Category Archives: The Human Side

The Unknowable Reality of the Refugee

“While every refugees story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage: the courage not only to survive , but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives.”

Antonio Guterres

The lives’ of refugees are often unknowable, unfathomable, though they are often portrayed in one of two ways: either as the noble and unfortunate sufferer or the unwelcome undesirables who should go back to wherever they came from. I understand and recognize the dichotomous thinking, how easy it is to be tempted to put a person or a situation that we do not know or understand, in a box, a category. In my encounters with refugees, I attempt to speak as honestly with them as possible . It is I that usually seeks them out , either in refugee camps, reception centers or on the streets of the Sicilian town in which they attempt to live and work and begin their lives’ anew. It is rare for them to initiate contact with me, but it happens.

One day in the open market, I stood with a few of my bright, curious students, under a large umbrella, tasting cheese and otherwise enjoying our day, when a man approached me, by tapping me on the shoulder. I turned around and he stood in front of me , smiling. My students assumed that I knew him, but in fact, I do not ever remember seeing him before, but he insisted that I had.

He handed me a photo and a piece of paper in which he scrawled his name , some Arabic writing and a few other things. He asked me to help him find a job. And then, just to help him, period.

Refugee I met in the open market.

Refugee I met in the open market.

He engaged my students in some conversation, but , kept his eyes on me the entire time. He kept asking me to call him, to help him. Again, he referenced that he’d seen me in the camp and assumed I was an aid worker, in a position to offer, well, aid.

These are the times when I question the responsibility of my encounters with such a vulnerable population. There are severe limits to what I can do. There are limits to so much of what any of us can do for the refugee in any given situation. I saw the desperation in this man’s eyes. When I relayed the story to a friend upon my return home, she felt he probably wanted to exploit me, in some way, perhaps taking advantage of what he perceived to be my kindness. Another friend shook his head slowly, wondered if I knew what I was doing at all.


Notes, written.

Notes, written.

I saved his photo and the piece of paper. It serves to remind me of the limits of my work. It also reminds me of the importance of doing what I can in fact do.

I never saw this man again.

A week later, my mentor called me back home in the states.

Hey,” he said. “Remember that refugee who gave you his photo in the open market?”

I told him that of course I remembered him. I could not get him out of my mind.

I saw him surrounded by police the other day, on the street. They arrested him.”

For what?” I asked.

A soft,  chuckle on the other end of the phone, one of frustration, not of mirth.

That,” he said, “I do not know. It could be anything.”

In fact, my mentor was right. It could be anything at all. And no one will ever know.

The unknowable life of the refugee is the reason why I do what I do. Their stories matter. But in fact, it takes patience in the telling , in the understanding.

Their lives’ are often ones of desperation. They are not perfect people—in that way, they are just like the rest of us: imperfect in our humanity, just trying, trying every day.

But the playing field, as they say , is not a level one.

I do not know where this man is, what he wanted from me that day, or what might have happened to him.

But I think about him nearly every day and I still, I wonder. And of course, I hope for the very best.

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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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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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Migrant Resistance and Protest? All Sewn Up.

It is a well worn cliche to say that desperate times call for desperate measure, but we all know how much truth can be contained in such a cliche. 

