Category Archives: Editorial

Reducing the Issue of Syrian Refugees: Thank You ,But Your Memes Don’t Cut It

I hate a cynical outlook, particularly my own.   Right now the world is a scary place.   The plight of Syria refugees is front and center, where I believe it should be, but the rhetoric I am hearing is annoying at best, astounding at worst.   What I have learned through all of this is that talk is rather cheap.


On days when I am likely to bemoan the vapid and alienating aspects of social media, in  particular  ,but not limited to, FB (which I have attempted to quit more than once) I am reminded by  my friend Ruslana, a thinking and feeling person, wife, mother, linguist and a Ukrainian who truly cares, to remind me that  some revolutions like the one in her country,  were started with the use of FB. And she is right. Ruslana says it like it is and I appreciate that.   Still, I have a difficult time separating the wheat from the chaff on FB.   Let me explain.

For those who do not want the refugees to come into the United States, I BELIEVE you. I don’t agree with you, not at all, but I believe you. Their often xenophobic, racist and reactionary rants  sad and sickening  as they are , are  quite common on this side of the pond. This rhetoric,  though, is not exclusive to Americans.   I can hardly deal with this viewpoint, but I recognize and respect that   those who express it have the right.

Now, those who I relate to most—liberals, because, I AM one, I have  more trouble believing you feel what they say they do. It is because of the way they express their outrage.   When does the rhetoric of support become more than just—well, rhetoric?   My FB news feed is literally inundated with seemingly  clever (please don’t force me to describe them—you’ve seen them—different takes on the “first” refugee family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Pilgrims and Indians, the Holocaust—you get it) memes which I find particularly offensive because they are so reductive.   That the horrible, horrible crisis in Syria and the lives’ of its people, are even ideologically reduced to a meme on FB offends my sense of decency as well as my sense of reality.  I imagine Syrian refugees would be offended, too,   if they had time to think about it,but they don’t because they are busy trying to save their own lives. But of course, everyone to his own.

I have quite intentionally decided, quietly, not to participate.  

Exhibit A

Exhibit A

Do these memes make a difference? I don’t think for one minute that they do. So then why post them?   I suppose it  makes the one posting  feel good in some abstract way, a pseudo-activist sort of a syndrome might be going on here— but it does nothing for the situation at hand.  If it does, please tell me how, because it would honestly make me feel better.

My other objection becomes the fact that these posts are often mistaken by those posting them   for  some sort of social justice action (see , above “pseudo activist syndrome”), but really , NO: far from it.  Who are they trying to convince with the  memes? The friends who already share their views? Not necessary. The people who disagree with you? Not possible.


Exhibit B

Exhibit B

A lively discussion was taking place on the FB wall of one of my friends. A very enthusiastic and righteous fellow proclaimed “I’d house refugees!” Excuse me while I open my eyes in incredulity!  Really? REALLY? Would you really? Because, dude,  no one is stopping you.   Because  in REALITY, that is what is  needed. But there is where it stops, for most.  Right on that FB wall.  Here is the sad truth: there exists  a terrible, terrible need in every single town and city  in this great country of ours.  Here is a litmus test of your true intention:

Ask yourself:

  • Are you walking over the homeless on the way to purchase your Starbuck’s?
  • Are you hiring Mexican workers at slave wages for your restaurant?
  •   Did you offer to house and of the horrifically suffering population of New Orleans during the Katrina disaster? (many of which still have not been able to return home.)
  • and on and on and on.

PERSPECTIVE: Before you post that meme, maybe initiate a REAL conversation of what is possible and doable on your page and get some real action going.  More than intentions are needed.

I have met so many Syrian refugees in refugee camps in Sicily and can say, with all honesty that they have been some of the kindest people I have ever had the opportunity to engage with,  even in their dire circumstances far from home their grace impressed me—something I will never forget.

They deserve more than our memes, more than our empty rhetoric.   Talk is cheap and ubiquitous. There is so much we can’t do. Let’s put our energies into something we can.

And to quote my friend Eric, a man who has done much to alleviate the suffering of Africans in their own countries :  “If you can’t point out Syria on a map, maybe you should stay out of the discussion.”


