Category Archives: A Meditation

A Day of Service: start small, do something


 

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States.   It is a day of “service” to those in need, to working for social justice, to further the cause.   My interest and my (very) humble work (I do a mere fraction of what others are doing for refugees) is based in my personal philosophy of service, inspired and sustained in me by MLK.

Today, do something in service of the plight of the poor, the homeless, the disencranchised. Do this from where ever you are and in any way that you can.

Small steps, small gestures mean so much.  And they add up.

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Trying Times in the Wake of Migrant Deaths: Speaking in the Language of Crisis and Fatigue


Lately, the language with which many of us use to  communicate with one another feels and sounds fraught.   Maybe we feel irritable, sad, angry.  Maybe we blame it on overwork, lack of sleep, too much caffeine, not enough caffeine,  lack of love or world-weariness in general.

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Our language when we speak with one another is fraught, because we, ourselves are fraught.   We communicate in the language of crisis and fatigue.  Fatigue of crisis.  We look to one another for a moment of reprieve , but these days lately are tough ones and in one way or another, we are feeling it.

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I am writing this while watching “breaking news” on CNN who is reporting that a peaceful, but large gathering of people in Philadelphia , protesting the unexplained and tragic death of Freddie Gray , an African-American man who died while in police custody, have begun to “clash” with police.  Or, perhaps, police have begun to clash with protesters.  (note: protesters are citizens, not criminals, and they deserve protection!)  I suspect, but hope and pray otherwise, that the situation may get more out of hand as the evening wears on and darkness descends on the City of Brotherly Love.

We are deaf

We are deaf

Last week, when over 800 migrants died in the Mediterranean attempting to escape death and chaos,  I was approached by more than just a few people on the “situation” “over there”.   I was feeling raw from the news,  sad in a deep place that I could not adequately articulate to anyone.  I have spent time with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, have witnessed to and for them with what I hope is care and responsibility and have never, ever, not even once , taken that responsibility lightly.   The ethical pitfalls of working with such a vulnerable population are many and I am all too aware of them.    It is not anyone’s responsibility to know how emotionally fragile I felt over the situation—-I have not even an iota of the vulnerability these brave men and women have to cross an ocean with nothing but the shirts on their backs, but I was amazed and dismayed by the lack of compassion for these people by those who did not have an understanding of the situation. And so, I began with great patience in discussing the situation .

A coffin waiting for a refugee

A coffin waiting for a refugee

I have been keeping this blog for almost 4 years, documenting the trials of the migrant, refugee and asylum seeker in the Sicilian context, but I suppose it is not a sexy enough subject for people to care about in their day to day lives.   I have attempted to methodically chronicle my thoughts , experiences and encounters from my ethnography in this blog and was (and still am!) grateful to anyone to whom it provides any enlightenment.  But to those who simply do not want to understand, who have already prejudged these people, who say that Europe has no responsibility  for the troubles the migrants are fleeing and therefore have no right to protection have left me feeling…well, here I am at a loss for words  And then I realized that people were baiting me in an attempt to clobber me on the head with their own opinions which, to be generous in a situation where I probably shouldn’t, were disturbing at best, sickening at worst.

One person asked  me, in an imperious and razor-edge tone ,’ if the migrants can afford to “pay” human traffickers so much money, why don’t they just buy a plane ticket and go to Europe like normal, civilized people?’ This person is highly educated. And, in fact, born and raised in Europe, but a naturalized American citizen.   I had no words.  I put my hand up to stop the conversation and willed deafness to be able to block out the senselessness that  was coming out of her mouth.

In essence, in her opinion and the opinion of many others who I have spoken to, the underlying problem, really, is that the migrants are simply the wrong color.   This should not shock or surprise anyone.  This is not new.   In the United States  right now, Baltimore is burning, protests are spreading once again across the country against police brutality  and  against racism that is firmly embedded and institutionalized.