Migrants held at Rome’s infamous Ponte Galeria  detention center, decided to literally sew their mouths shut in a display of solidarity with one another and as resistance against the denial of their rights, similar to what migrants on  Australia’s notorious Christmas Island have done.   While many migrants have had their applications for asylum approved and have , thus, moved on, there are those who remain in a limbo state, the ones who are not easily categorized, the one’s who fall through the cracks.
Migrant with lips sewn
As if the entire enterprise of leaving your homeland for greener pastures is not already rife with every danger trap conceivable, once the migrants arrive, they are held in poor conditions, often detained and treated like criminals and live in a sort of vacuum—where they wait and wait and wait but often hear little or , as is usually the case, no information on the the progress (or lack thereof) of their applications, how long they will be detained or where they may be sent next.   The lack of communication compounds the anxiety, restlessness, boredom and fear that they have, more likely than not , already arrived with.  They lack any autonomy at all—every aspect of their lives’ are regulated from the point of arrival.  It is a strange and paradoxical situation, where they are , once almost “non-persons” , but to whom a lot of (negative) attention is given.
They are protesting harsh living conditions—the small cells and mattresses on the floors, the lack of communication from a lack of Italian language skills as well as the fact that no information is ever offered or is forthcoming.   They lack any legal advice or assistance for mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.  The length of time their applications take to process is due to Italy’s notorious (and worsening) bureaucratic system .
And so, a needle and a thread through their mouths and  their lips as a clear signal of protest and resistance.  One can only imagine to what point you must be driven to  do such a thing.
And yet.
Needle and Thread
The brave and novel act has garnered some attention and has made a difference , to at least a few who were released from detention and at least one who was reunited with his wife and children.
Italy is no stranger to the harsh criticism meted out to them for their treatment of migrants , immigrants and refugees. Turning a blind eye to suffering and failing to reconsider a harsh and restrictive immigration policy has made things continually worse , over time.
Once wonders when it will end.
Maybe Italy should realize that most migrants and refugees don’t want to stay in Italy anyway.
Anywhere but here
For now , the stitches that they sewed are out.  But none of the men involved have ruled out the fact that they will sew it all up , once again, if no progress is made.
Eventually, and we all know it , the law, simply must change.
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Lament of the Refugee or Thank God for Pomodori

…How many years shall we sleep as guests on the sea?

…Nothing of our ancestors remains in us, but we want
the country of our morning coffee
we want the fragrance of primitive plants
we want a special school
we want a special cemetery

—Mahmud Darwish, “Guests on the Sea”



Place is important.  I do not need to hold forth here on how our sense of “home” shapes us—far more talented and insightful people have already done that—and you can search them out anywhere. Suffice it to say our first home, or even our sense of home can be carried  with us, coiled tight in our DNA wherever we go. But the memory, albeit  readily conjured whenever we want it is but a poor substitute for the real thing.

For the refugee home is a transient place, the place in which one never really arrives at  but dreams of. Home is more often a place one can never return to.    In fact, home is as much a place as a state of mind.  “Home” denote a level of comfort.  Perhaps even more than comfort, belonging.

But where does the refugee belong?


I step out of my office for a few minutes to phone Muhammad  because he has not been on Facebook, the place where we can easily and most readily keep in touch with one another in between my trips to Sicily.  I have left messages that have gone unanswered, left silly pictures on his profile that say “Mi manchi!” (I miss you) that have not been commented upon.  The heat is scorching on the east coast of the United States—there is barely relief in air-conditioning.  I cannot imagine what Muhammad, currently without a permanent place to stay  might be suffering during the Sicilian summer.

I dial his number and the familiar overseas ringing of the phone, so different from our in the United States sets my teeth on edge. The phone rings and rings.

Finally, he picks up.

“Micky!” he yells, and I can ‘hear” the voice in his smile.  I am sad , though, when I realize how distant  this amazing though vulnerable person is from my well-meaning and protective reach.

My friend Muhammad has moved . Again.  Because the life of a refugee is often an itinerant one , not by  choice but by sheer necessity.  He has left the island  and traveled to  Italy in search of work.  Anything.

He is in the Apulia region, where, soon, they will harvest pomodori, if all the conditions are right.  During the backbreaking work of harvest, Muhammad will be one man among many.  These men will be of various ages, and have various permissions to stay in the country or to work.  Many of them will accept the work of picking tomatoes because they will simply be without any other viable options for employment.  All employment is conditional, seasonal, of course, intense and , it goes without saying does not pay much.

Muhammad cannot stay in one place any longer. “I must keep moving, do you understand me, Mickey?” he asks me several times. I realize I am  nodding instead of answering his question, which, really, requires no answer. Nevertheless, I say , “Yes, Muhammad, I understand.”