Syria on a map

Here are some organizations that you can get involved with or donate to:



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On Forgetting and the Tragic Death of Aylan Kurdi: Will We EVER learn?

Here is viewpoint I never get tired of offering in this blog. You may be tired of it, but not me. What I AM tired of  is trying to get people to understand,  but I’m going to go for it again.   If you read just the first few sentences, you might think that this narrative is something it isn’t. If you persist, you might get my point . Here goes.

Here she goes again....

Here she goes again….

The immigration of my grandparents and great grandparents happened over a period of time in search of the proverbial “better life”. They were not fleeing war or starvation. That needs to be clear. What is consistent among all of them, as it is for many of the immigrants of the time, was the burning desire the aforementioned “better life.” That sounds cliché now, doesn’t it? “A better life.” Whatever that meant to them at the time, in the context of their own lives’ and whatever it means now, it seems to me to be a fundamental right.   So they travelled from their small towns to the nearest ports (often at considerable travel for a significant amount of money), tickets and paper “passports” —such as they were at the time, to travel, most commonly and, one would imagine, quite roughly, in steerage.

Oh no! Here come those Italian immigrants!!!

Oh no! Here come those Italian immigrants!!!

Many already had a husband, a sister, a brother-in-law, or at least a family friend already living in America, who would look out for them, help find them a job, or put them to work in their own homes, watching their children if need be. Their lives’ were uncertain to the extent that many of them expected better, much better than what they encountered when they arrived. In short order, their “dreams” did not come true. But we know that take generations. Anyway, they came from a culture they felt was (and is!) beautiful, down to earth, close-knit and highly civilized—the land of the Renaissance, for goodness sake! But instead they were met, from the outside of their own culture with hatred and derision.   They were mocked and reviled.   We all know the immigrant’s narrative, no matter the country of origin: the boat, the poor health, the barely livable conditions, and the struggle with the language upon arrival and for many years ahead. Many immigrant narratives are similar in vain, because while each individual experience is different, the overall way populations migrate or immigrate and the conditions under which they happened were often the same.

Generations later, and far removed from the horrific struggles these immigrants endured for the sake of not only themselves but for the fully assimilated current generation that they perhaps knew, in an abstract sort of a way, would some day exist, so many oppose the moving of desperate people across borders.   And here is my point : I cannot understand, cannot wrap my head around the fact that we forget. Don’t we? Selective amnesia.   Reminds me of the arrogant attitudes of those that build houses in previously unspoiled Shangri-La’s but then lobby to keep everyone else out.  Or white Westerner’s who go where ever the hell they please—-but how dare anyone else attempt to do the same.

Italian immigrant family

I have engaged with many in the Italian-American community who are happy to be in the US, proud of their heritage and enjoy beating their breasts about their parents or grandparents—but, just don’t let anyone else in. And certainly don’t let anyone else in Italy! I have heard “bootstraps” mentioned, as in my grandparents pulled themselves up by their bootstraps…..but it is far too  irritating  a topic to even get started on. I once spoke with a now, rather successful former refugee in Sicily who at one time struggled in his new home of Sicily, but felt so removed from the experience, that he disparaged other refugees their lack of dignity, how they seemed so desperate and unruly, ready to grab at anything that was given to them. Listening to him was a shock to my system.  I remember looking at him and feeling  a different way  about him after that. What it said to me was: I’m here, I did it, I survived, but those people… That kind of rhetoric never helps. In fact, it hurts.

I write all of this as a segue way into the horrific stories coming out of the European Union these past few months, and for years before when no one was really paying attention, because after all there has got to be a LOT of deaths in dramatic ways that are broadcasted on cable news networks before anyone really pays attention.   I don’t want to get into political specifics here—I am not a political scientist and never wanted to be. I am not an “expert” on immigration, nor do I desire to be—far from it.  What I am is a human being living in a world that seems to have gone mad. What would it take for the inhabitants of the earth to become….human again. As I write this, “migrants”, “refugees” or perhaps, just HUMANS as the case may be, are crammed into a steamy stew of humanity in Keleti Station in Hungary where they are in what I like to call “Limbo-land”—and going nowhere fast. Read past the headlines to learn about a situation that is out of hand in the worst possible way and still  the borders of certain countries are clamped down like  a piece of bread between the jaws of the hungry.   It is a pathetic and horrific scene of which I have witnessed from the safety of my living room couch. But this is not entertainment, it is tragedy.

