“Commitment is What You Do When the Emotion is Gone: Refugees as the ’cause du jour’ “

Last week I received a comment on one of my blog posts.   The writer, “Johanna” from Finland responded this way: Problem is that we know too MUCH about them to ever accept them. There you have it.

The way in which I responded was a chance for her to explain what she meant by that, but of course, I know exactly what she meant.   “What” exactly, does she, or anyone else for that matter, know about “them?” If she were to tell the truth, she might reply: actually, nothing. And yet, one gets the impression that she was not only speaking for herself, but perhaps for her country. Finland. Well, as infuriating as that comment was, she is far from the only one expressing it.   And “Johanna”, of course, never responded

In the intervening years in which I have dedicated myself, as so many others have, to the cause of refugees, most specifically those coming to Sicily, I , too, have been the target of some very nasty racist comments and attitudes, many from Sicilian-Americans.   I have quit many online Sicilian culture forums where I have previously enjoyed the camaraderie of the culture, until someone would start discussions about Sicily’s burden of receiving refugees. It became to much for me. What began, ostensibly as discussion about a worldwide phenomenon quickly became ad hominem attacks on me, personally. Why wasn’t’ I helping Sicilians who were also suffering?   How dare I call myself Sicilian/American while daring to “out” Sicilian racism.   Why was I such a n****r lover?   I felt soul sick.   As in the United States, it is a difficult and frustrating enterprise to attempt to explain deep seated , inveterate, structural and institutionalize racism to those who simply will themselves not to understand. Who, instead, will turn their financial and/or societal woes into be the fault of a vulnerable population seeking refugee from unspeakable horrors.   I became the hated and the reviled. A traitor to my own “people.”

The Gillard Government made a commitment in 2010 to release all children from immigration detention by June 2011, but still 1000 children languish in the harsh environment of immigration camps around Australia. The Refugee Action Collective organised a protest on July 9, 2011 outside the Melbourne Immigration Transit accommodation which is used for the detention of unaccompanied minors.

Racism and fear of the “intruder” is by no means exclusive to Sicily. In face, it must be stated here, how many amazing people I know in Sicily who have wholly dedicated their lives to the plight of the refugees, offering shelter, education, food, jobs and support. These people do this because it is right. They were tirelessly. This is not the cause du jour. This is a way of LIFE.   We know, by the many countries that have refused entry to refugees, that the resistance toward them is strong and seemingly not, in any way, abating. Why is that? In fact, many immigrants have found there way into any number of European countries—they travel far from home to make Italy, France, England or any other number of European countries in which they were not born, to make their homes there.   But where, is the resistance to those situations? Rarely, if ever, is there any. Usually, because those who do that are difficult to identify as “not belonging.” But the African refugee is instantly recognizable.   There is nowhere to hide.   Simply finding safe and affordable housing is often a feat of gargantuan proportions, because no one wants them to live among them. This is how ghettoes are formed. This is how people are relegated to the margins. And then many can assuage any feelings of guilt that are, frankly, unlikely to happen by saying: “well, what are they complaining about? They have a place to live!


To combat racism against these refugees means raising your voice. It means being dedicated to the cause of those who flee when no other choice is viable. Who would leave their home in the way in which they do, if not to save their own lives’?   Grand sweeping gestures are good (everyone is ready to go to Sicily to “help the refugees”) but there are so many ways that you can help from where you are. How do you speak about racism, how do you challenge and witness to those who are victims, daily, of a bias that at its base is so evil as to almost be unspeakable? How do you help where you already are? How are you lifting your voices?   So many I have spoken to are interesting: they want to help refugees, but would not dream of living next door to one.   We have to be suspect of that.   We are not perfect, but we have to begin somewhere.


Right now, the refugee crisis is the cause du jour for many who have not been paying attention for a lot of years. To those, I say: Commitment is what you do, what you have, what you enact when the emotion of the current event is gone, when it exists even though it has receded from the headlines.


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8 thoughts on ““Commitment is What You Do When the Emotion is Gone: Refugees as the ’cause du jour’ “

  1. I think the racism they encounter is only the tip of the iceberg for the African refugees who stay in Sicily (though it is a very worrying problem in the much mroe narrow-minded north of Italy). I think the real problem is that we have more than 50% youth unemployment in Sicily, so they pretty much don’t stand a snowflake’s chance in hell of getting a job.
    Most of the Africans in my town have been recruited into the Mafia and demand a euro each time you park in a public street – the unspoken deal with such junior Mafia affiliates is that they’ll stop anyone breaking into your car if you pay their extortion money but summon one of their cronies if you refuse. The Mafia are spectacularly racist so for black people to get involved with them usually means a lowish life expectancy.
    I just see them all looking so unhappy I seriously wonder if they weren’t happier where they came from.
    And I so wish there were a sensible solution to everyone’s problems but I just see this big old mess getting bigger and bigger. 😦

    • Thanks for commenting, and I agree with you. I have never, ever met a refugee who wanted to be in Italy. We can thank the Dublin Accord for the fact that they have no other options. I, too, see the problem getting bigger—–but in reality it was handled terribly from the beginning, years ago. That the problem now seems insurmountable is ibpncredibly sad, but not at all surprising .

  2. Rosaria says:

    Well said Michelle! No one, unless he/she has lived the same tragic experience, can blatantly say”I know them”. It’s a callous and vague, blurred comment. Unfortunately, many share this view based on unproved fears and racism.

  3. Rosaria says:

    One more comment regarding the African migrants recruited from the mafia(please, use small letter for such a shameful, horrid, tragic Italian degradation!). It’s so easy to accuse them of being employed by the mafia as parking guards. Why don’t we look at the hundreds and hundreds that work in the Italian country side, picking fruits and being payed peanuts, being exploited and living in shameful conditions so that we can enjoy our tomatoes, vegetables, fruits, mozzarella and so on? Then we don’t like to think about them because we would not be able to enjoy the ‘sacred fruits of the land’, soaked in blood, would we????

    • That wasn’t my point Rosaria – In Sicily, it’s the Sicilians who do these fruit-picking jobs.
      If a Sicilian has a job on offer, he’ll always give it to a friend or family member, not a stranger.
      I’ve heard that it’s the Africans who do these jobs up on the mainland because the locals don’t want them, but with over 50% unemployment here in Sicily everybody wants any job they can get.

      • Rosaria says:

        May be…I come from Naples, not too far away from Sicily and although we have a high rate of unemployment, only the Africans and the women from eastern Europe go and pick fruits or else. May be in Sicily the situation is different…..

  4. Thanks to both of you for a good discussion. Personally, I have never known any Sicilians who are picking fruit—and I spend a lot of time in Sicily. I only know of refugees who are out toiling in the fields—for practically nothing. I am sure there are Sicilians, somewhere who are picking fruit, but I have never seen or heard of it myself. All of the refugees that I have and have had contact with only speak of themselves and other refugees doing this kind of work. Often they are given very little water, constantly threatened , work nearly 12 hours a day and sleep outside.

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