Lego Migrants: A chance to teach compassion in the wake of a humanitarian crisis.

“Children are like wet cement whatever falls on them makes an impression.”
  — Haim Ginott, Child psychologist


“Lego Migrants” Alberto Tanasi

As surprising as it sounds, I have never given any deep thought to how children living in Sicily (and of course, other places) are attempting to grasp the migrant/refugee crisis, a crises of such epic proportions that  parents, teachers and others must surely be in frequent conversation on the topic.    Of course they must be influenced by the many vivid images on  television news and print media.   In fact, a child in Sicily is likely to see and encounter the very people who are the ground zero victims of the humanitarian crisis.    What are these children  to make of it?  How do they process what they see and what they hear?  And because of the natural law of growing up, they will not be small forever.   How we talk to them of and about the crisis matters. It matters what they hear.  A perfect time to ground them in compassion and caring. To bring them out of themselves enough to be aware of the things going on around them.  Too young?  They already “know”.  And what they “know” will need to be nuanced and mediated.


On a popular Italian-American site the other day, readers were responding to an article about how some refugees had been assigned a chef to cook for them.  Since I have encountered many refugees in Sicily, I can attest to the fact that the food they are given is not only unpalatable to them, but is given in small amounts. Pasta is the staple dish and their bodies are not used to the starch , nor the lack of calories.   Food is incredibly important to our well-being, and the food of where we come from can often be the only comfort we have if we need to travel far from home—if in fact, we are fortunate enough to be able to shop and cook for ourselves.  The comments on the site lacked an understanding and compassion of the migrants and refugees so much so that the sentiments expressed bordered on fascism.  Cruel and horrific.  “If they don’t like the food, why don’t they just swim back to where they came from!”  Most all others cruelly  missed the point entirely: “What?! They don’t like Italian food? It’s the best cuisine in the world!”  

These thoughts predominate a lot of talk about migrants and refugees.  This generation is listening. How we mediate and explain,with intelligence and compassion,  will influence how this crisis of epic proportions will be handled in the future, by the very children who are now watching in unfold in ways both dramatic and chaotic.

My friend Davide’s son, quite poignantly, filled a little Lego boat with Lego migrants.  One wonders what he was thinking when he made it.  But, he did in fact make it.  He’s just a  little boy in Sicily.  With the crisis unfolding all around him.



Birds of Sicily: poems that explicate the immigration experience

I guai della pigniata sabe sol’ o cucchiao

(The troubles deep in the pot are known only by the spoon—Sicilian proverb)




This collection explicates the cycle of immigration of a man who fled Sicily and feared vendetta for his entire life.  The rough terrain of Sicily, both literally and figuratively figures prominently. The vagaries of displacement, adjustment, abandonment and the politics of place , juxtaposed with the migratory patterns of birds can be found in these poems.   It is a timeless issue in a world that is ever on the move.



 Bird the island with the naked eye and you come upon the rare, the accidental, the vulnerable, the extirpated.  The island didn’t give them anything then.  Beaks, sharp as the points of knives, strike before being struck.  It is our way, they might say. By mountain, by sea.

 O mare, O mare!

 Nature has a passion for erasure, subjugation, for keeping the powerful unbowed.  For survival, while feeding yourself with one hand, you deny your mother’s love, look askance at your father’s sad smile, with a fierce, but quiet disdain.   There now, do not worry.  Walk the sun baked estate with impunity.

Thank you for your support!



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The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others

Albert Schweitzer

If one pays close attention, the traveller or more specifically the tourist in Sicily will see “need” at every turn.  The evidence of poverty , homelessness  and the displacement of refugees to those enjoying a  vacation  is an “inconvenient truth” , with most people choosing , whether consciously or subconsciously , to ignore what, in reality, cannot and should not be denied.

homeless in Sicily

I am not much of a tourist. In fact, I never have been. The place where I love to dwell, literally and figuratively, is in everyday life.   I have a friend that used to joke that I was a true member of the often-castigated “hoi polloi”. I am proud of that. In general, I am not interested in seeing whatever is in a guidebook and I am quite certain that no matter where I have found myself in the world, I have missed things that are deemed by the venerable guide books (that people clutch like the Bible) a “must see.” Honestly, I have never really cared about such things.

