I am a solo traveller. By choice. My work is so important to me, all consuming in fact, that I live in my own head when I am in Sicily. I have so much to process. But this time, I have brought 24 students to Sicily with me. How to teach my students about the vast issues of immigration and migration in the Sicilian context? How to unravel fact from fiction, the hype from the real situation? I have urged them to come to their own conclusions, conduct their own conversations. Look into the eyes of those affected by the no-man’s land that crossing borders seems to bestow upon nearly everyone who undertakes the brave, desperate and risky move.
My friend and colleague, Ramzi, brings us to a Catholic church, where the priest, a defender of the rights of immigrants eventually leads us into the quiet and cavernous church, adorned not with statues of sad-eyed saints and gold brocade, but instead, so much artwork produced by the mostly men to whom the church is a refuge. The priest repeats twice that we must not criticize the artwork , though I cannot imagine why anyone would: it is quite good.
There are a few refugees moving around the perimeter of the lot in front of the church. There is a slant bit of sun, but not much. The men are slightly curious, but seem to lack the energy to approach us. Or maybe they are just shy. I feel ashamed and embarrassed. Why are we here? And then , of course I remember. We have brought them lunch from the market: fresh roasted chickens, french fries, big bulbs of fennel, strawberries , and bread. One of the students offers the ricotta cheese she has bought. We will serve the men lunch inside.
While Ramzi is talking, one man calls out:
“Ramzi! Ramzi! It’s been a long time, man, no?”
The man is short, but with almost waist length dreadlocks, gathered together with a big elastic rubber band. He looks strong. His back is straight and he is muscled. His chin tilts upward, what I have always thought of as the mark of pride in a man. I turn to look at him and he stares right into my eyes. I break from the crowd and approach him, while calling over one of my students, Cynthia, who is on the other side of the crowd. We engage the man in conversation. He is from Liberia. Cynthia is a gentle questioner. The man is intense. He tells us how horrible it is to be so far from his home in Liberia. To be in Sicily where the life of a refugee is a miserable existence. We ask him how he passes his time and his laugh is a bitter one. “I go out for pizza, I come back, I walk around.” He waves his right arm into an arc which encompasses the few men who are in the lot, some leaning on a brick wall. I ask him if I could give him some money. “What would I do with money?” he asks, genuinely puzzled. Cynthia looks at me, her face one of gentle concern.
He needs work. He wants work. There is no work.
We file into the rooms where we will set up the food. A few of the men have prepared the tables for us first, at the request of the priest. I run back to the yard to ask the rest of the men to come in. But before I can say anything, one calls out, “yes, yes, we are coming.”
But, in fact, they don’t.
In two separate little dining rooms, I and my students find what dishes we can in the brightly lit kitchen. The plates, like everything else, are mismatched, which, far from making things dingy, actually lends a coziness to the center that I have not seen in other centers I have been in. The refugee center is devoid of the institutional and sterile look of beige, beige and more beige that we have become so used to in the United States.
We wash and cut the fennel. We slice the bread. We pile the strawberries in a bright bowl. The chicken is still hot and juicy and quite fragrant. We have real plates, but plastic forks. Tall bottles of Pepsi are placed on each table. We wait and then we begin to eat. Ramzi has told the students that the men will come.
But,in fact, they don’t come.
The afternoon wanes and my students are tired. The weak sun shifts a bit, signaling the waning afternoon. I hear the traffic pick up a bit. It is coming to the end of the work day outside the gates of the church. The students were hungry and are now full. Tired. Wanting to get back to our home base.
One refugee actually enters the dining room I am in. He takes a plate. He smiles though speaks to no one. He leaves and I do not know where he has gone. Conversation dies down a bit and then spikes.
We start to clean up. We aim to make things clean and restore the order we disrupted. We were like intruders today and I feel a slight flush of shame.
We wait outside in the lot for all of us to gather. One of my students is a beautiful blonde with a winning smile that no one in Sicily can resist. She cajoles (but does not have to try too hard) one of the refugees to give her a ride on the little motorbike that he has. Before I know it, she is riding on the back, zipping right past our group, her hair flying like the flag of a bright and beautiful place behind her. Before I can protest, they turn around and zip past us again. I feel ill at ease, then angry in what seems, in a way that I cannot even articulate to myself, wrong for my student to have done this. It seemed exploitative in some way. But I didn’t know why.
Then I saw the smile. The man from Liberia had the widest smile I’d ever seen. His eyes were shining. It was the first genuine smile I had seen on any of the men the entire day. My student was taking the chances I had told her to take. She was stepping out of her comfort zone. She had done this in other ways, too. She was spontaneous in a place and with a man who has little opportunity for any spontaneity in his life.
As we left, the men smiled but did not move from the wall. One tinkered with a broken bicycle, which is what he was doing when we arrived. A few waved. One called out “ciao” loudly, perhaps glad to see the back of us. I imagined they were glad to see us go. I waited for one of my students to ask why we came; what was the point?
But they didn’t ask. Not yet. But they will. And not just about why we came. But about other things , too. And , as it sometimes happens, I won’t have any of the right answers. But I will try to figure things out. Ramzi tells me that the men did not participate because they are without hope and know that our encounter will not change things. I believe this to be true. I have the uncomfortable feeling of filing in with so many students as we are witness to lives’ of misery. One thing I will tell my students is that , amongst other things, we can tell our stories. And we can listen to the stories of others. Our narratives are a form of social action. But then they must go beyond simply narrative. Then, as usual, I will try to convince myself of the same thing.
The work continues.