I have never known such rootlessness, homelessness, the utter despair and longing for want of a place to live or a place where you would hope for the least of what another human being can offer another:  to tolerate your very existence.   Muhammad is a brilliant man.  He understands his status as a refugee and the many in Italy who oppose his right to live anywhere there.  But he knows he cannot go anywhere else. Surely, he can never return to his home in Sudan where his mother  waits, day after day for word from him.  He tells me he does not talk to her very often because he does not like to lie to her and would not be able to tell her of how difficult his day to day existence is.

African Feet
I ask him where he will live. What he will eat.  He does not answer me.  I ask him , foolishly, if he is okay.  He laughs, “Mickey, really, I am fine, Mickey, but I worry about you!”

Isn’t that always the way?  The one who suffers comforts the ones who worry.

But I can’t stop worrying.  But I think of how he so desires work ,any kind of work, how that is all he has ever wanted since arriving in Italy, to be able to take care of himself.

And now, he has some work. Thank God for the harvest and the Italian love of tomatoes.
So for now, pomodori.
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Here We Go Again: Cecile Kyenge, First Black Minister in Italy Faces Racist Slurs


How easy is it to integrate into a new society?  In Italy, it seems, not very easy at all.  Even if you are highly educated.  A politician. A doctor.  Married to an Italian.

Immigration into a nation that has largely and for so long been a nation of emigrants has been struggling with its identity, with its rapidly changing demographic.   If you look at the example of Italy, it would seem that many (not all) work on the assumption that Italians are all alike—one culture, unchanging over years.   We know who we are , and we know who you are but you are not like us.   The funny and all too obvious point is that Italy has never a country that was monocultural , and if  present trends continue, never will be.  By setting up distinctions of culture, divisions are created , boundaries are drawn.  Hatred breeds.

I have mixed feelings about writing about Italy  in this way—I am Italian-American.  I travel to Italy often.  Most Italians are beautiful people who have extended amazing hospitality to me.  But the truth is, the racism is palpable.  I cannot  and I will not pretend or wish it away. There is no integration.  I have argued with people about this—people who try to deny that this is a reality in Italy.  They try to deny what I have seen with my own eyes.  They are the same people that would and often do, deny the accounts of so, so many whose narratives are tell in vivid detail the suffering(s) they have experienced.  You cannot pretend the racism does not exist simply  because it is a bad reflection on your country, your heritage.


In my most recent post, Dr. Kossi Komla-Ebri, a medical doctor from Togo, living and working in Italy would counter claims that regular Italians are not racist and policies that do not help or favor immigrants are implemented against their wishes  in this way:

“I keep saying it to other immigrants: do not be fooled that the government is doing things contrary to the will of the people! (emphasis mine) Of course, there is a minority in Italy that does not agree with this policy. I do not know if it is a minority or a silent majority that does not agree. However, not expressing their dissent, this “silent majority” will always be in fact a minority of more accomplice of the other screaming.” (Interview, Sempre Sicilia, April 28, 2013)


Now the Italian government has ordered an investigation into the case of the Cecile Kyenge, a medical doctor born in the Congo , living and working in Italy, married to an Italian man and raising her daughters.  Kyenge is the first African Italian minister in the history of Italy. BOOM.  Fodder for all of the neo-fascist and ultra-right wing hawks who have already been exhibiting the hatred, stupidity and xenophobic tendencies by making bizarre claims: Kyenge would like to “impose tribal traditions in Italy,” and calling her  ugly and hateful names: “Congolese monkey” “zulu” and others.  The politicians of the Northern League could barely contain themselves with their racist allegations and vulgarities.  Kyenge is a proponent of legislation that would give children born in Italy to immigrant parents automatic citizenship instead of having to wait until they are 18 years old.   This is legislation that is vehemently opposed by the Northern League.

Citizenship for Immgrants Children

Decent people, Italian politicians and others, including Laura Boldrini, Lower House speaker have raised their voices not only against the outrageous racial comments , but in support of Kyenge.  But not for the first time, I must ask:where is the widespread outrage and indignation?