What does this have to do with the refugees?  If you cannot see the parallels, I probably would not be able to explain it to you. And , unfortunately, my patience is wearing thin.  Because I thought that I could educate people, I thought I could “bear witness”.  But people will see, hear and believe what they want to believe. And it seems as though tragedy is polarizing us now, more than ever.

While Europe dallies,  and those who have been ignoring  a situation that has been going on for years act as if this terribly tragic situation just came out of absolutely nowhere, the migrants will continue to come.  They will not ever stop coming. They have the right to protection, which is not only a humanitarian imperative, but is a part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  

I had posted a tag one day on Facebook , in response to migrant deaths, proclaiming “refugee lives matter”  and was asked by a friend I respect profoundly  “when will we say all lives matter?”  I gently called him out on this.  I responded thus:  when the lives of the most vulnerable matter.  Plain and simply.  He sent me a message that meant a lot to me. He acknowledged my feelings.  As a thinking and feeling person, he felt the strain of tragedy himself and was looking for a universal answer–an all-inclusive message that we all matter.  And in fact, we do.   The point is not to value one life over another.  But one must, in the final estimation, look at how uneven the playing field is.   It seems almost criminal to even describe it that way.

I stand in solidarity with the refugees and will continue to act as writer/activist , with care and witness.   And hopefully, a multi-pronged solution can be implemented, but I fear it may be too late.   So many lives, undocumented in life and undocumented in death.

Indeed, refugees lives matter. So let’s start acting like they do.

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Life as it is Lived: On Encountering Refugees


We tend to see refugees as the unfortunate refuse of the (mostly) African countries that they come from, because, well, so many also assume that most countries in Africa are wretched—that normal life cannot exist anywhere on the continent, so teeming humanity pile into boats in search of a better way to live.

Fact: most do not want to leave their countries—they simply have no choice.  This is the difference between an immigrant and a refugee: choice.  I have had this discussion so many times with my students and I have asked them: what could make you leave the only home you have known at a moment’s notice?  Most cannot begin to conceive  the kind of situations that  be so dire that they would need (not want) to flee with only the clothes on their back. I ask them to think it through, step by step.  The emotional and physical obstacles to simply leave one’s country is beyond my own comprehension, let alone, the enormity of making a new home in a culture so different in so many fundamental ways, that one must reorient every single aspect of their lives.   Resettlement is an often brutal process, often taking years before a refugee can feel a semblance of balance and normalcy.

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Recently, with my students in a Sicily we encountered refugees daily, on the streets, and in a refugee center where they lived a life that seemed tenuous, at best.    In the center, I  asked my students to look beyond what the situation seemed to be:

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young  men and one young women were extremely friendly, well-dressed, joked easily and attempted (and succeeded!) in making some wonderful bonds with my students.   They seemed genuinely pleased to have visitors their own age, to be able to relax and tell things about themselves to people who were interested—and who cared

We ate lunch with them. Afterwards, we all played various games and sang popular songs and posed for group and individual photos.  Not until  later, when two of the refugees led us on a short tour of their temporary home, did some of my students begin to feel uncomfortable.  A few expressed it to me, but , as one claimed, he “could not put his finger on it.”  Because some things must be felt and processed in the privacy of one’s own thoughts, I nodded knowingly and advised them to write in their journals and attempt to think things through.   I encouraged them to think about the reality of their lives’—not just what was presented to us, or what we wanted to see—to console ourselves that all is well—after all, they had food in their stomachs and a place to lay their heads at night.

 

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So what was it?

Upon our return back to the small , suburban Liberal Arts college , I met with three of the students who shared their uneasiness with me.   This pleased me because  not all will see or feel this immediately.

My students identified so many of the factors contributing to the  difficulties the refugees would experience.  They included the fact that they are non-Europeans now living and tryng to fit in a European culture.   That they are far, far, far from their homes of origin and therefore separated from any influence of their own culture, the culture that has formed them as the people they are today.   That  they seemed conscious of being the grateful all the time—in fact, the benevolence bestowed upon them fairly demands that they be in a constant state of thanking someone (or many) —which can be exhausting.  That the refugee did not necessarily choose the country in which s/he would land. And in the case of Italy, few want to stay.  They lack a great level of agency in the center, a place they are grateful to be in , but can in no way be called “home”.  In some ways they are infantisized: they are told when and what they will eat, etc. They can become anxious, hopeless, depressed, nostalgic.  And they may cycle through these emotions many different times.  Because , really, who can forget their home?