For the past 4 years I have been lucky enough to lead my students to Sicily each March, which is the travel component of my class, “This Sea is Not My Home: Immigration, Migration and Social Justice in the Sicilian Context.” As you can glean from the title, what started out as class that on the vagaries of immigration, migration and refugees, has slowly morphed into examining the realities of not only migration as a worldwide movement and phenomenon, but, perhaps more importantly, the lives’ of refugees themselves. The people, not just the geopolitical situation.  


I have staunchly defended (and still do) the rights of people to migrate from one place to another, most particularly for reasons  that people seek asylum. I could also reason the cruel irony of how protected merchandise is and how easy it is to cross borders ($$$$$) though masses of people are seen as a scourge. I have had to listen to Sicilians and Sicilian-Americans, often with fingers in my face trying to tell me how bad the situation is for Sicilians in their own country. I sympathized—how could I not— but my particular focus was on refugees into the country, not those suffering from a decimated economy resulting in an  unemployment rate so high , the first time I was told what it was, I though I had misheard. But, in fact, I would have to be cold, hard, shiny plastic not to care. ,

I care

Last week my students and I helped out at a Catholic Relief Agency one evening. The students were tasked to shop during the day for the food in the open market. On the menu was fruit salad, green salad and chicken stew. We washed and chopped and the wonderful men and women at the agency did the actual cooking. But my students and I portioned the food out. And we served. We served a hungry, possibly homeless (at least some of them) and grateful bunch of people. Among a group of perhaps 45 there was a family with two young boys. There were approximately 4 refugees that I could easily identify. The others were Sicilian.

To think of them now ties my heart up in knots.   I have listened to, read and discussed the situation in Sicily with people I deeply trust there: friends, advocates, cultural mediators and educators, all on the front lines , involved and passionate.   I have come to the conclusion that at least one of the reasons that  many are opposed to the  influx and presence of the refugees is that many  themselves are also suffering—and they perceive (not accurately) that their jobs, or at least the possibility of employment will be taken from them.   How can you possibly convince those with that mindset otherwise? It is hard to be compassionate in the face of your own fear and suffering.

What I know is that in that room when the bell was struck for the Our Father before the eating of the meal, everyone in the room stood and there was utter silence. There was respect, too, that everyone in the room had for one another: young, old, black, white, immigrant and refugee.  In that moment, everyone was connected somehow, and our differences did not matter.


With each plate I set before someone who was waiting to eat,  I said “buon appetito”. Every single person responded, warmly, with a smile and a “grazie.” This is not to fetishize those in need—far from it, but I see poverty of every kind as a sort of equalizer—it reduces us to the essence of our humanity—and it elevates us too, when we lend a hand, in any way, to help alleviate it.

When we passed out the fruit cups, the two young boys very carefully enunciated “thank you” to me in English.   I replied in kind. The mother looked up at me and asked, in a bit of an embarrassed way, if I could maybe find a cup of fruit with more oranges.   “The boys really love oranges,” she said


The reality of having to bring your children to a social service agency in order to feed them, hit me in a very vulnerable place. While intellectually, I know this a sad, but common occurrence, I’d never faced it so up close.  It felt personal  Most people who will read this blog post will be very far from such an experience.  I looked at those kids and I felt my face flush.  Time seemed to stop for just a moment.

I will continue to seek and narrate the voices of refugees in Sicily—I am committed to this work. Sicily is , a complicated but wonderful place, and  my eyes are now more open to the need everywhere. It is not like taking sides: refugees need very particular help, being such a vulnerable and at risk population. The homeless , poverty stricken , the addicted, the forgotten,  need help and compassion, too. Compassion for everyone can go a long way.

At the end of the evening, one man came up to my students and jovially observed , “You can’t understand me and I can’t understand you, but yet, here we are together!”

After all, hunger in the belly hurts us all in exactly the same way.


