Category Archives: African refugees

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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No End to Tears: Refugee Deaths in the Mediterranean


Those who work in the human rights arena are quite good at statistical information. Right now, all eyes are on the Mediterranean as authorities are claiming that the latest deaths of refugees on packed boats is the worst disaster to hit this body of water, ever.   This is a humanitarian tragedy, a massacre, disaster being too tame a word for the way I and so many others feel about these senseless deaths.

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Statistics on refugees are ubiquitous. The agencies that attempt to give this population aid and other services count their heads like herds of sheep, attempt to track their impact on the places in which they find themselves, small towns on mainland Italy and Sicily in which the unemployment rates are higher than one can even imagine they could be, and they live, these vulnerable people, in fear of being scapegoats for just about anything that ails a society. I am tired of hearing how only 10% of refugees who arrive in Italy arrive by boat. What is this statistic supposed to mean? My humanitarian standards, that 10% matters a hell of a lot.

I, and so many others, who have seen this terrible refugee phenomenon up close and personal in the Mediterranean, can’t help but feel that this latest tragedy goes beyond the pale.   The anger that I feel at a system that has failed, in any concerted and systematic attempt to alleviate these deaths in the cold waters of the Mediterranean,( what I have called a “liquid coffin” in this blog before), simply boggles the mind.

Refugee bodies

It has been re ported that Italy’s coastguard, coordinating the search for survivors, found only 28 who managed to keep breathing.   They believe that 700 people were on one of the boats and that refugees caused the boat to capsize as they panicked and all ran to one end of the boat, helping to sink it.

The water, thick and slick with oil is preventing divers from the recovery of bodies.

All of those bodies.

All of those young lives.

“It seems we are looking at the worst massacre ever seen in the Mediterranean, “ UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said.

Carlotta Sami

Carlotta Sami

Understatment. And sadly, almost certainly, not the last incident we will be witness to.

Have we not learned anything from the horrific Lampedusan tragedy of October 3 , 2013 where the deaths of Eritrean nationals, was said to be upwards of 363? The  sorrowful platitudes echoed for months afterwards, heads sadly and slowly shook from side to side, eyes downcast, fists beat against breasts.

And yet.

For years the refugees have been coming, heading for port cities, anyplace to  to build their  new lives. .   Does this seem an obvious point to make? I make it people begin need to begin  to pay attention(in case they have been living under a rock somewhere) when something incredibly awful happens, when the news media flood our eyes with terrible images. But the thing is, this is not new—-and—do you see what I am getting at? Anyone?

When does the breast-beating end and real solutions begin?

European Union???  The world is waiting.

The MED

As the political analysts weigh in, doing what they do, prognosticating with furrowed brows from a distance, the refugees will continue to flee desperate situations despite they danger and arrive in places in which their lives’ will be far from what they had hoped that they would be. A place where their very lives’ are very, very big business, for those who know how to make a living off of the most vulnerable. And there are many who are doing just that.

I have been in refugee camps and refugee centers and have witnessed the deep sadness, nearly pathological in the eyes of those whose future is uncertain at best. How does one even begin to think of a future when one’s most immediate past are memories of a journey full of fear, deprivation and exploitation?

Until then, the world will keep count.

But no one will be able to pretend, any longer, that this hasn’t been a tragedy all along, that each new massacre isn’t the first of its kind.

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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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Of Lemons and Somali Women in a Sicilian Refugee Center


What one first notices is  the absence of things , or perhaps Things , with a capital T.  Walking up the winding , marble steps of the refugee center, this one , primarily for women refugees from Somalia, one is struck by the absence of sound. The absence of  voices. The absence of television.  The absence of the sound of children.  Women take up  so little space, do not cause the “sprawl” here in the center, where they live, as they would in their own homes.  One wonders. realistically, how anyone in anyway could construe this place as “home”.  And of course the idea is not to get too comfortable, but this seems extreme. At worst, unwelcoming.

