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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.