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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