Tag Archives: Sicily

Human Rights Advocate and Activist Cristina Moscuzza Shows an Ethic of Care for Refugees in Sicily


To know Cristina Moscuzza is to love and admire her.  Cristina is that rare human being who has no ego attached to what she does.  That she works in the field of social justice, advocacy and activism for refugees in Sicily would not surprise anyone who meets her: she is warm, friendly and genuine.
heart-and-world
 Cristina is that rare human being who has no ego attached to what she does.  That she works in the field of social justice, advocacy and activism for refugees in Sicily would not surprise anyone who meets her: she is warm, vivacious an humble.  There are many in Europe who are working to to alleviate the suffering of refugees , but few who do so selflessly, tirelessly and with no need or want of the recognition that might be important to others.
  A recent  meeting  in Sicily with Cristina and  the three amazing people she brought to meet my students and I, reveals her deep and genuine care for those with whom she works. She laughs easily, gives hugs freely and does not presume or try to speak for refugees or anyone else.  In the room crowded with my students and others, she gave a short preamble, being very spare with her words, and then steps aside to let these young adults tell their stories in their own words  She casts a maternal eye toward them and they return the look with smiles.
Cristina Ortigia

Cristina Moscuzza in Sicly

I’ve wanted to interview Cristina for some time now and was happy she could find the time for me.   She is doing very important work in Sicily, but for her it is not just work:  working with the refugees, with the vulnerable reflects  a very distinct worldview that she has that human beings all have the right to dignity and protection. The organization that Cristina  works for  is ARCI,  an organization in which she can realize her best self and hope those in need the most:
“ARCI is an independent association for the promotion of social and civil rights. With its 5,400 clubs and more than 1,100,000 members, it represents a broad structure for democratic participation. ARCI is committed to the promotion and development of associations as a factor for social cohesion, as places for civil and democratic commitment, for asserting peace and the rights of citizenship as well as to fight any form of exclusion and discrimination”.
       https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Associazione_Ricreativa_e_Culturale_Italiana
SS:Please tell me about the organziation you work for and how  you became involved with them.
CM:I have been involved in ARCI association for a  long time. I was a teen when I had my first experience with them; in the following years I can say this always was, is and will be the association that reflects my life philosophy and my beliefs the most.
SS:What is your background, for instance, your education and  other aspects of your career?
CM: I had classical studies during secondary school, and while I was studying it my desire of a less theorical university grew up. So I chose a Fine Arts Academy. When I graduated I join the ministerial program in order to spend a year in social services abroad. So in 2004 I first went to  Tanzania in Africa. I spent  9 years of my life there, joining different NGO’s and then working in the tourist field also. In 2013 I had to return to Italy and ARCI was the first place I went.  During that period of time,we faced the arrival of minor children coming to   our coastline and trying to cope with it as much as it was possible for us. I was a  cultural mediator and then, after some training , I was a  legal advisor for ARCI,  and then for different associations.
Advocacy_Stock
SSWhy are you intersted in refugees and migrants?
CM: I’m interested in human beings, but I have particular concern for those who are vulnerable.   
SS: What is a typical work day for you like?
CM:My days are not so easy  to predict!  I try to engage myself in many things. So I am weekly working for ASP8 on call (that is the local administration of the HEALTH CARE FACILITIES) in different emergency camps for migrants, but I can be called from them also for emergencies in hospital. I am a guardian, so I try to take care of minors Court name me to look after them, and to dedicate them a little part of my time. I volunteer in ARCI every Monday and Wednesday afternoon, we open our office to migrants and people in needs. I’m helping a friend with secretary work few hours a day. And I am also mother of a 6 years old that takes all of my time!
Cristina Moscuzzo

Cristina (l) with her best friend Simona and Simona’s boyfriend, Richard, from Liberia