The Somali women show mild interest in me and the two men that I am with: one a cultural mediator well versed in the realities of refugee camps and centers and the other , a  photographer from Der Spiegel.  But really, only mild interest.   I suspect, (and I think that I am right) that they are exhausted from perhaps being treated as “specimens” or ” artifacts.”   Their lunch is cooking in a kitchen that I cannot see, but the smells emanating from the room with the closed door are tantalizing:  roasted chicken and vegetables.   I look around the room which is as bare as bare can be, save for a few leather couches, alternately in navy blue and brown.  The large windows let in the strong winter sun, casting strange shadows across faces and walls until it dances behind the clouds that are in the sky.

The photographer, a tall and lanky man sets up his equipment. He  laughs when he is being friendly, and  when he seems nervous, which means that he  laughs a lot.  Laugh, laugh, laugh.   The  seasoned cultural mediator identifies one young woman who would like to talk with us.  At least I think she wants to talk with us.  Actually, on this day, I am no here for my own work; I just tagged along.   I feel incredibly conflicted in such situations—I clearly see the gender bias happening here,  knowing that these women and girls have already endured so much red tape, legal  processing and  have had to tell their stories many times before.  As well, they have probably had their photos taken  against their wishes.   I do not think that this particular young woman feels as though she can say no, though others that she was with  turned down the “opportunity” to speak with us.

No information is shared between the three of us and this young girl.  None is offered so she has no idea what this is all about. She speaks Arabic and Somali, so all I can offer her is a kind smile.  She does not know even the minimum: our names.  She runs to put on “makeup” but returns, instead, with a black cloth which hides her face, save for her eyes, which dance and sparkle.

Young Somali woman with director in background

Young Somali woman with center  director in background

She sits on the navy brown leather couch while the mediator asks her questions in Arabic and to which she answer in a soft voice, alternately switching between Arabic and Somali.

“Why did  you come here?” is the first question.

Often, when refugees are asked this question, they tend to give  a similar and sterile response. At least at  first. So many of the stories sound the same.  Until you get to know them. Or until you share something of yourself, so that what you are engaging in is not interrogation, but conversation, a setting in which people can trust, and open themselves up; where they feel a modicum of safety.

She worries her fingers under the leopard print hijab that drapes elegantly in her lap.  For the most part, she looks at the camera,  but occasionally, she turns her eyes to me. I smile each time.  I feel as though I should intervene somehow, but I do not know what to do.  I feel that the interaction lacks sensitivity,  that this girl had no decision in the matter. The short Italian woman manager tried to persuade a few  others, , but Bahjet is the only one who has stepped forward.

I could not help but think, as I always do when engaging in ethnography: “What’s in it for them?”

Then I see the lemons.

 They are like an offering. Virtually the only color in the room, save for a few cut out hearts and small pictures on the wall, above the table where the dish of lemons sit, seemingly untouched.

lemons and wall.

A large dish with Sicilian lemons, yellow and mottled with some green.  One is sliced open. There is a pear, nestled among them and two oranges.  And underneath this large dish, a brown table scarf with white scalloped embroidery underneath.  Besides Bahjet, these lemons are the  most beautiful thing in that room.  Lemons. They are so bright.  Something distinct and in this context, distinctly Sicilian.   The lemons are like a strange ray of hope.  I know, I am grasping at straws here.  I looked for some warmth in this center.

The women come in and out of closed doors.  They wear brightly colored and contrasting skirts and blouses. All of their heads are covered.  One older woman dressed in a sea foam green hijab and a bright orange skirt warns me away with a look; she stares from me to my IPAD as if  daring me to take a photo.  I do not move a muscle.  I smile at her. The smile is not returned.  The cultural mediator, astute, tells me “They all have different personalities”.  In fact, I liked the fact that she did not smile at me.  She has agency and she showed it.

I wonder what they do with all of the lemons.

The photographer finishes is photo shoot, laments that she spoke so softly that the translator who he sends the tape to might not have anything to work with.  He asks if I would like my picture take with her.  I look at her and she instantly puts her arms around me.  She takes off the black fabric that had been wrapped around her face.   I ask her how old she is.

Ventuno” she answers shyly.  I am surprised by her Italian!  Just twenty-one.  I feel grateful that all of her time is in front of her, that this place , devoid of color and joyful sounds, will not be her last stop. At least I pray that it isn’t.

She gives me a big hug when I stand to  leave,  then disappears down a marble hallway and into a room where she closes the door.  The most prominent sound I heard nearly the entire time I was there,  was the sound of doors opening and closing; it was nearly continuous.