Often, the treacherous journey is just the beginning. What can be seen as the real struggle begins when their feet touch solid ground.   And soon, that ground does not feel so solid.   What will their lives’ become?

Much has been made of the news media’s coverage of the sea voyages of  refugees.   The rickety , unseaworthy boats,  the drawn and mournful faces of the survivors.  And some will, haughtily, declare the statistics: that less than 10 percent of these refugees arrive by boat, so why does the media insist on portraying these refugees?

 

Because , from a humanitarian point of view, this population matters. And they matter a lot.  And no sooner has the refugee survived perhaps the most perilous journey of his or her life,  reality sets in. This is a hard and brutal road.  Many I have spoken to wish they had never left home.

My students met the only girl currently living at the center—the rest are young African men. She is young. Her parents are dead. She has no relatives in Italy.  She is a beautiful girl with a warm and welcoming smile.  Yes, she welcomed us. She was eager to make a connection, especially with my female students.image

And my students listened to her and , I am proud to say, really, really heard her. And what was amazing to me is that they each sought commonalities , not differences. And they bonded over things that girls everywhere bond over.  What impressed me was their was no objectifying of her—she was just Blessing, a teenage Nigerian girl who simply wanted to make friends.  What she shared of her life occurred after she felt comfortable and she shared details of her own free will.

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One day , sitting at an outdoor cafe despite the chilly weather, I and my students encountered a Sengalese street vendor. Very tall and handsome,  the many approached our table and smiled immediately at one of my students and said: “You are from America—you are black, like me, but not as dark!” We all laughed and marveled at his perception.  This man had dignity. He was well-spoken. He engaged us on any number of topics, including all of the languages he can speak.  He was not pressuring us to buy anything, which surprised me.  Maybe he knew one of us would buy something anyway.  I had my eye on a trio of bracelets.  He caught my eye. “Ahhhh, he said.  You like these, don’t you?” He smiled widely.  He placed them on the table and I bought them.

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He said he needed to move on , but shook all of our hands, and then touched his palm to his heart. Nodded and said that he hoped he would see us again before we left.   Before he walked away, he told us that he lived in Catania. That he did not always look the way we were viewing him that day—with all of his various wears hanging about his body for sale.  ” You should see me when I am at home and not working!  I live in the city, I am different, not always working.  I have a life!”

Indeed.  And it gave my students, who will be trying to figure all of this out for a long time, something to think about.   A refugee who is making his way in his new life. Who no longer thinks of himself as a refugee ,  (nor should we), but instead,  just a man, like any other working and living his life.

An individual who deserves to be happy.

 

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Storied lives: the Care and Witness of the Refugee


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We live storied lives, not storybook lives. The difference is an essential one.

Lives matter. And there are so many ways of saying something. So many realities to represent and a myriad ways of doing it. But first you have to look and then you have to “see”. You have to go deeper than the surface level. There are unknowns depths, but depths nonetheless. This is not my story. It never will be my story. It is not about me. And yet, it involves me somehow , because in my interest and my approach and my account of refugees lives’ comes from who I am, too. There is no objectivity. I cannot escape my own point of view. So representations comes in layers, laid upon one another like think plastic overlay, until they are inextricable from one another.

To tell of someone’s life is a great responsibility. To be an ethnographer is to enact care and witness. To do ethnography among a vulnerable population is to enact care and witness to the extreme. This is a responsibility that I do not take lightly. And yet it is fraught with responsibility, with pitfalls, ethical concerns and yet, there is joy, too. I find it in the spaces in-between the harrowing accounts of passage, the longing for those left behind , the nausea of finding yourself in a new place without knowing a thing of what it may be to survive there. Because most people live between the spaces of all that interferes with a trouble-free happiness on a daily basis. And the refugee, even more so.

