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 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.
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 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.”