What must one do to prove themselves in a society?  How long will it take?  My maternal grandfather, a carpenter, used to tell the story over and over again about how , when doing work down south for a period of time, he was physically pushed to the back of the bus.  No, he was not mistaken for a black man.   People knew that he was Italian.  And that he belonged in the back of the bus.   This is what Italians, who left Italy for a better life, more often than not had to encounter.  How ironic, that Italians are so unwelcoming to the “new Italians” immigrants from everywhere, but most particularly Africa.

Edmund Burke is often quoted as saying :  “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”  The world has seen evidence of this so many times.

The racism that Cecile Kyenge has faced in recent days is sickening and unconscionable.  I hope that normal citizens as well as politicians condemn such racism in the strongest terms—-but that may be hoping for just too much. But we live in hope.

white:black handshake



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Can Compassion Become Toxic? The Merits of Not Rushing In

While I have written about a variety of issues here, I’ve not yet tackled the subject of how to help the immigrant, the refugee, the asylum seeker that we may come in contact with.  The term “bleeding heart liberal’ is often used  by some with derision  , and while we know that good intentions are, well, good, what about action?  We know that  intentions alone are not enough.  So how does one help the immigrant and/or refugee?

Bleeding Heart

According to my friend and mentor Ramzi,  a man who knows more about all aspects of immigration than anyone I know, said that a good place to start might be to ask them what it is they actually need.  And the answer  they are likely to give may surprise you.


In March I took 24 brilliant and compassionate students to Sicily. I admit to feeling a bit of  trepidation.  This was my life, my intellectual and emotional interest, the place where I spend an inordinate amount of time researching , interviewing, studying.   I kept asking myself how best to  get across not just the abundance of information I needed to give them to provide the proper context, but how would they interact with the refugees, some of which had become my friends. What would they think?  How would they process what they found My class was focused on immigration and migration in the Sicilian context.   I spent 6 weeks before we left the country for Sicily, where, amongst other activities  we would be meeting and interacting with refugees.  I made a conscious and intentional decision that while I would give them as much concrete information possible, that what I was really after for them was “experiential” and “reflective”.  And I leaned more toward the activist/human element.

Hand in Hand

One among many refugees  that I have come in contact and interveiwed has become a very very  good friend.  I would say this man is like my family.   There is nothing that the two of us cannot say to one another.   We are both glad the other exists in the world. During each class I would tell my students stories about my friend, his life , his struggles.   If they were eager to meet him, I honestly could not tell, but I assumed they were curious.

In Sicily, my friend came to speak to my class with a friend of his, a fellow refugee.  They told their stories, my friend, first.  He is an elegant man, educated. He knows how to frame his story so that his sufferings and his trials can be related to by others.  He neither wants nor seeks pity.  He understands that his struggle is not just his struggle alone.  That the structure of things, overall, must change in order to combat the racism and  exploitation that many immigrants and refugees encounter with alarming regularity not just in Italy, but in the European Union at large.

Students were overwhelmed. They listened with quiet and respect.  I saw tears.  I saw looks of disbelief.  What they saw, two handsome, strong and articulate men who were suffering in a variety of ways, probably did not compute immediately.  In one class I had talked about our “first world” concerns—there are so many—-and how they do not come close, and in fact seem utterly ridiculous in comparison with the rest of the world’s problems.   I knew they had to process.  I knew they would be writing in their required journals—their laboratories where they would record everything.  And write they did. What happened next was something that I was not prepared for: they were overcome with compassion and concern.  To say I was proud of them was putting it mildly.  But I knew that that was just the first wind of knowledge that hits heart before brain.  By the time they would pick themselves up from the floor, they would need to process further.

After all, what do you do  with a heart full of compassion?

It is a hard lesson to sit with the knowledge that we have of a situation before we act.  We live in a fast-paced world where a contemplative lifestyle is not respected in this bottom line world.  We are taught, in fact, encouraged to be people of action versus inaction.  But , in fact, there are times, there are definitely  situations most of all when they relate to the wellbeing of human beings, when it is prudent to press the  “pause” button.  To be circumspect.  To question yourself and try to discern that  if you want to help, how can you do it in a way that preserves the dignity of the person you want to reach out to?