I have heard the arguments about unemployment, no jobs for the people who already live here (insert country here___________), blah, blah, blah. I also know that every generation, in time ,will oppose those from another country  who are trying to find a better way to live.   As if the pursuit of safety and happiness were a sin.   My point in the beginning of this piece was to exemplify that my people came for that “better life” I keep mentioning and were hated for it—but they were not fleeing war!  And now, in this point in time, we have people in the fight for their life, and we cannot open up a space in our societies for the most vulnerable, we can’t even find a space in the knotted , nautilus chambers of our twisted hearts. We shame them, corral them into a (Keletri) train station , and yell at them to go home.   I understand the practicalities. I do. I really do. What I cannot understand is the rhetoric of hate, the opposition , the total lack of any kind of empathy or understanding…

HUMANS at Keleti Station.

HUMANS at Keleti Station.

I was going to write  this entire post about the death of Aylan Kurdi , the small boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach a few days ago. He and 11 others died on a boat in an attempt to eventually get to Canada.   I was going to write about Aylan, but I thought: what’s the point?  Also , because a researcher I just  met told me in a  rather disturbing and halting tone that the contents of my blog seemed….familiar.  Hmmm. Perhaps because I will often write both conditions I witness in Italy and those on the news.  And I realized that so many have already written about that poor, small boy, I won’t attempt to write prosaically about a situation that questions everything about this world we live in.

But indulge me this small bit.  Aylan Kurdi.  The picture of his tiny body, face down in the sand in the Turkish city of Bodrum , a few men way off in the background are sinking their fishing lines into the sea has been everywhere on the Internet, which in and of itself is beyond what I can handle.   When I first saw the image I thought it wasn’t real. When I realized it was, I was distressed to the point of distraction, to true soul sickness. Life is always elsewhere, isn’t it? There but for the grace of God go I….. in reality it could be any one of us at any point in the future. He died along with his brother and mother, fleeing the strife of war and displacement in Syria. I  cannot help but wonder how his father feels at this image.   And yet, people need to see it, heart breaking as it is.  And then Aylan will be forgotten until another body surfaces, as they tend to do, on beaches, while the locals blissfully soak up the sun. The photographer will win an award, for sure.

Here is what we need to know.  Read these words and try to understand what Aylan’s father told a CNN reporter, how he must have felt:

“I don’t want anything else from this world. Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.”

Little Aylan Kurdi, right, in LIFE, not death.

Little Aylan Kurdi, right, in LIFE, not death.

How you can read something like that and oppose , even in theory, the right for  people  to cross borders? If you can, there is nothing that I or anyone else can do to help you understand.

And those migrants in Keleti station? Still there.  Of course they are!  We have forgotten already.

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When Death Comes, it Will Come in Hoards: Italy Ends Mare Nostrum

The logic always seems a bit twisted and I suppose it would take the wisdom of a modern day Solomon to figure things out.

Disregarding the fervent pleas of those who work with refugees in Italy,  the country effectively ended the “search and rescue” mission Mare Nostrum and, instead, will now enact operation Triton—a mission led by Frontex, the European Union border agency. This will be a “limited” mission, but what that means, exactly, no one (yet) knows. Italy, having long ago lost both patience and compassion for those making the treacherous, to say the least, journey through the Mediterranean, claims that is has, in fact “done its duty.”

The horrible tragedy of October 3, 2013 in Lampedusa, remains in the forefront in the minds of so many around the world, a tragedy that brought attention to the plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean. In this case, the boat was leaving Libya, with migrants from mostly Eritrea, but also from Somalia and Ghana. With thanks to the Italian Coast Guard, 155 of those making the journey survived, though it is believed that more than 360 human lives’ were lost. That is an astounding number by anyone’s count.