SS: What do you see as the biggest problem refugees have coming to Sicily?
CM: The biggest problem is WHY do they have the need to come abroad. Then ,  the WAY they come because they  have no other in how they will arrive here.  But once they arrive in Sicily the biggest problem to me is the fact they cannot  have others see and understand their migration  to the laws and the international conventions.
·SS: How do most of the refugees adjust?
CM: They can cope with the long time they have  to spend in emergency camps waiting for the proper documents, but too often this creates in them prejudices and preconceptions against Europeans  and in some cases psychological effectss you might see in people “already integrated”. The reception system is terribly lacking.
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SS: Are they able to find jobs?
CM: Oh yes they are. But only if there is job for them! (I’m sarcastic obviously!)
SS: What are do you like best about working with refugees?
CM: This line of work mirrors  my work in Africa.  I really miss it. So I can say working with refugees is my cure for Africa  [home]sickness. I like every part of this experience: I take the bad with the good; it  all teaches me a lesson.
SS: Does one need to be an expert to work with refugees?
CM: It helps, but it’s not strictly necessary. The best experience you can have is while you are doing it. Of course one doesn’t have to give legal advice if you are not knowledgable about it.
SS: What do people believe about refugees that is not true?
CM: People believe is  enough just  to see them as a problem, and it’s not necessary to see them as specific individuals. But they are indivuals with different names, different stories, different needs. To put people into categories is the most dangerous way to think and approach to this phenomena.
SS: Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
CM: Thanks for interviewing me!
ADVOCACY
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Cerrone’s Novella ,The Hunger Saint, Parts the Curtain on a Little Known Period of Recent Sicilian History


Everywhere one looks in today’s world, exploitation can be found at nearly every level of social and political life.  Some of the exploitation of humans is well known, well documented and in the forefront , especially in light of currents events—the world seems as though it is veering off of its axis.   Some forms of exploitation, by another name “slavery” are embedded, deep in a culture’s not too distant history, where it would be brought to light if someone would just scratch the surface and reveal it.   Olivia Kate Cerrone, does just that in her powerful  novella, The Hunger Saint (Bordighera Press, 2017).   Anyone with Sicilian blood or otherwise in any way engaged with the island will know it it be full of mystery and contradiction—and as different from the mainland Italy as one can imagine.  A colorful history of being plundered and conquered by nearly everyone adds to the complexity of the land, the people and its history.

Olivia Kate Cerrone

Olivia Kate Cerrone

But a little known dark period in Sicily’s history is more recent than what books on European history will usually reveal—-that of the carusi  (young boy), the practice of sending very young boys into the mines to provide sulphur , which was in great demand around the world.  These young boys were often given to the owners of  the mines by their families or the homes in which they were placed at birth  to satisfy debts known as ,soccorso morto ,  incurred by their father’s , brother’s or grandfather’s escape or death from the mines.  One was born into the life and often death was the only escape, though, both cruelly and paradoxically, enslaving another member of a family.

Hunger Saint

Cerrone’s The Hunger Saint is what I would call, unreservedly, a tour de force, a small but powerful novella that tells, quite vividly, the story of Ntoni, a young boy who suffers in every way possible, and in some ways unimaginable, by paying off his father’s debt in mines.  Cerrone’s conducted painstaking research , traveling to Sicily in 2013, to conduct oral interviews in the Sicilian region of Enna, in order to hear, firsthand, of the barbarous practice ,widely accepted for many years, until the demise of the industry in the early 1980’s, which resulted in a very informative piece that was published in the Times of Sicily, Why the Carusi Matter. That Cerrone, an award-winning fiction writer chose to express her findings in a very intense and evocative novella, will insure that the plight of the carusi, a troubling but important aspect of Sicilian history, will not be forgotten.  Her narrative goes deep inside the heart and mind of the young Ntoni in a telling so alive, that cold , hard research facts could never do the experience justice.  Cerrone is expert in her craft, and the story she tells is multi-layered and complex, so much so , that the reader may have a very visceral reaction to the story:

Child slavery in Sicily sulfur mines.jpg

Carrying heavy bags of ore

When the basket was full, Ntoni lifted it a few inches off the ground before setting it down again. The throb in his arms was immediate, almost dizzying. His nose and brow dripped with sweat; his thoughts raced in circles.  There was no escaping the toil Even if he somehow managed to escape, his family would still be stuck paying off he loan.  HIs younger brother would also be blacklisted fro working in any Sicilian mine when he came of age. Only in death could the socorro morto debt be forgiven. Ntoni breathed heard, stifling the impulse to moan. Then he reached for the basket and secured it between his shoulder blades, feeling again the bite of its rough bottom ridge as a white-hot pain shot down the  length of his spine. (5)

CARUSI

The carusi

I have long admired Olivia’s total and complete dedication to her craft and to her desire to better know all aspects of Sicilian history and life, something that we share and have often discussed. She was incredibly gracious in answering some of my questions regarding her interest in the carusi and the writing of this book.

