The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others
If one pays close attention, the traveller or more specifically the tourist in Sicily will see “need” at every turn. The evidence of poverty , homelessness and the displacement of refugees to those enjoying a vacation is an “inconvenient truth” , with most people choosing , whether consciously or subconsciously , to ignore what, in reality, cannot and should not be denied.
I am not much of a tourist. In fact, I never have been. The place where I love to dwell, literally and figuratively, is in everyday life. I have a friend that used to joke that I was a true member of the often-castigated “hoi polloi”. I am proud of that. In general, I am not interested in seeing whatever is in a guidebook and I am quite certain that no matter where I have found myself in the world, I have missed things that are deemed by the venerable guide books (that people clutch like the Bible) a “must see.” Honestly, I have never really cared about such things.
For the past 4 years I have been lucky enough to lead my students to Sicily each March, which is the travel component of my class, “This Sea is Not My Home: Immigration, Migration and Social Justice in the Sicilian Context.” As you can glean from the title, what started out as class that on the vagaries of immigration, migration and refugees, has slowly morphed into examining the realities of not only migration as a worldwide movement and phenomenon, but, perhaps more importantly, the lives’ of refugees themselves. The people, not just the geopolitical situation.
I have staunchly defended (and still do) the rights of people to migrate from one place to another, most particularly for reasons that people seek asylum. I could also reason the cruel irony of how protected merchandise is and how easy it is to cross borders ($$$$$) though masses of people are seen as a scourge. I have had to listen to Sicilians and Sicilian-Americans, often with fingers in my face trying to tell me how bad the situation is for Sicilians in their own country. I sympathized—how could I not— but my particular focus was on refugees into the country, not those suffering from a decimated economy resulting in an unemployment rate so high , the first time I was told what it was, I though I had misheard. But, in fact, I would have to be cold, hard, shiny plastic not to care. ,
Last week my students and I helped out at a Catholic Relief Agency one evening. The students were tasked to shop during the day for the food in the open market. On the menu was fruit salad, green salad and chicken stew. We washed and chopped and the wonderful men and women at the agency did the actual cooking. But my students and I portioned the food out. And we served. We served a hungry, possibly homeless (at least some of them) and grateful bunch of people. Among a group of perhaps 45 there was a family with two young boys. There were approximately 4 refugees that I could easily identify. The others were Sicilian.
To think of them now ties my heart up in knots. I have listened to, read and discussed the situation in Sicily with people I deeply trust there: friends, advocates, cultural mediators and educators, all on the front lines , involved and passionate. I have come to the conclusion that at least one of the reasons that many are opposed to the influx and presence of the refugees is that many themselves are also suffering—and they perceive (not accurately) that their jobs, or at least the possibility of employment will be taken from them. How can you possibly convince those with that mindset otherwise? It is hard to be compassionate in the face of your own fear and suffering.
What I know is that in that room when the bell was struck for the Our Father before the eating of the meal, everyone in the room stood and there was utter silence. There was respect, too, that everyone in the room had for one another: young, old, black, white, immigrant and refugee. In that moment, everyone was connected somehow, and our differences did not matter.
With each plate I set before someone who was waiting to eat, I said “buon appetito”. Every single person responded, warmly, with a smile and a “grazie.” This is not to fetishize those in need—far from it, but I see poverty of every kind as a sort of equalizer—it reduces us to the essence of our humanity—and it elevates us too, when we lend a hand, in any way, to help alleviate it.
When we passed out the fruit cups, the two young boys very carefully enunciated “thank you” to me in English. I replied in kind. The mother looked up at me and asked, in a bit of an embarrassed way, if I could maybe find a cup of fruit with more oranges. “The boys really love oranges,” she said
The reality of having to bring your children to a social service agency in order to feed them, hit me in a very vulnerable place. While intellectually, I know this a sad, but common occurrence, I’d never faced it so up close. It felt personal Most people who will read this blog post will be very far from such an experience. I looked at those kids and I felt my face flush. Time seemed to stop for just a moment.
I will continue to seek and narrate the voices of refugees in Sicily—I am committed to this work. Sicily is , a complicated but wonderful place, and my eyes are now more open to the need everywhere. It is not like taking sides: refugees need very particular help, being such a vulnerable and at risk population. The homeless , poverty stricken , the addicted, the forgotten, need help and compassion, too. Compassion for everyone can go a long way.
At the end of the evening, one man came up to my students and jovially observed , “You can’t understand me and I can’t understand you, but yet, here we are together!”
After all, hunger in the belly hurts us all in exactly the same way.