Italian police recover the body of a migrant who drowned after a shipwreck, at La Playa beach in Catania on Sicily island

After this tragedy, people seemed to take notice. When death comes in hoards, people pay attention. But yet, the loss, indeed, of even one life, in the liquid coffin that is the Mediterranean is enough to make one soul sick. I have spoken to so many on the ground in Sicily, who feel the strain of the arrivals in many different ways. I have heard the arguments that say “What more can we do?”   “How much more do we have to give? As well, “Why does the burden fall to us?” I understand a bit of each argument. And while I understand it, I do not necessarily agree with it.   I believe that there is inherent racism in these arguments and I often wonder if the boats were carrying white people, if the reaction would be the same. The truth is, it is difficult to be an outsider in Italy—specifically in Sicily, where, on a daily basis, one can be tolerated, and befriended, but will never belong.   What I feel is missing from the conversations, when, in fact, they occur, regarding, in particular African migrants, is how incredibly difficult their journey really is in terms of what they have fled, what awaits them.

African in Italy


In all of my  many interviews with refugees and migrants, as atrocious as the journey is, and make no mistake, it truly is, struggling and learning to live in an environment, a society that either despises your presence (most common) or merely tolerates it (less common) is a battle that never ends. The utter shock that most refugees and migrants arrive in a state of, is not alleviated in their new life, but is often compounded, as they look for jobs (of which there are rarely any) or housing (in which they are more often than not denied) or where a mere stroll down the street is cast in a suspicious light.

While refugees are often given the basics, such as food and shelter, there is a paucity of access to mental health services that the migrants and refugees are in desperate need of. They have often been trafficked, beaten, raped, held against their will in prison camps in Libya and their families have been threatened to send money to their captors. They have left their native country, left jobs, mothers, fathers, children, and wives. They arrive with a fragile sense of self and a lot of fear.

Admittedly,  while the Italian response to the Lampedusan tragedy was commendable, the decision to end Mare Nostrum is questionable and regrettable. Ending search and rescue missions, in my humble opinion, cannot guarantee that it will discourage those from making the journey. But it will guarantee that those who do will have even less of a chance than they did before.

It must be admitted that while many, many Italian citizens have offered those in need employment, housing friendship and compassion, the national rhetoric goes against that impulse, often fanning the flames of fear and distrust.

So then I ask, what price human life?


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Say Hello to the New Apartheid: The Segregation of Refugees in Bremgarten

So of all of the crazy and inhumane plans put into place regarding refugees, the latest one  come from a town in Switzerland, of all places.    In the land of the impartial , the town of Bremgarten will ban refugees and asylum seekers from libraries, swimming pools, playing fields and most shocking of all—churches.


  Given the treatment of refugees in nearly every place in which they find themselves, this, on the surface , should not surprise anyone—and yet, it does.  It shocks. It infuriates.


The mayor of the town, Raymond Tellenbach claims that these measures have been made on the grounds of concern about “security”.  Every time someone’s rights are denied or curtailed, it is done in the name of “security.”  I don’t even know what this really means anymore. `

To say that the issue of refugees is a “hot button” issue is putting it in its mildest terms.   It is worse than a scandal.   Racism and restrictions on refugees goes hand in hand and is inextricable from one another, though those who speak out against refugees , condemn their very existence and have an appalling lack of concern for their welfare, is couched in terms that elicits the most heightened human reaction: fear.  And we know what the color of fear usually is.  The rhetoric surrounding the rights of refugees in particular and immigrants in general is usually aimed right where it will garner support:  your jobs, your land , your life.  Is it going to be THEM or you and your family.

No matter where you stand on the religious divide, whether you are a believer or not, Pope Francis,  a humanitarian, spoke out against the treatment of refugees, which he called a “global indifference.”  But I would take exception with Pope Francis on only one issue:  the so-called “indifference”.  Indifference seems to imply a turn of the head, a closed eye, a “not my problem” kind of an attitude. But no. This is worse. What the world is seeing now, is the rhetoric of hate, aimed to hit its target. Aimed to intimidate an already vulnerable population of people, who , for the most part, had no choice in leaving their homes.   It seems that the world has forgotten what a refugee really is.  They have no choice. They leave everything.  Change is difficult . For the refugee that change comes at the highest human price they will ever have to pay.