In the education department of my university, a professor has a poster which says “Presume Competence” hanging on her office door.  I love that.  While this poster refers to those mainly with physical handicaps, warning others not to rush in until the signal is given that help , is indeed, required, I can apply it to this situation , too.  Has someone asked for you help?  If you rush in with all manner of  assistance or what you think will be helpful, lifesaving or  life changing, how will you feel if it is rejected?  Not appreciated as much as you thought?

At a church in Sicily, I and one of my students spoke with a refugee who told us how monotonous nearly every  day is for him: “I walk around outside.  Sometimes I go out for some pizza.  Then I come back.  Nothing.”  I asked him if he needed money.  I am sure he did , but that was the least of his worries.  They were taking care of him at the church. What he needed was hard to find: a job.  Finally he laughed, not without irony and just a touch of bitterness and said , “Really, what would I do with money?

My students have huge hearts.  They want to help my friend.  They would like to bring him here.   But I want to tell them, good intentions are wonderful, but dignity is too.  Today I told one of my students, one of the brightest most enthusiastic among them not to “rush in.” Not to ,in any way, get his hopes up, not to presume we know what he wants.  In fact, he cannot come here for many reasons.

I told her what my mentor/friend Ramzi told me:  That no one should underestimate this man’s capacity for survival. That we should keep things light and normal with him.  That to cast him in the role of “poor thing” threatens to rob him of the dignity he has. He is a beautiful person inside and out.  He is a person, not our cause.

We must presume competence.  Even the best of our intentions can become toxic to the person we are trying to help.

What did Ramzi advise we give my friend in abundance?  Friendship.  That is what he really wants.  He wants normalcy in his life.  He wants to talk about everything and nothing at all,  just like the rest of us do nearly every day.  I know my students will hold him up with their friendship. They are like that.

I called my friend  today.  I went outside of my office into the bright and warm day where students were milling around enjoying themselves in the carefree way students often do. I was conscious of how very far away he was.  I held my cellphone close .  I wanted to hear his voice loud and clear.

At the end of our conversation he said:

Thanks too much Micke, your smile is  always  inside me. . . there is  hope in my life and when I  go through your words , really,  I  find my self free to fly around…

bird with heart

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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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Clearly, Delusion is a Disease and it is Catching

In 2011 more than 1,500 people drowned or went missing in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean.  The United Nations High Commission for Refugees began keeping statistics on crossings in 2006 , which has made 2011 the deadliest year in the Mediterranean.  Lately, Spain , Italy and Malta have experienced the largest sea arrivals.

in the ocean

Waves  of refugees continue to sail onto  both Italian and Maltese shores.  Of late, authorities have found four boats with a total of 342 migrants.  Of those four boats, three were intercepted by Italian coast guards—a total of 260—and were taken to Lampedusa.  Most of the migrants were said to be from Somalia.  They send out a distress signal as the engine in their dinghy failed, as they often do on these treacherous trips.

I know enough to understand that surviving the journey through the Mediterranean , while horrific to both mind and body , sadly, is not the hardest part for those seeking a better life.  Landing on shore may provide a momentary relief until real life sets in and the lack of what one has or hopes for both increase one hundred fold.

men in boats

There is reality and then there is REALITY.

And the reality for refugees is that there will be minimal help patriating them as they try to mentally, physically and socially try to recalibrate their lives.  They will no longer be seen for who they really are.  They are no longer really individuals and they will be largely avoided in the streets.  They will become the “unseen”.  They will become, by virtue of their non-person status, indistinguishable from one another.  They are now lumped together as “refugees” , those without work, sometimes without a home.  They will be pitied , but avoided, reviled , mocked and used as a scapegoat for terrible economy that has assailed most of the European Union.