 

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In Sicily, one encounters so many faces , some more acclimated than others. It took me some time to get used to what was expected of the refugee in Sicily. In the United States, we hold multiculturalism as the standard for newcomers—at least in theory. In Europe, and I will speak of Sicily, because this is the place I know best, the standard is assimilation. So the refugee must often contort who and what he is to fit in, if in fact, he ever does. Often, the measure of how well a refugee or immigrant is received is how well they have assimilated into Sicilian society. This often means a (gradual) repudiation of their own customs, their language, the very embodiment of their own culture.

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The backdrop is sun ,ancient stone and sea. The refugee who comes to Sicily knows the sea, knows it in a deep way that none of us would choose, knows it through the frigid cold, the dark night and the relentless bright reflection that blisters the skin, makes the mouth parched. Those who live to tell the tale, if in fact, they can bring themselves to, have a survivor’s pride. If one could survive a treacherous sea passage then one can find a new way to live in this new world. Life and death hang in the balance, but one does not cancel the other out. There is the want, the need, the destination, the death, the reckoning. And really, the dead tell their stories, too. And eventually, the sea gives up some, not all, who arrive, silent and stoic on sun-drenched beaches, when they are least expected. Their names are lost, along with their faces and their fingerprints. I tell the stories of the living. The dead tell their own stories, but their words, if we could hear them, would be like the memories that you wish you never had.

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The refugee is trying to come out of the shadows. The refugee wants to live life. Sometimes mouths move but nothing comes out. Never understand this to mean they have nothing to say. Care and witness to their lives’ is essential. It’s the  human thing to do.

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How desperate do you have to be? A meditation on compassion


More refugees will be coming. They are coming.

I wish I knew the names of even a few of them.   I wish I knew some characteristics. Their names.  The names of their parents.   I wish I did not have to lump them all into that unfortunate term “refugees”, but there you have it.   With the continuing unrest in North Africa and the increasingly unstable and violent situation in Syria (with possible impending US air strikes) the desperation of so many in the contact zone rises exponentially.

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Why do they leave?  How do they get where they are going? What do they bring?  Who do they leave behind?  Will they ever be able to return? What what the price they had to pay to leave?
But most importantly, will they survive the journey?
Witness this:  Just a few days ago in Siracusa , Sicily two boats with  carrying over 300 people between them were rescued.  Amongst all of those nameless, faceless people, on one of those small boats, on that most dangerous of voyages a new life came into the world.  A four-day-old baby girl, born at sea,  was found , miraculously doing very well—with part of her umbilical cord still attached.
For those who oppose immigration, make rash judgements about the lives’ of people who are just like us but who have found themselves in untenable situations, or who verbally bash and politically oppose their existence. think for a moment what kind of situation would make a heavily pregnant woman, step into a dinghy  to sail night and day , exposed to the heat of the sun by day, and the dark unknown at night?  These trips come with many promises, but, predictably with no guarantees.   Desire , hope, fear and desperation are prime motivators.  Those who oppose them their right to a life in relative safety lack what seems to be a rare commodity these days: compassion or at least the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
I have always found the belief in something, in theory at least, to be easy.   We can be anti this or pro that, but until something touches us personally, until we become the victim, the bullied,  the afflicted, the denied, the scorned, the hated and despised we don’t really know, do we?
So here is a personal appeal to those of you who think that Italy has too many immigrants, too many refugees, to those of you who have marched against them, denied them jobs, refused them service, beat them in the streets, or smiled benevolently to them within the confines of your social service agency but then pretended you didn’t know them when you passed them on the street: STOP. Just STOP.  Dig deep and find your compassion.  It could be you or me someday. And with the way the world is going, it probably will be.
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Just imagine that baby girl being born at sea.  How fearful her mother must have been. The potential for disaster.  Then imagine: What kind of life will she have?   Now ask yourself:  how desperate do you have to be?
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A Meditation on the Refugees Who Landed at Fontane Bianche, Sicily


When we think of the plight of the refugee, we may tend to think of them in the abstract.  As fully formed men , after the fact. Already have arrived. We tend not to see what came before their lives’ in the new land.  As a matter of fact, we may tend to think of them as not having had lives before they were refugees. 