But instead of Mayor Tellenbach realizing what a difference he could make in his small town and how these refugees could, no doubt , contribute to community life, in time, with the support of those around them, he chose to, in essence quarantine his own people against what he perceives as the enemy. This is stupidity on such a grand scale, I don’t have a name for it , but give me time and I will come up with something.


To make matters worse,  the head of  Switzerland’s immigration office and a host of other politicians, most of them local, support Tellenbach’s decisions.

Right now, Switzerland, formerly very welcoming to refugees, has more asylum seekers currently  than any other country in Europe.   While this has caused worry and resentment, politicians would do better to educate their citizens and put measures in place to help acclimate refugees so that they can live productive lives.

If the citizens of Bremgarten are afraid, can you only imagine the fear of the poor refugees who find themselves there?

Historically, poorer countries take in more refugees than anyone else.  For a town like Bremgarten in a country like Switzerland who has resources but nothing but ill will , there is no excuse.

Unfortunately , with measures like this, racism, segregation, and hatred will not only become the norm, but will become an accepted response in other places around the globe, in the future.

wave hello

Say hello to the new Apartheid!


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Words Matter: The Associated Press Discontinues the Use of the Term “Illegal Immigrant”

Remember that little ditty our mother’s taught us as a mantra to ward off those who bullied and teased us?

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Um, your mother was wrongSo was mine.

Words matter. Words can hurt like hell. Words can break you.

In an interesting move and one that activists applaud, the Associated Press has banned the term “illegal immigrant”.   But before we all get too excited, the AP have expressed a desire to avoid “labels” rather than show sensitivity toward immigrants, though they would like to be sensitive to others’ feelings.  Standards editor, Tom Kent told TIME magazine,” We’re trying to put the emphasis not on describing people but on describing actions or situations that they are in.”  They have also rejected “undocumented immigrants,” because even that language lacks the precision they strive for.

Illegal Immigrants CrackdownWords are important.  Our language shapes our perception of reality and others’ perceptions of our condition(s) as well.  Ask any “single mother” whose “illegitimate” children come from a “broken” home.  No one who is reading this blog today will be ignorant of the endless list of labels that haunt, crush and defeat those who desperately try to bear up under them. You will have been a victim of at least one, possibly more.

Were you called lazy, clumsy, stupid, ugly, worthless, a bastard, a bitch early on or repeatedly in your life?  A faggot?  A retard?  A spaz?  A dago?  A wop?  A kike? A spic?  A loser?


It is nearly impossible to  escape a label once it takes hold, growing roots deep into your psyche and those around you. You can spend the rest of your life trying to live it down, change it , turn it around.  And it is exhausting.

See where I’m going here?

The reprehensible Glen Beck weighed in ,  veritably foaming at the mouth: “They’re illegal!  They’re illegal!  They’re illegal!  They are here illegally!!!”  Glen Beck enjoys taxonomies, it helps him to keep people in dark, cramped boxes, away from him, labeled appropriately.

I wish someone would make Glen Beck illegal. Real quick, please.  We wouldn’t have to call him illegal.  We could just deny him the use of hate rhetoric and all that . Free speech be damned.  I know.  I know. Forgive me.

Alternate terms?  A few have been proposed.  The AP rejects “out of status” for being even more imprecise.  And so it goes.  And while the AP rejected the term “illegal immigrants” for precision and stylistic purpose rather than out of the goodness of their collective hearts, I am totally okay with that, because they eventually, will set the standard and I feel confident they will come up with something acceptable.

Sharam Khosravi, author of ”Illegal Traveller” states that once the refugee, the migrant, the immigrant is thought of in a certain way or is thus labeled, it is difficult or impossible to escape:

The invisible border keeps immigrants strangers for generations.  The Sisyphian plight of integration extends even to the next generation. The border exposes me to a gaze that does not see me as an individual but meets me as a type.  The visual field is not neutral.  The gaze is hierarchically interwoven complex of gender, racial and class factors.