In the midst of boats arriving from African nations , immigrants are now rethinking their decision to live and work in Italy and are now turning their backs on Italy and it’s recession.  Italy is now experiencing its longest postwar recession, making the climb back a long and hard one.  Italy’s low birthrate (nearly the lowest in the world) needs immigrants in the workforce, but there seems to be no work. Italy’s demographics has largely depended on immigrants to bolster its numbers.


Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi fears the a government of leftwing Democrats which he believes would lead to instances of gay marriage and borders open to illegal immigrants.  Democrats would answer these fears by leading the polls with a promise to grant citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Italy.

Racism is rampant in Italy.  Those immigrants who cannot abide in a weak and failing economy will ask for assisted repatriation in their countries of origin. The hardworking Chinese are leaving in droves.  The vulnerable who arrive in dinghy’s, on rickety boats, who are sun-sick, thirsty and half-crazed with fear and the missing of loved ones, will be the scapegoats for those who think that they are the real problem.  Worse, they will forever be seen as sad “cases”  instead of  men and women who had real lives, lives of meaning  before arriving in Italy.

My good  friend Mody , who I have written about so many times here before,  a refugee from Sudan recently spoke passionately about his lot in life  to a group of my students in Sicily. He moved a room full of students to tears, because he dared to show who he really is, refused to allow them to see him only as a “victim” or as a non-person whose previous life , before he came to Italy, was wiped away.  Mody is still unemployed, devoid of hope, disgusted with the system, angry with Italy in general,  but a man of great intelligence and  and even more dignity.

Among many other things, he told them:

This is not the whole story of me, what you see here of me in Italy.  I am a man who had a country.  I have a mother.  Sisters. Brothers.  People who love me.  I had a job. Things that were important to me.  This is not the whole story of me. 

Racist attacks in Italy are on the rise.  The reasons? Because immigrants have jobs.  Because immigrants don’t have jobs. Because they are black. Because they talk funny.  Smell funny.  Look menacing.  Are responsible for the rising crime rates.  Because they cause instabilities in  long established neighborhoods. Name your reason.


It is all a mixed and crazy bag of sad circumstances.  Clearly, delusion is a disease and it is catching.

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But Where Are the Men? A Visit to a Refugee Center in Sicily

I am a solo traveller. By choice.  My work is so important to me, all consuming in fact, that I live in my own head when I am in Sicily. I have so much to process. But  this time, I have brought 24 students to Sicily with me.  How to teach my students about the vast issues of immigration and migration in the Sicilian context?  How to unravel fact from fiction, the hype from the real situation?  I have urged them to come to their own conclusions, conduct their own conversations.  Look into the eyes of those affected by the no-man’s land that crossing borders seems to bestow upon nearly everyone who undertakes the brave, desperate and risky  move.

My friend and colleague, Ramzi, brings us to a Catholic church, where the priest, a defender of the rights of immigrants eventually leads us into the quiet and cavernous church, adorned not with  statues of sad-eyed saints and gold brocade, but instead, so much artwork produced by the mostly men to whom the church is a refuge.  The priest repeats twice that we must not criticize the artwork , though I cannot imagine why anyone would:  it is quite good.

There are a few refugees moving around the perimeter of the lot in front of the church.  There is a slant bit of sun, but not much.  The men are slightly curious, but  seem to lack the energy to approach us.  Or maybe they are just shy.  I feel ashamed and embarrassed.  Why are we here?  And then , of course I remember.  We have brought them lunch from the market:  fresh roasted chickens, french fries, big bulbs of fennel, strawberries , and bread. One of the  students offers the ricotta cheese she has bought. We will serve the men lunch inside.

While Ramzi is talking,  one man calls out:

“Ramzi! Ramzi!  It’s been a long time, man, no?”