Sulphur MInes

The carusi in the sulphur mines

SS: What sparked your interest in this project in the first place?

OKC: I discovered the carusi largely by accident. In my early twenties, I wrestled a great deal with forging my own sense of identity and I was desperate to have some deeper understanding of my Sicilian heritage—an understanding that didn’t rely on vapid Hollywood stereotypes or sentimental notions of grandmothers, neither of which I could relate to. I didn’t (and still don’t) identify as a Catholic. Outside of pasta dishes, my family was very much disconnected from the culture in any meaningful way. So I immersed myself in Sicilian literature, films, folk music and language—aspects of the culture that might really offer some sense of a core Sicilian identity. It was in a Sicilian language class in NYC where I first learned about the carusi, and I was at once horrified and intrigued by their tragic presence in the world. I still don’t understand why more hasn’t been written about these child laborers, but as a writer whose work is rooted in socially-conscious issues, I was compelled to produce a book about them, if only to help raise further awareness of their suffering. Fiction is a compelling means of connecting people to history and larger social issues.

SSWhat kind of research went into finding out about the carusi and how long did that take?

OKC: Over a period of about five years, I devoured everything I could find in terms of films and literature about the carusi, and traveled to Sicily to conduct oral histories and research among surviving sulfur miners. Since so little has been written about the carusi (in English or Italian), I soon realized that I needed to visit the actual mine sites and talk to Sicilian people to get a better understanding of the circumstances and brutal conditions that these children faced. I was very fortunate to connect with Dr. Salvatore Di Vita, former director of Il Parco Minerario Floristella-Grottacalda, an open-air museum that was once one of the largest sulfur mines on the island. He introduced me to surviving miners still living in the surrounding area. These men and their families were very generous in sharing their memories with me. Hearing their stories largely informed the shape and context of the manuscript that I was inevitably able to produce.

SS: What did you find out that most surprised you?

OKC: How easily a practice as horrific and dehumanizing as child labor abuse could become normalized within a society oppressed by severe poverty and a lack of strictly-enforced labor laws. Children as young as six years old were sent to work in the sulfur mines because their bodies were small enough to maneuver through the tunnels. The soccorso morto system itself was essentially indentured servitude, where destitute families sent their children to work in the mines in exchange for a loan that most could never hope to pay back. Many perished in the mines before they could repay the debt. The term soccorso morto translates to “dead loan” in Italian perhaps for this reason. It was a system designed to enslave poor families and keep them impoverished for generations. There was no protection for these people, no recourse other than to endure or escape.

SS: Why do you think that this is a period of history that should be remembered?

OKC: The story of the carusi is not unique to Sicily alone. The presence of child labor abuse is an ongoing reality that continues to occur worldwide right now. The carusi of today are refugee children from Syria overworked in clothing factories in Turkey or children from Sudan and Eritrea forced into the sex-trade industry by human traffickers. They are the child laborers who work in the cobalt mines of the Congo and the sweatshops of Bangladesh. We must deepen our awareness of how we are all interconnected globally—where the items we purchase, for instance, the very clothes on our backs, may have derived. A greater awareness can help foster better means of activism that can help save lives and curb the onslaught of exploitation from continuing

SS: The novella is both a wonderful and interesting choice to the story of the carusi—any plans to continue this work in either a non-fiction book or perhaps another dimension of the carusi?

OKC: Absolutely! I would be very interested in continuing to produce work that fosters greater awareness of the carusi in a non-fiction capacity or through collaborating with another artist. I believe that arts specifically offer a powerful means of offering more nuanced portrayals of difficult but ever relevant social issues.

SS :Use five words to describe Sicily.

OKC: Haunting, complex, soulful, resilient, intense

SS: What is your relationship to Sicily? To your Sicilian heritage?

OKC: I am a third-generation Sicilian American with great-grandparents who immigrated from the seaport towns of Augusta, Sciacca and Porto Empedolce. They were fishermen who settled in and around Boston and Gloucester, MA. Although I have no known blood ties to the carusi or the sulfur mines, my roots are very much working class, and the presence of exploitation and oppression are constant themes in my writing. Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema, a film adapted from Giovanni Verga’s novel I Malavoglia has a special place in my heart—it’s like watching my ancestors immortalized on the screen.

