What one first notices is the absence of things , or perhaps Things , with a capital T. Walking up the winding , marble steps of the refugee center, this one , primarily for women refugees from Somalia, one is struck by the absence of sound. The absence of voices. The absence of television. The absence of the sound of children. Women take up so little space, do not cause the “sprawl” here in the center, where they live, as they would in their own homes. One wonders. realistically, how anyone in anyway could construe this place as “home”. And of course the idea is not to get too comfortable, but this seems extreme. At worst, unwelcoming.
The Somali women show mild interest in me and the two men that I am with: one a cultural mediator well versed in the realities of refugee camps and centers and the other , a photographer from Der Spiegel. But really, only mild interest. I suspect, (and I think that I am right) that they are exhausted from perhaps being treated as “specimens” or ” artifacts.” Their lunch is cooking in a kitchen that I cannot see, but the smells emanating from the room with the closed door are tantalizing: roasted chicken and vegetables. I look around the room which is as bare as bare can be, save for a few leather couches, alternately in navy blue and brown. The large windows let in the strong winter sun, casting strange shadows across faces and walls until it dances behind the clouds that are in the sky.
The photographer, a tall and lanky man sets up his equipment. He laughs when he is being friendly, and when he seems nervous, which means that he laughs a lot. Laugh, laugh, laugh. The seasoned cultural mediator identifies one young woman who would like to talk with us. At least I think she wants to talk with us. Actually, on this day, I am no here for my own work; I just tagged along. I feel incredibly conflicted in such situations—I clearly see the gender bias happening here, knowing that these women and girls have already endured so much red tape, legal processing and have had to tell their stories many times before. As well, they have probably had their photos taken against their wishes. I do not think that this particular young woman feels as though she can say no, though others that she was with turned down the “opportunity” to speak with us.
No information is shared between the three of us and this young girl. None is offered so she has no idea what this is all about. She speaks Arabic and Somali, so all I can offer her is a kind smile. She does not know even the minimum: our names. She runs to put on “makeup” but returns, instead, with a black cloth which hides her face, save for her eyes, which dance and sparkle.
She sits on the navy brown leather couch while the mediator asks her questions in Arabic and to which she answer in a soft voice, alternately switching between Arabic and Somali.
“Why did you come here?” is the first question.
Often, when refugees are asked this question, they tend to give a similar and sterile response. At least at first. So many of the stories sound the same. Until you get to know them. Or until you share something of yourself, so that what you are engaging in is not interrogation, but conversation, a setting in which people can trust, and open themselves up; where they feel a modicum of safety.
She worries her fingers under the leopard print hijab that drapes elegantly in her lap. For the most part, she looks at the camera, but occasionally, she turns her eyes to me. I smile each time. I feel as though I should intervene somehow, but I do not know what to do. I feel that the interaction lacks sensitivity, that this girl had no decision in the matter. The short Italian woman manager tried to persuade a few others, , but Bahjet is the only one who has stepped forward.
I could not help but think, as I always do when engaging in ethnography: “What’s in it for them?”
Then I see the lemons.
They are like an offering. Virtually the only color in the room, save for a few cut out hearts and small pictures on the wall, above the table where the dish of lemons sit, seemingly untouched.
A large dish with Sicilian lemons, yellow and mottled with some green. One is sliced open. There is a pear, nestled among them and two oranges. And underneath this large dish, a brown table scarf with white scalloped embroidery underneath. Besides Bahjet, these lemons are the most beautiful thing in that room. Lemons. They are so bright. Something distinct and in this context, distinctly Sicilian. The lemons are like a strange ray of hope. I know, I am grasping at straws here. I looked for some warmth in this center.
The women come in and out of closed doors. They wear brightly colored and contrasting skirts and blouses. All of their heads are covered. One older woman dressed in a sea foam green hijab and a bright orange skirt warns me away with a look; she stares from me to my IPAD as if daring me to take a photo. I do not move a muscle. I smile at her. The smile is not returned. The cultural mediator, astute, tells me “They all have different personalities”. In fact, I liked the fact that she did not smile at me. She has agency and she showed it.
I wonder what they do with all of the lemons.
The photographer finishes is photo shoot, laments that she spoke so softly that the translator who he sends the tape to might not have anything to work with. He asks if I would like my picture take with her. I look at her and she instantly puts her arms around me. She takes off the black fabric that had been wrapped around her face. I ask her how old she is.
“Ventuno” she answers shyly. I am surprised by her Italian! Just twenty-one. I feel grateful that all of her time is in front of her, that this place , devoid of color and joyful sounds, will not be her last stop. At least I pray that it isn’t.
She gives me a big hug when I stand to leave, then disappears down a marble hallway and into a room where she closes the door. The most prominent sound I heard nearly the entire time I was there, was the sound of doors opening and closing; it was nearly continuous.
“She is very shy,” I say to the assertive woman who is in charge there. “Yes, until they get to know you, then they won’t stop talking,” she laughs, gesticulating with her hands.
I want to go back there soon. Learn more about her. Not the same old story, but the real story. Her story. How and why she came ALONE. Not why she came. I think we all know that story now.
And I want to count the lemons.
I want to see how many may still be on that porcelain dish when I return. Or if they will have been replaced with a more seasonal fruit as time inevitably marches on. And I wonder if Bahjet will still be there, or if things go as they should, she will have moved out. That will mean that her life will have begun. For the second time.