3 weeks, 504 hours, and 30240 minutes is the time we have spent in Italy researching for our mosaic, and we are on our last day of the trip. During our three weeks, we have had remarkable interviews with people from different organizations, councils, and reception centers, but this day had to be one of the better days that brought everything on our trip together. Before we left Dickinson College, most of our reading pertained to migrants beginning their journey to Europe in Lampedusa. Finally, we have come to Lampedusa which is seen as a passing point into Europe for those migrants wanting to look for work in Germany and Sweden.
We began the day by going to a museum that featured belongings that were left by migrants along the shore or in the water. The museum is called Collettivo Askavusa (the Barefoot Collective). The structure of the museum is built into the rocky side of the coast. Inside, empty bottles, mostly water bottles, lined the wall with Arabic inscriptions. Additionally, there were religious statues and a fishbowl filled with religious texts from the Quran and the Bible, discarded life jackets, flip flops, and empty cigarette packs. The walls outside of the museum were decorated with different colored pieces of wood from boats that were confiscated.
When entering the museum, the most striking object was an off-white umbrella with different comic inscriptions on each panel written in a black sharpie. With a closer look, you will see that each of the five panels criticized religious figures and European policies that reinforce the idea of Fortress Europe (borders). One of the panels featured the Pope walking on dead skulls.
Pope Francis, however, visited Lampedusa in 2013 to bring attention to the migration crisis and to remember migrants that were lost at sea. As a present to a Catholic church in Lampedusa, he gave a cross with Jesus being sacrificed on a cross of paddles to signify the hardship of a migrant’s journey and to memorialize the many who have died attempting to cross the sea.
The parallel between Jesus’ suffering and the migrants’ suffering during their journey was powerful. At the back of the Church is a nativity scene placed in a boat at sea.
After visiting the museum, we met with Dr. Pietro Bartolo. He was the doctor who inspired the director of Fuocoammare , Gianfranco Rosi, to make a film about migration in Lampedusa. Dr. Bartolo provided Rosi with a flash drive of photos and videos of migrants he provided medical assistance for. Recently the documentary film, Fuocoammare, received the Gold Bear award at the 66th Berlin Film Festival. Dr. Bartolo is a sincere and soft-spoken man. There are many volunteers and assistants that come to help periodically, but Dr. Bartolo is the only constant doctor in Lampedusa at the only hospital on the island. He is, also, the only one that completes autopsies. Over the past two decades of working in the medical field, Dr. Bartolo has worked with and provided medical assistance to 250,000 refugees and migrants.
During our interview, he spoke of the different patterns of migration to Lampedusa from North Africa. He commented that in the early 2000s smugglers would travel with migrants, bringing them closer to the European border. Now that European policies and borders have changed to extend the European borders and security controls 30 kilometers off the coast of Africa, smugglers are providing smaller and less reliable boats for migrants to use, knowing that the migrants will likely be rescued by the Italian navy boats or Frontex. This increases the risks of migrants being injured due to the overcrowding in small boats. Furthermore, Dr. Bartolo told us why he gave Gianfranco Rosi the flash drive to produce Rosi’s docu-narrative film: he felt that it’s his duty to share the migrants’ experiences in order to prevent the violence against them from reoccurring. In our interview with him in Lampedusa, he mentioned that we are witnessing a second Holocaust, but there are many people who are not aware of the situation and/or people who chose to ignore what is happening. He wants to raise awareness so those who are in power can change the legislation and approach the situation in a more humanitarian way.
Our last interview of the day was with the Mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, and two other members of her cabinet.
During our interview with Mayor Nicolini, she stated that one of her main foci during her campaign and throughout her term has been the focus on immigration. Lampedusa has received many migrants since the late 90s but especially between recently in 2010 and 2013. Her goal is to provide assistance to migrants coming into Lampedusa, but she also calls on the European Union to provide more assistance to Lampedusa and Italy. Additionally, she mentioned the distribution of funds provided to Turkey by the European Union to assist refugees and migrants, and her concern that the funds were not being used to improve the migrant camps or support migrants. Mayor Nicolini stressed the need for the European Union to work together to assist in-coming migrants and to assist member states, such as Italy and Greece with large inflows of migrants.
We would like to thank Dr. Bartolo and the Mayor Nicolini and her cabinet members for their time and efforts to help us understand the current migration situation in Lampedusa! Below are photos from the Collettivo Askavusa museum and other photos of Lampedusa.
Our journey to Lampedusa started with an early morning flight from Palermo. Lampedusa’s close proximity to North Africa and its southern location has made it the focus of a huge topic of debate within the European Union’s dialogue on migration and border control. Following Spain’s strong focus on monitoring the strait of Gibraltar and migration from Morocco in the early 2000s, migratory trends shifted from there to Lampedusa and increased greatly following the Arab Spring uprisings in both Tunisia and Libya. After the numbers of those using this central Mediterranean migratory route dropped from 39,800 in 2008 to 11,000 arrivals in 2009, the number of illegal arrivals spiked in 2011 with 64,300 illegal arrivals entering Lampedusa as seen in the below graph.