Silhouette of stick people on hillside and sunset in background

Hunger in the Belly Feels the Same to Us All: Feeding the Needy in Sicily

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A Day of Service: start small, do something


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

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

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

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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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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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“Commitment is What You Do When the Emotion is Gone: Refugees as the ’cause du jour’ “

Last week I received a comment on one of my blog posts.   The writer, “Johanna” from Finland responded this way: Problem is that we know too MUCH about them to ever accept them. There you have it.

The way in which I responded was a chance for her to explain what she meant by that, but of course, I know exactly what she meant.   “What” exactly, does she, or anyone else for that matter, know about “them?” If she were to tell the truth, she might reply: actually, nothing. And yet, one gets the impression that she was not only speaking for herself, but perhaps for her country. Finland. Well, as infuriating as that comment was, she is far from the only one expressing it.   And “Johanna”, of course, never responded

In the intervening years in which I have dedicated myself, as so many others have, to the cause of refugees, most specifically those coming to Sicily, I , too, have been the target of some very nasty racist comments and attitudes, many from Sicilian-Americans.   I have quit many online Sicilian culture forums where I have previously enjoyed the camaraderie of the culture, until someone would start discussions about Sicily’s burden of receiving refugees. It became to much for me. What began, ostensibly as discussion about a worldwide phenomenon quickly became ad hominem attacks on me, personally. Why wasn’t’ I helping Sicilians who were also suffering?   How dare I call myself Sicilian/American while daring to “out” Sicilian racism.   Why was I such a n****r lover?   I felt soul sick.   As in the United States, it is a difficult and frustrating enterprise to attempt to explain deep seated , inveterate, structural and institutionalize racism to those who simply will themselves not to understand. Who, instead, will turn their financial and/or societal woes into be the fault of a vulnerable population seeking refugee from unspeakable horrors.   I became the hated and the reviled. A traitor to my own “people.”

The Gillard Government made a commitment in 2010 to release all children from immigration detention by June 2011, but still 1000 children languish in the harsh environment of immigration camps around Australia. The Refugee Action Collective organised a protest on July 9, 2011 outside the Melbourne Immigration Transit accommodation which is used for the detention of unaccompanied minors.

Racism and fear of the “intruder” is by no means exclusive to Sicily. In face, it must be stated here, how many amazing people I know in Sicily who have wholly dedicated their lives to the plight of the refugees, offering shelter, education, food, jobs and support. These people do this because it is right. They were tirelessly. This is not the cause du jour. This is a way of LIFE.   We know, by the many countries that have refused entry to refugees, that the resistance toward them is strong and seemingly not, in any way, abating. Why is that? In fact, many immigrants have found there way into any number of European countries—they travel far from home to make Italy, France, England or any other number of European countries in which they were not born, to make their homes there.   But where, is the resistance to those situations? Rarely, if ever, is there any. Usually, because those who do that are difficult to identify as “not belonging.” But the African refugee is instantly recognizable.   There is nowhere to hide.   Simply finding safe and affordable housing is often a feat of gargantuan proportions, because no one wants them to live among them. This is how ghettoes are formed. This is how people are relegated to the margins. And then many can assuage any feelings of guilt that are, frankly, unlikely to happen by saying: “well, what are they complaining about? They have a place to live!


To combat racism against these refugees means raising your voice. It means being dedicated to the cause of those who flee when no other choice is viable. Who would leave their home in the way in which they do, if not to save their own lives’?   Grand sweeping gestures are good (everyone is ready to go to Sicily to “help the refugees”) but there are so many ways that you can help from where you are. How do you speak about racism, how do you challenge and witness to those who are victims, daily, of a bias that at its base is so evil as to almost be unspeakable? How do you help where you already are? How are you lifting your voices?   So many I have spoken to are interesting: they want to help refugees, but would not dream of living next door to one.   We have to be suspect of that.   We are not perfect, but we have to begin somewhere.


Right now, the refugee crisis is the cause du jour for many who have not been paying attention for a lot of years. To those, I say: Commitment is what you do, what you have, what you enact when the emotion of the current event is gone, when it exists even though it has receded from the headlines.


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

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


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


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

We are deaf

We are deaf

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

A coffin waiting for a refugee

A coffin waiting for a refugee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.


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.


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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