Or is that the other way around? Shaken, but not stirred?
This is my first blog since the end of August 2013. I have been wondering, since then, the value of doing anything to alleviate suffering…not because it is not our duty as human beings, but because there is so very much need/agony/suffering in the world, it seems like a mere drop in a vast, vast ocean. I needed time to process.
After spending time in the refugee camp in early October and in the wake of the horrific Lampedusan tragedy where more than 360 desperate Eritreans lost their lives’, I became overwhelmed by two things: my sense of duty as a human and as an activist and the feeling that I was just bumbling around in the dark. I saw anger, confusion, displacement, sickness, and fear of the unknown and profound homesickness in the camp. I saw this up close and personal. I had people wanting to tell me their stories. These refugees were the Syrians. They abandon their homes. They were young, old, sick, lame, and pregnant. You name it. They were akin to microcosms of their villages and reminiscent of the Palestinians’ flight years ago. In fact, most of the refugees I met were Palestinians, living a relatively good life in Syria. They support Assad. They fear the rebels. Everything I assumed was wrong in this picture. They were educated. They were well spoken. They had dignity. They knew the unfairness with which they were being treated. They were not unduly grateful. They very clearly wanted out of Sicily.
After the visit I experienced a strange shift of emotions. I felt depressed. Looking at my field notes became painful. Reading hard cold statistics lacked the narrative I felt (and still feel deeply) is lacking in truly understanding the refugee problem not just in Italy, which is my focus, but worldwide. I am not a quantitative researcher. While I am acquainted with the statistics, they do not impact me as much looking into the eyes of a refugee, trying to find out who they are individually, listening closely and plucking them from the masses.
Anger is a strong emotion, and there is no dearth of media outlets that delight in reporting the right wing disgust at the refugee situation ( I refuse to use the word “emergency”) in Italy. Days ago, an MP from the despicable Northern League, in one of the most disgraceful displays of xenophobia that I have ever heard of, “blacked up”—used black makeup to darken his face to protest Congolese-born Cecile Kyenge’s post as minister, who he accused her of “favoring negritude,” while claiming (God help me) ,“reverse racism,” because they are given free accommodation. Perhaps someone should acquaint this idiot with what an asylum-seeker or a refugee really is. The Northern League, refusing to be silenced or marginalized, has made in the past, and will continue to do so, a stinking roar over anyone of color aiming to find a better life in Italy. How many times should I ask where is the outrage, but seriously, where is the outrage?
Are we shaken, not stirred to action? Are we stirred, but not shaken enough to action?
Let’s not forget that last year, Cecile Kyenge was called an orangutan by another idiot in the Northern League. While in Italy, I have seen her on television, quiet, wide-eyed. I have heard her criticized by people whose opinion I value: she is not doing enough, she is not qualified for her position, she is a token. I feel disgusted by the rhetoric. One wonders how she and her family, her Italian-born husband and children bear up under such blatant hatred.
I spent a good amount of time in the refugee camp in Sicily just a few weeks ago. What I encountered there were the same conditions as befire, but the players were different this time. No women, just men, mostly from Africa: Gambia, Senegal and Sudan, prominently among them. These were the newly arrived. On one day, I made mental judgment of the trauma I saw in some of their eyes. It frightened me. Their unwillingness to talk. Or wanting to talk too much. The hands that shake, the vacant stares, the proud bodies with shoulders slumped out of exhaustion, boredom or fear. How anyone can spend any time with them and see what they have sacrificed, see the trauma they have suffered and how many years it will take for them (if they ever can) rebuild their lives’ deprived of their family, friends, culture, mother tongue, and meaningful work—and still begrudge them the little (strong emphasis on little) assistance they get? What manner of man or woman can do that?
Am I emotional? Okay, yes, I am emotional. Leave the statistics to someone else, leave the policy makers to do what they do best. I write as a witness. I write as an activist. This is not an intellectual exercise for me.
I return to my field notes, just 10 days after arriving home. It takes strength to face the stories that I heard, the experiences I had there. But it is nothing, nothing compared to what these men have already faced and what they have ahead.
The triumph of the surviving that difficult crossing by sea is short-lived. They find this out almost immediately.
I remember, in October, watching the big groups of Syrian refugees in the camp, preparing to leave. While asylum must be filed for in the first country in which one arrives, the directors of the camp looked the other way as men, women and children, walked through the iron gates and down the long and barren road where the cars with German license plates would be waiting to take them to where they would be offered automatic asylum—Sweden, for a price. They would never be as vulnerable as when they left that camp.
And I watched as the different levels of police—literally turned their heads as they left so as not to be witness . One boy had tied around his waist all of the family’s winter coats. It was October but still frightfully hot in Sicily. They moved slowly, but did not look back.
After witnessing that, I am incapable of ever being indifferent again. In fact, it is hard to imagine how anyone could. I simply can’t unsee or unhear.
Shaken and stirred.