Yearly illegal arrivals using Central Mediterranean Route
*Please note that FRONTEX database in 2014 began combining the arrivals using this central mediterranean route with the Apulia and Calabria route which explains the huge increase in 2014.
Global attention dramatically focused on the “migrant crisis” evolving in Lampedusa, especially after the 2013 tragedy when at least 103 migrants lost their lives when the boat carrying them capsized making headlines throughout Europe. The tragedy of human loss attracted the attention of public and governmental figures who then visited the island, including Pope Francis. Even though the number of arrivals in Lampedusa has decreased since 2014, news reports still talk of the invasion of migrants and the role of Lampedusa as a major border – indeed – frontier of southern Europe. A large reception center on the island that processes the new arrivals before they’re dispersed throughout Italy is on one side of the island, while the tourist attraction and center of town is on the other side. While in the last few years the migrant situation in Lampedusa has been the focus of many international news reports and documentary and feature film productions, it is also still famous for its beautiful beaches and the Isola dei Conigli (Rabbit Island), a wildlife preserve and one of the last places in the Mediterranean for turtles to lay their eggs.
As we flew over the Mediterranean and saw the shores of Lampedusa, I couldn’t help but think about all of the people who have crossed those waters and those who lost their lives in them. Even from high above, I could see the whitecaps and the violence of the waves. Our first interaction with the present migrant situation on Lampedusa started with our group sharing the plane ride from Palermo with a large unit of the Italian Police travelling to the island for their week-long shift in the reception center. These officers were responsible for registering incoming migrants into the FRONTEX system. In the plane there was also a customs officer whose job consists of appraising the boats and seizing them if they are abandoned. Both the migrants and the boats that carry them, are ‘technically’ considered goods entering the European Union. It was interesting to hear the personal opinions of a variety of people in regards to the situation in Lampedusa, particularly among a few of the officers. For instance one of the policemen stated that it was just his job, and that as for the migrants, there was nowhere else for them to go so even if they did want to try to escape, “it’s a small island with nowhere to go.”
Having spent the month prior to our arrival in Italy immersing ourselves in the relevant literature and filmography, such as the recently released documentary Fuocoammare and Terra Firma produced earlier in 2011 and Mare Chiuso, surrounding the political, cultural and emergency status of the Island of Lampedusa, there was a common uneasiness among our group while on the plane and then again at the airport, a feeling much more like one is entering a restricted zone rather than a beautiful Sicilian island in the middle of the Mediterranean. Additionally, once we stepped off the plane we were given a taste of the strong winds that hit the small island in the center of that sea, with strong gusts that whip up the ocean waves and as well as hats off people’s heads.. It certainly made us reflect on how many migrants faced similar, if not much more severe winds on the open sea while they made the dangerous voyage to Lampedusa.
As I was riding in the cab I was expecting to see the booming tourism business, native Lampedusian restaurants, and thousands of tourists. However we had come to the island during the winter season, so instead it seemed very desolate and quiet with various stores closed. However, this was not a bad thing, it allowed me to focus on my research and see Lampedusa in its off-season.
At first, the streets seemed empty though I felt the carabinieri staring at me, as well as the locals of Lampedusa and African migrants. Then at approximately 1 pm I began to see large groups of African people start to populate the large plazas throughout the downtown of Lampedusa. I had taken a guess that they were released from the reception centers nearby to get some fresh air. All of these migrants were men and they all were dressed the same with a black and blue jacket, black sweat pants, and they all wore green or yellow sandals. When I saw these people dressed in this attire I thought of the first African man I saw with the leather jacket. I had deduced that clothing could possibly be an indicator of how long these migrants had been on the Island. I also noticed that the African men who wore different clothes moved in smaller groups or alone and they interacted more with the Lampedusans. On the other hand, the migrants that I thought were new sat on the benches in complete silence.
As I observed the only thing that came to mind was the question: what are their dreams? I began to place things into perspective and look at my own clothing. I thought that this could be a reason why so many people are watching me. I was wearing a heavy black jacket that had brown fur in the inside of the hood, blue jeans, blue sneakers, and a black and white sox baseball cap. My thought stream was interrupted when I watched the police and carabinieri do their rounds in the neighborhood and I immediately thought of an outdoor prison. I began to investigate this thought further as I compared the structure and conditions of a prison: the migrants were on an isolated island from the mainland of Italy, they did not have money or the opportunity to have a job, the police monitored their movements, and all they could do was to think. Maybe a prison was too extreme, having this time to think in peace and silence might have been therapeutic for these migrants who may have just survived the traumatic act of traveling through the sea.