She is very shy,” I say to the assertive woman who is in charge there.  “Yes, until they get to know you, then they won’t stop talking,” she laughs, gesticulating with her hands.

I want to go back there soon.   Learn more about her.  Not the same old story, but the real story.  Her story.  How and why she came ALONE. Not why she came.  I think we all know that story now.

And I want to count the lemons.

Sicilian lemons

I want to see how many may  still be on that porcelain dish when I return.  Or if they will have been replaced with a more seasonal fruit as time inevitably  marches on.  And I wonder if Bahjet will still be there, or if things go as they should, she will have moved out. That will mean that her life will have begun. For the second time.

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Vu Cumpra? The refugee street vendor in Sicily.


My friend and I are sitting in a cafe in Sicily enjoying the warmth and the coffee on a  particularly and unusually (for Sicily) cold day.   I see her look up. She says , in a low voice , “Here comes a vendor.”  Before I could ask her to elaborate, I look up and right beside be is a full-figured woman, her hair beautifully wrapped and her arms laden with cheap plastic bracelets and various other trinkets that she, along with many other “Vu Cumpra” , sell on the beaches and on the streets of nearly every Italian town and city in which refugees have made their home.  In fact, I have met up with this woman, who has never told me her name, many, many times in the past.  The routine is nearly always the same,  her approach unfailingly cheerful and high-spirited. It goes something like this:

Where are you from?” “What is your name?” Then: “I would like to give you a gift!”   

Cornicelli

Amulet, Cornicello

 

Before I know it, as in the past, she has placed a bracelet on my wrist, tossed a trinket into my lap, or otherwise has placed one of her wares so near me and with such seemingly good intentions that to deny her the pleasure of bestowing the “gift” would seem crass, a gross social faux pas, at the very least, mean.  At first I mildly protest, and then am ashamed of myself. She has given me a charm called a “cornicello”—in this case, it is a small bunch of “cornicelli”, which is an amulet said to ward off the evil eye and fashioned after a red pepper which it is often and understandably mistaken for. She insists.  I lean over to grab the wallet from my bag to look for change.  I find a 2 Euro coin which I give her. She winks at me, smiles widely.  She seems to recognize my companion, who , in fact, says she came in contact with her a few days ago. The woman,  a Senegalese refugee , does not attempt to give her a gift.  Just me, since she has not seen me in a while.   Once the coin is in her hands, she leaves as gracefully as she entered, wishing us wishes for a good New Year.  “Auguri!” she calls softly. “Buon Anno!” her voice trails as her eyes dart around the crowded cafe, looking for another opportunity.

As annoying as these interactions are, I understand them and I hate the story behind them.  It is not the first time I have been “gifted” an item from her.  In fact, I have a growing collection of these trinkets in a box at home.  I say “growing” because I will never not accept what I am offered.  Really, what does it cost me?  The Senegalese are an extremely enterprising immigrant population in Italy—and are said to be the most hard working and, as a result, the most successful.  I admire them for so very many reasons.  And while their appearance while eating dinner or deep in conversation over coffee while with a friend, can be jarring—they often seem to come out of nowhere, they are trying to make a living.  This is not the work that they would like to do, most of whom are educated people.  It is not easy to ingratiate yourself to people who you know will not want what you sell, who have no need for the cheap trinkets, poorly made ( and illegal ) knockoffs, but until something better comes along, IF , in fact, something better comes along, this is what they do.

So when they ask “Vu Cumpra?” (roughly, “you buy?”),  go ahead and buy.

 

 

 

 

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What it Often Looks Like: 83 Somali’s Saved by the Coast Guard in Sicily


We hear about the boats.  We have seen pictures. They come in all shapes and sizes.

This video is both mundane and remarkable at the same time.  For the coast guard it is business as usual. For those coming off the boat, it will be a difficult, to say the least, way of life.  I am struck by the woman wearing a yellow headscarf, who throws her bundle of belongings out of the boat before she makes the climb on land.  She probably has no idea what life will be like from that moment on.  Or maybe she does.   This occurred on Saturday, May 11, 2013. This scenario is repeated many , many times in Sicily often in more dire circumstances. For those of us whose arrival in another country is by airplane,  imagine this human cargo.

 

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