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.
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.
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.