Since we all scattered for lunch (we wanted to explore in pairs so that we were more likely to interact with locals), we later shared our various experiences. One of our classmates, Maddie, recounts her interesting experience with locals as follows:
“As we continued to walk we passed a painting on a wall of a marine protection building that said “Protect people, not borders.”
I had seen and heard this phrase before, but seeing it in Lampedusa where it is so relevant was particularly impactful. Not far after that mural, we passed a dirt lot that had 10 wooden boats in it along with other vehicles. Many of the boats had what I thought was Arabic writing and designs on them and letter and number markings which were obviously not part of the original design. We realized that these are some of the boats that the migrants must have come on to Lampedusa. We walked again to the water and there was a fisherman there cleaning off his hands. He said hello and we asked him about the boats that were in the lot. He told us that they were boats that migrants had come on and that the letters determined who had found them (Coast Guard, Guard of Finance, etc). Eventually we were able to ask if he ever encounters the boats while he is fishing and he told us that he does all the time. When he does see a boat he said that he gives them water and tells them what their coordinates, perhaps so that they can call for a proper rescue. As we asked him (and other locals) more about migration, he seemed to get more distant. I wonder if this is because they are wary of journalists, if it is because they have to discuss it so often, or if it is a subject that they prefer not to discuss, or if it could be a combination of all of those. As we walked back into the center of the town, we saw a man who we think must have been an immigrant because of the similar jacket and pants he was wearing being interviewed by a journalist. This just confirmed that the media is constantly present on the island.”
On Monday morning March 7th, we left Palermo early for a seaside town called Mazara del Vallo which has a large Tunisian population that represents thelargest Arab community in Italy.Before our interviews with members of San Vito Onlus, an organization which is dedicated to helping immigrants in Mazara and has ties to the Catholic church (http://www.fondazionesanvito.com/), we split up into groups to have lunch and explore parts of Mazara. As we were walking down the main street, it became obvious from the looks we were getting that Mazara is not a major tourist destination, at least not in early March. Jess and I were searching for a place to eat, when a man stopped us on the street and asked us if we were tourists. We told him that we were and that we were looking for a place to have lunch. He seemed very happy to recommend Caffe Med which was close to the sea and allowed us to walk around the beach before meeting up with the group. Looking out at the Mediterranean and being able to touch the sea with my own hands and feet was a very surreal feeling. We spent so much time in the classroom reading about the journeys and the sacrifices that people make in order to cross this body of water and now to see it in front of us, giving no indication of the thousands of lives that have been lost within it.
As we began our interview with the members of Fondazione San Vito Onlus, we learned that the total population of Mazara is about 54,000 with a Tunisian population of about 3,000 (although they believe that there are closer to 6,000 there). In the 1970’s, many men came over from Tunisia when there was a shortage of fishermen in Mazara which is the largest fishing port in Italy as well as one of the largest in the Mediterranean. Because fishing is crucial to the economy here, the Tunisian immigrants were welcomed in order to support the industry. Since the 1970’s, many Tunisian families have reunited and settled in Mazara as a result of chain and family migration patterns. Francesco, a journalist who works with the foundation, described Tunisia and Mazara as sharing the sea because they both fish there. Because of this, one might think that the Tunisians and Mazarians would be integrated, but Francesco described the relationship between the Tunisians and Mazarians like that of a married couple that lives and exists in the same house, but does not communicate with one another. He said that the only exception to this is on the fishing boats and at the foundation, where they interact and work together.
One important aspect of this organization is its work with women. They talked about how the Tunisian women do not have many opportunities outside the foundation compared to men. There was an initiative that ended in 2015 called “The New Italian Project” which taught 15 women and 10 men entrepreneurial skills and gave them work experience (http://www.fondazionesanvito.com/2015/09/30/progetto-nuovi-italiani ). The men worked on farms which had been confiscated from the mafia and the women worked in bakeries making Tunisian and Sicilian pastries. Two of these women, Suad and Sallua, were at the Foundation while we were there and said that they enjoyed the experience because they were able to enjoy the company of other women. One woman who works at the foundation, Maria, said that a lot of their integration is focused on women because women act as the mediators between the family and the outside world, through activities such as picking their children up from school or shopping for the household. She also said that many of these women are not aware of the rights that they have. For instance, widows may not realize that they have access to pensions. The foundation tries to raise awareness of their rights and also empowers the women with whom they interact.
