contract:  he has most definitely been raised well.   I ask him if I can take some photos of him. His smile is a shy one, but he quickly agrees:”Si!”  But he won’t really look at the camera which I can’t understand.   He sets his glass down and says he must go home.  He assures me he will come back. Soon.

He is as good as his word and when he returns something is different.   I see he has changed into a fresh shirt and , lo and behold, he has jelled his hair, that now stands up in glistening spikes.  We talk some more and then he gets up to leave. I tell him we will talk again.

It isn’t until after he leaves, that I realize that I failed to take a picture of him in his fresh shirt and his jelled hair.  My friend scolds me with a  disappointed look.  I feel bad. I hope the pictures that I have taken do him justice.  My friend tells me, and I agree, that he predicts great things for Mohamed; he has intelligence and compassion.

A few days later, sitting at an outdoor cafe in the relentless sun, my lemon granita melting quicker than I can eat it, I seem Mohamed, his two sisters and his mother , a serene looking  woman in a soft pink headscarf.  She has just picked her children up from school.  They walk by the cafe and Mohamed’s eyes light up when he sees me.  He waves and calls softly “Ciao!”  Again, my heart contracts.  For all of the stories one can observe and tell about the suffering of immigrants, migrants, and refugees, there are others that are content , dare I say happy.  Mohamed is one among many in a community of immigrants and native Sicilians that definitely  seems to work.

Mohamed’s town

My eyes follow him as his mother, weaving in between cars, guides her children to the side of the road.  Momamed touches his right hand, quickly to his heart.  I touch mine, too, in response.  But he has already turned away.  He puts a protective hand on his younger sister’s back, just as I would expect him to.   They all walk up the hill together.  I notice , with a full heart and  that without fail, they greet everyone that they see.

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Immigrant Profile, Musa Soumah: “I am keeping my smile to use as a passport”.


I first glimpsed Musa while he was sitting with a friend in a cafe in Salina, Sicily.  He looked forlorn and barely raised his  head when my friend Ramzi greeted him: “Salam Wa Alaikum!”  With some effort, Musa smiled, weakly, responding in the familiar Muslim way: “Wa Alaikum Salam.”  Later, we found out that Musa had just gotten word that his mother had passed away.  Musa Soumah is a native of Guinea and was mourning his mother deeply. It was the latest sorrow piled upon so many  others that he has had to deal with lately.

Musa Soumah

Musa is homeless, but he wasn’t always in this situation.  He had come to Sicily with the promise of a job.  Rather than through a treacherous route across the Mediterranean with the aid of a human trafficker, Musa actually flew into Salina, on his own,  and worked for a time in a hotel on the island.  He was making enough money to support his wife and his seven year old son back home.  He worked hard and had a sense of accomplishment, feeling luckier than most.  But then he lost his job.  And for the past five months, he has been without a job and without a  home—or even a regular place to sleep.

Musa is young, but has the air of someone much older, careworn.  He is very thin, which make his expressive eyes look very, very large.  He speaks softly and slowly, almost as if the effort  to do so is  just too much.  I want to ask him how he eats , where he sleeps, washes himself. Almost as if sensing my curiosity he offers: “I live in places around Salina, like old houses that have walls , but no roof.  Every night I sleep in a different place; wherever I can.”

Out of a small , black shoulder bag, Musa produces his passport, proud of the document that allowed him to travel legally, with dignity.  He allows me to take a picture of it.  The man in the passport, young and hopeful,  is a different one that is watching me look at his picture. I look into Musa’s eyes and smile, but he is weary.   I am not sure if telling his story feels cathartic or if it just brings to the surface the hurt and disappointment he tries to sublimate.

Musa’s Passport

I ask him why he doesn’t leave Salina and go somewhere else in search of work.   He smiles and tell me that he loves the place and he knows everyone.  I can well understand  and cannot imagine the effort it would take him to pick up and leave for another place—and with what resources?  “I only know the road from the airport to Salina—I know no other road.”

As well, Musa tells me that his employment ended at a “vulnerable” time:  his passport, was due to expire, but he did not have the 300 Euro to pay for the renewal.   And money is a difficult subject.  His brother kept his earnings.  He never saw a dime of that money, realizing that his elder brother used the money for what his own wife and children needed. He said “I am so afraid to ask my brother for the money.  This is a cultural aspect of my culture: the elder brother dominates the others. It is a dictatorship in the home.”  Of his mother, he speaks with unbridled love and admiration, and tells of the sacrifices she made for him and his siblings.   And he credits her, a good Muslim woman, with the reason he no longer drinks:  he promised his mother he would never drink and has, and intends to keep, his promise.   Musa considers himself a good Muslim, and notes that while the Moroccan community on Salina has a mosque he could attend, he prefers to pray at home.  He tells me that the prophet Muhammad was against racism , but sometimes those at the mosque are racist. And then sometimes they treat him okay.

Musa Soumah

Musa seems tired.  Finally, he tells me , ” I am sad.  I am deeply offended by so many things, but I manage to hide it.  I am a foreigner, I can’t go around with an angry and sad face.  If you are a foreigner, you better be joyful, otherwise if you show any negativity or sadness, people won’t talk to you or sit next to you.   It is a very small community and it is better  that I keep them all friends.    But speaking to you I can tell you that I am full of anger, delusion and sadness.   But, I am keeping my smile to use as a passport.”

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