The man is short, but with almost waist length dreadlocks, gathered together with a big elastic rubber band.  He looks strong.  His back is straight and he is muscled. His chin tilts upward, what I have always thought of as  the mark of pride in a man.   I turn to look at him and he stares right into my eyes.  I break from the crowd and approach him, while calling over one of my students, Cynthia, who is on the other side of the crowd.  We engage the man in conversation.  He is from Liberia.  Cynthia is a gentle questioner.  The man is intense.  He tells us how horrible it is to be so far from his  home in Liberia. To be in Sicily where the life of a refugee is a miserable existence.  We ask him how he passes his time and his laugh is a bitter one.  “I go out for pizza, I come back, I walk around.”  He waves his right arm into an arc which encompasses the few men who are in the lot, some leaning on a brick wall.   I ask him if I could give him some money.  “What would I do with money?” he asks, genuinely puzzled. Cynthia looks at me, her face one of gentle concern.

He needs work.  He wants work.  There is no work.


We file into the rooms where we will set up the food. A few of the men have prepared the tables for us first, at the request of the priest.    I run back to the yard to ask the rest of the  men to come in.  But before I can say anything, one calls out, “yes, yes, we are coming.”

But, in fact, they don’t. 

In two separate little dining rooms, I and my students find what dishes we can in the brightly lit kitchen. The plates, like everything else, are mismatched, which, far from making things dingy, actually lends a coziness to the center that I have not seen in other centers I have been in. The refugee center is devoid of the institutional and sterile look of beige, beige and more beige that we have become so used to in the United States.


 We wash and cut the fennel. We slice the bread.  We pile the strawberries in a bright bowl. The chicken is still hot and juicy and quite fragrant. We have real plates, but plastic forks. Tall bottles of Pepsi are placed on each table. We wait and then we begin to eat.  Ramzi has told the students that the men will come.

But,in fact, they don’t come.


The afternoon wanes and my students are tired. The weak sun shifts a bit, signaling the waning afternoon.  I hear the traffic pick up a bit.  It is coming to the end of the work day outside the gates of the church.  The students were hungry and are now full.  Tired. Wanting to get back to our home base.

One refugee actually enters the dining room I am in.  He takes a plate. He smiles though speaks to no one.  He leaves and I do not know where he has gone.  Conversation dies down a bit and then spikes.

We start to clean up.   We aim to make things clean and restore the order we disrupted.  We were like intruders today and I feel a slight flush of shame.

We wait outside in the lot for all of us to gather.  One of my students is a beautiful blonde with a winning smile that no one in Sicily can resist. She cajoles (but does not have to try too hard) one of the refugees to give her a ride on the little motorbike that he has.  Before I know it, she is riding on the back, zipping right past our group, her hair flying like the flag of a bright and beautiful place behind her.  Before I can protest, they turn around and zip past us again.  I feel ill at ease, then angry in what seems, in a way that I cannot even articulate to myself, wrong for my student to have done this.  It seemed exploitative in some way.  But I didn’t know why.

Then I saw the smile.  The man from Liberia had the widest smile I’d ever seen.  His eyes were shining.  It was the first genuine smile I had seen on  any of the men the entire day.  My student was taking the chances I had told her to take. She was stepping out of her comfort zone.  She had done this in other ways, too.  She was spontaneous in a place and with a man who has little opportunity for any spontaneity in his life.

As we left, the men smiled but did not move from the wall.  One tinkered with a broken bicycle, which is what he was doing when we arrived.  A few waved.  One called out “ciao” loudly, perhaps glad to see the back of us.  I imagined they were glad to see us go.   I waited for one of my students to ask why we came; what was the point?


But they didn’t ask.  Not yet.  But they will.  And not just about why we came.  But about other things , too.  And , as it sometimes happens,   I won’t have any of the right answers.  But I will try to figure things out. Ramzi tells me that the men did not participate because they are without hope and know that our encounter will not change things.  I believe this to be true.  I have the uncomfortable feeling of filing in with so many students as we are witness to lives’ of misery.  One thing I will tell my students is that  , amongst other things, we can tell our stories. And we can listen to the stories of others.  Our narratives are a form of social action. But then they must go beyond simply narrative.  Then, as usual, I will try to convince myself of the same thing.

 The work continues.

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