Monthly Archives: July 2015

Schiavi del Pomodoro in Italia (Tomato Slaves in Italy)


The summer sun in Italy can be relentlessly blistering.

If you are one of the lucky ones who is not a refugee, you can cool yourself off in the sea, lie in the shade during the blessed hours of siesta between, roughly, 1pm and 5pm , or you could drink the cold bottles of water from your refrigerator to cool the body down.   If you are not a refugee there are endless ways of enduring the often oppressive heat. Consider yourself fortunate.  But while your tomatoes are bubbling on the stove, you might want to consider how they came to your kitchen.

tomato slaves

The harvest that comes with a price.

If you are one of the unlucky ones, you may be laboring for 12 to 13 hours a day unprotected in the hot sun, picking pomidori or watermelons. For Sudanese refugee, Abdullah Mohamed, the back breaking work in the fields proved to be more than his body could reasonably handle. Over a week ago, the 47 year old collapsed and died while doing the only work many refugees are able to find in Italy—toiling in the fields, picking pomidori for the tomato sauce.

This is slave labor, pure and simple.   More often than not there is a lack of drinking water, lack of adequate bathrooms, or periodic shelter from heat and sun, save for tents that are put up for the workers, but this “luxury” is not always the reality.

Tent city

Tents set up for refugees.

Attempts are currently being made to ascertain whether or not Mohamed died from the unbearable conditions he labored under or whether or not he had a “preexisting” condition that ended his life so abruptly.   Oh my.   Three people are currently in custody on charges of manslaughter—-two of the owners and the overseer, which gives a pretty good idea of how many believe  this unfortunate man met his end so far from his home.

Mody and Pomidori

My friend Muhammad.

It has been reported in the Italian news media that Mohamed’s salary was roughly 6 or 7 Euro an hour, though with the cost of his transportation and his daily lunch and other expenses, he was likely left with 2 Euro . Is this the new slavery? Or is this the old slavery with new faces in a different part of the world? It doesn’t matter.  It is slavery. Schiavitù.

I have tolerated (just barely) the argument from some Sicilian-Americans that these refugees are taking jobs from Italians.  Really? Where? Please show me. Perhaps there are a few, somewhere, doing the slave work usually reserved for the exclusive exploitation of the (black) refugee, but I have never known one.   Italian padroni are unlikely to exploit their paesani, and few of the paesani would stand for it—they are, after all , Italian born—they belong, they know their way around.

Bold facts: the refugees are threatened, sometimes physically mistreated, berated, lied to and deprived of basic human necessities.   Slavery. But what is the alternative for refugees?

My friend Muhammad, who knew and worked with Mohamed, both of them refugees from Sudan, was appropriately outraged and sickened by the death of his friend, but in Muhammad’s world, these things, while horrifically sad, seemingly no longer surprise.

Today, Muhammad tells me that after pomidori season is over in Nardo, he may leave for France. Because he is my good friend and because I care about where he ends up in the world I ask him: “Is France the best place to be right now?” He answers in his calm and philosophical way: “ I don’t know where in this world the best place is, Michelle, I am just trying.”

I persist with my line of questioning, because I am anxious. Because I have known him for some time and I know his struggle. I also have known his beautiful smile and his brave face in light of the unspeakable loss and trauma he has been through.   Because I care for him and consider him my family. But I am happy, too that he has found a community of people who care for refugees in Nardo, Italians, who walk beside them and advocate for them in the struggle.

Still, he has witnessed the death of his friend at the hands of a immoral, illegal and brutal system, that he, too, has been a victim of , but tells me before he says a final goodnight, “Somebody who lives such a life will never care about what will happen tomorrow.”

I believe him. But I , in fact despise,  the utter reality that makes that statement true.

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