SS:Is being Sicilian-American a predominant part of your identity?

OKC: It’s complicated. Growing up, my heritage was a vague notion largely informed by the mainstream American media’s stereotypical portrayals of Italian Americans, which are stunted and damaging, especially for women. I didn’t grow up in an Italian American neighborhood or have a family that was connected to their roots outside of the kitchen, so my access point to the culture remains largely intellectual. This also forces me to apply my own interpretation as an artist, especially in regards to the work I produce.

SS: Do you have any projects that you are currently working on or are planning in the future involving aspects of Sicily

OKC: Yes, my current novel-in-progress, Displaced involves several Sicilian-American characters, some of whom wrestle with their own complicated feelings surrounding refugees and immigrants living in contemporary Boston. I have encountered many Italian Americans over the years who have very limited insight into their own immigrant origins, a factor which so often allows fear to limit one’s sense of compassion and understanding toward others. The carusi remind us of the suffering common to so many of our ancestors, along with those who continue to live under violent oppression today.

SS: Oliva, thank you so very much for this amazing contribution to Sicilian history!

Sicily Flag

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Carpe Noctem Interview with Michelle Reale: Birds of Sicily


Very grateful to poet extraordinaire Nicole Rollender for proving a platform on her blog for me to talk about my collection Birds of Sicily!

BIRDS OF SICILY

 

 

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Still Opposing Refugees the Right to Safety and Peace? Better Check Yourself…


…because up close and personal, THIS is the reality, this is the face, (one of many) of the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.   Still oppose refugees right to cross borders ?  If you can ,. you are cold , hard and shiny plastic ,for sure. And I hope your society, and your country never burns under your feet.  What a way to come into the world, right?  This infant boy and his twin brother , along with their mother braved a 3o hour, arduous journey, some of it in the pitch black of night, for a safe shore.  Fifteen rubber boats (unbelievably) and one made of wood were rescued in the Mediterranean.  Thousands were rescued.

Compassion is in play here, thankfully, but the naysayers, the bigots and the ill-informed cannot be far behind. The harsh truth is that the 30 hour  journey, treacherous as it was, will not be the end of a life full of instability, fear, and an intense longing for a land and a home that, for all intents and purposes no longer exists.  The refugee escapes one set of unbearable circumstances for another.  But , at the very least, the ground is no longer burning under their feet.

The face of this tiny infant , a mere 5 days old, and others like him will haunt me.

SYRIAN BABY.jpg

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Cristina Mazzoni and Michelle Reale: Birds of Sicily in Art and Spoken Word


With heartfelt thanks to my friend and amazing artist Cristina Mazzoni (MCM arts), here are her wonderful watercolors of a variety of birds found in Sicily as the backdrop for my reading of Birds of Sicily, the title poem from my collection of the same name.

I love when collaboration takes place like this so effortlessly.  Every single day I look forward to Cristina’s amazing artwork, often representations of the natural world, paired with exquisite poetry from all of the poetic giants the world over. When she approached me about the idea for this little “movie” I felt so honored—she is such a huge talent and I am humbled.  Her birds are so real in their rendering, so soulful and free.

My collection of poems, Birds of Sicily uses the metaphor of migratory and birds of flight to tell, in poems, the story of a man, my grandfather who fled Sicily and feared vendetta for his entire life.

If I juxtapose this with the refugees of today, I can see even in flight one is not free.  It is hard to shake the chains of hatred, resentment and displacement, often what they find in most of the places in which they land.

Birds , to a certain extent can be free, because they have wings that can lift, propel and keep them in flight.  But they are also caged, hunted and susceptible to many things that can harm them when they are out of their habitat.

In that way, humans — refugees, are like birds, too. Under great duress they flee for better , higher ground, but can never really know, ahead of time, what they will find

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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)

 

BIRDS OF SICILY

 

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.

Sample:

Trinacria

 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.  

PEOPLE

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.

hunger-hurts

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

Oranges

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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“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!

invisible-line-sicily-3

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.

cause-du-jour

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.

Peace.

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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.

dead_migrants_on_italy_shore

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.

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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.

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

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

Refugee bodies

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

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

All of those bodies.

All of those young lives.

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

Carlotta Sami

Carlotta Sami

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

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

And yet.

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

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

European Union???  The world is waiting.

The MED

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

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

Until then, the world will keep count.

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

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