As a matter of fact, we may tend to think of them as not having had lives before they were refugees.  Impossible, you may be thinking—everyone has a “before.”  Well , of course they no, but one of the ways either consciously or unconsciously that we don’t think about that , is because it is so damned easy to negate the life of the refugee, the immigrant, with their unseen faces.  They are like figures that move , stealth, in the dark and go out of their way to remain unnoticed.
How do they get here?  Many come on boats, dinghies, “unworthy” sea vessels, such a benign way of describing the carrier of human beings—-human cargo. On a recent visit to a beach in Sicily, I an my friends, parked the car in a small dirt pathway across from a stony field of grazing cows.  Past the cows, was a beach with a large and small stones, porous and worn away by the salt water.  While one of my friends perched herself on a rock, her leg in a cast and unable to move forward, I ventured after the two men who had gone before me.  I was only wearing flip flops, which were immediately wet, causing me to slip on the stones.  My friends called out to me to continue, but I felt uneasy, my balance was way off and some of the stone and rock looked sharp as knives.  All manner of detritus floated past me and I tried to take it all in.
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The men were heading towards a small  boat with Arabic writing on the side.   Refugees had landed in this place—actually, more than once.  Intellectually, this was a detail that I knew.  But emotionally, I could not grasp what it must be like to flee your homeland  and to endure a rough (in every sense of the world) voyage to a place with only the clothes on your back.  You are thirsty. You are grief stricken. Scared. Exhausted.  Maybe sun blind.   Imagine climbing out of the boat onto the craggy and dangerous rock.   Seeing the placid grazing of cows, their empty eyes, chewing their cud.  Even the cows know their place.
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The men return.  One is holding a soaking wet banner, with Arabic writing on it.  He holds it up .  I want to touch it but I don’t.  It feels almost sacred. It feels like grave robbing, though, of course, nothing was stolen.  The sun is like a continuous blaze and the beach is deserted.  My friend, her leg propped up on a rock holds her hands up to her eyes and squints.  “Are we ready?” she asks. “Ready,” I say because the place depresses me.   Not only because refugees have landed and most likely will continue to land there, but because people will forget or will not know the desperate humanity that washes up there, occasionally.  The men with their Speedos and the women with their bikini’s , intent on their bronze skin and smoking their cigarettes, will not know (or care) what that beach is capable of holding , or what the sea has yet to give up, but one day, eventually will.
On our way back to the car, I see one track shoe, laying in the dirt.  Just one.  I did not miss it on the way in—I , just like countless others with any  number of details pertaining to refugees, did not want to connect that shoe to a person who was surely fleeing.  One shoe is , perhaps, worse than none.
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I stood for a quick moment, sent up a hasty prayer to the man in charge.  For what , exactly, I don’t even really know.  The needs is so great.  My influence so small.
I wanted to take the shoe with me, but I didn’t.  Others should see it.   But really, I imagine that it just may be kicked around like a soccer ball by a bunch of kids who may find it.  Or maybe it will just remain where it is, eventually worn down to nothing by the elements.  Maybe like the man who wore it.
Before we pile into the car, me and my friend look back.  “It’s a shame, really,” she says softly and  with appropriate reverence.  In that moment I appreciate her so much because she understands.
Imagine,” I say, but really, I can’t.  Even my imagination has limits.  So many boat stories they become a motif instead of the stories of actual human lives’.
It is time for riposo, but before we do we stop for some beers, limonata and some pizza.
We sit in the shade, gulp our sweating drinks and sigh. I was thinking about the remnants of human lives, pieces of ourselves that we leave like breadcrumbs behind us. I closed my eyes.  Took a gulp of lemon soda like my life depended on it.    Like I really didn’t have a care in the world. But then again, once you know something, you can’t un-know it. No matter how hard you try.
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