Sartre was right:

L’enfer c’est les autres.”  (Hell is other people)


Calling immigrants illegal contributes to their invisibility.  Denies them access to humanity, respect, consideration and intervention.  In Italy they are called “clandestino,” forever hiding in the shadows for fear of being exposed for their “illegality.”

Khosravi speaks of not only crossing physical borders, but also, then, forever attempting to negotiate the borders in peoples’ minds—and insidious border, daunting, indeed.  “An invisible border,” Khosravi astutely observes, “is, however, impossible to reach.”


He continues:

“ Being at home means belonging, but it also means constructing borders and excluding the other.  Any kind of group identification constructs the social category of the other.”

Group identification.  And who does the identifying?  Whoever is not in the unfortunate position of being labeled.

Forgive me my philosophical rant today.  I have a lot of these issues on my mind, as usual.   Every girl deserves, in fact needs, a “rant” every once in a while.  But wait.  I don’t want to label this a “rant” which has a negative connotation.  Because the words I’ve put down here were not penned lightly.  I am  nothing if not passionate about this.


To close I should mention that immigration activists have praised the AP’s stylistic decision as well as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists who issued this statement:

“Those demeaning titles are not only inaccurate and disrespectful, but a propaganda tool used to dehumanize a group of people and instill fear in the general population in order to establish policy.”

I will end with another little ditty that both my grandmother and my mother, in their infinite wisdom repeated to me often:

eat your words

“Make your words short and sweet for someday you may have to eat them.” 

Thanks, Mom.  This one is not a lie.

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“La vita per chi come noi è molto difficile”: job rate for immigrants in Italy drops

My friend Mody, a Sudanese immigrant in Sicily, is looking for a job.

In fact, for Mody, looking for a job is a full-time job in and of itself and one that he is serious about.   For the most part, immigrants, particularly men in Sicily, will work jobs in agriculture—farm work that requires long hours in the hot sun, for minimal pay and few, if any breaks.  This is work that Mody is willing to do, but even that is hard to find.  During one conversation, I try to be encouraging to Mody, telling him things will get better, that work will, eventually, be found.  “Really, Michelle, you have a too a good view of things here. . . “, He said, and I felt utterly ashamed.  Platitudes are rarely, if ever, helpful, and they are really as hollow as they sound.  Now, I just listen.  He often sounds utterly desperate.  And his time at the center is dwindling.  Then he will have to leave and will be expected to make his own way in Sicilian society, which includes, of course, work that can sustain him.

Mody’s dirty job; snakes and other encounters

But what is the reality?

ANSAmed reported in August, that the fallout form Italy’s financial crisis is causing a ‘decrease in hires’, which translates into approximately 22,420 less new jobs for non-season jobs—work to be found in small companies.  Reportedly, this will affect mostly regions in Northern Italy, where, previously, 27,000 more jobs were available last year.  ANSAmed also reports, though that overall, companies are still expecting to hire a maximum of 113,000 foreign workers and that for jobs there will be a very slight hiring increase.  Which jobs they will be, exactly, are not indicated.

Mody's Tunisian friend

Like platitudes, statistics mean nothing to Mody and others like him.  He had worked in Arabic translation for an oil company, for a time. Such opportunities do not present themselves very often, though.  He longs for independence and wants to live the “quiet life.” Only a job can make that possible.  But this is the reality of life in a new and unfamiliar country. Of late, he found a temporary job of cleaning plastic  along with his Tunisian friend. It is a dirty job; often they come upon snakes and other things in the dirt.  But for now,  it is something, at least.


Cleaning the plastic

Mody tells me that in about five months the center in which he and other men from various places have been staying, will release them into the world to make it on their own. “It is all just a matter of time, “ he says.

Long days in the hot sun

The summer has been long, drawn out  and hot .“Mamma Mia , this heat, “ he says.  Then he turns reflective.  “ Life for people like us is very difficult.”  I say nothing.  No platitudes, no empty promises, no pity.  Just the hope that his situation will eventually change for the better.  Still, and amazingly so, he is grateful for whatever it is he already has. And it isn’t much.

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