Another important area of the Foundation’s work focuses on children of Tunisian origin. At the end of our time at the foundation, we were told that there was a group of students aged 11-18 who had been waiting for 2 hours to talk with us while we were interviewing the others. As soon as they opened the doors, more than 30 students came into the room, excitedly chatting and took a seat. One girl explained that they were really excited to talk to us because we were from America and they could practice their English. They were all first or second generation Tunisian immigrants and the girl explained that after school they have a homework help session at the foundation and then they have other activities such as sports or games. From some conversations with them, it did not seem like they were friends with many Mazarian students, but their eagerness to talk with us made it clear that they wanted to connect with other students despite backgrounds. We ended our time there with a dance party, which, although there wasn’t a serious language barrier for any of us and we were able to communicate, proved once again that dance (as well as music, theater, etc) can transcend cultures. The students were eager to teach us new dances from Tunisia as well as learn some of our dances.
I think that we all found our time at the foundation to be very positive. It was wonderful to hear from the members of the foundation about the initiatives and the programs that they have created for immigrants in Mazara, but to then actually meet the students and see the supportive and inviting group that the foundation has created was especially impactful.
Foundation’s interview with Professor Marini-Maio regarding our mosaic:
While in Palermo, our group attended a multimedia presentation portraying young migrants’ journeys. Based on true stories, the main focus of the play was the experiences of Malik Alali and Adam Hallafa. The two young teens survived their trip across deserts and the Mediterranean Sea, while traveling as unaccompanied minors. Their touching dramas were recounted in the play Il Viaggio (The Journey), directed by German journalist Karl Hoffman (Interview with the director) and Italian director Alberto Cavallotti. The play also featured Arab, African and Italian music and artists who performed at the exquisite Teatro Massimo. You can sample one of the music performances here: Nabil Salameh’s song
The two young migrants are survivors, strong but gentle. Their families chose to send them on their own, sacrificing much, in the hopes to increase their chances for a better life.
Malik is a Syrian refugee who was sent alone on this long journey. His parents hoped he could find a better life in Europe. Malik escaped the Syrian civil war. He was determined to continue his journey and hoped for a better life. Since his arrival in Europe, he has been reunited with his family and now they live together in Denmark.
Adam is now a 21-year-old young man. He came from Ghana and made the journey across the Mediterranean by himself. His only family member is his grandmother, who remained in Ghana. She did not hear any news about Adam for a very long time. His grandmother actually thought Adam did not survive the journey, but his desire to live helped him across the Mediterranean. When Adam finally had the opportunity to call and speak to his grandmother to tell her that he was alive, she could not believe the great news at first.
Adam now lives in Lampedusa, he is finishing his high school studies and is also working in a hotel and in a pizzeria. On our very last night in Lampedusa, our mosaic group had the opportunity to enjoy dinner with Adam.
During the performance, there were important signs of community engagement. First and foremost, there was the participation of a large number of children singing and dancing during musical numbers. In the audience there were many parents, siblings and other family members present in support of the event. Many people were filming parts of or even the performance in its entirety.
The mayor of Palermo Leoluca Orlando was also in attendance and during a short performance break, he was briefly interviewed by Karl Hoffman about his work as mayor and his open opposition to the Mafia power within the city. Mr. Orlando particularly mentioned that the funds collected from the sale of properties seized from the criminal organizations are used to benefit social programs, including projects connected to migrants.
Confession Alert: I found my dream home, or town rather. Sutera, Sicily. A tiny town literally on the side of a mountain smack dab in the middle of Sicily. The views of the island are better than you could ever imagine. Driving up to the town and wandering around (and maybe getting a little lost) makes you feel like you’re in a fairytale. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The quaint houses, windy streets and tiny random piazzas are picturesque beyond belief. I may have been slightly conditioned to love Sutera because I listened to schmaltzy Italian pop music that romanticizes Italy to the max for me, but still this town is special. The people were eager to talk to us and share their story.
After the beautiful two hour train ride from Palermo, a 15 minute taxi ride straight up the side of the mountain and a few moments to pause, gawk and drop our jaws at the incredible scenery, we met up with the president of the local council, who happens to be the daughter of the last mayor of Sutera, and a few other people (many named Pino). Everyone knows and/or is related to everyone there so as we walked around we kept learning that this vegetable and fruit cart owner was so-and-so’s aunt or that the driver of that car was the Mayor’s wife. Eventually, after figuring out a tentative schedule for the day, we headed into town to meet the Vice Mayor.
Sitting circled around an impressive wood-carved desk, the mosaic team and I interviewed the Pino Landro, the Deputy President of Sutera and the leader of the immigrant integration program organized by the commune, Santina Lombardo. The Deputy, a middle-aged man and retired teacher, proud to talk about and tour his village, began by explaining Sutera’s program for immigrants to us. He said that currently, there were currently 30 immigrants living in the commune, all of which had been processed and distributed by Roman decree, based on which cities had available space. This process is part of an initiative called SPRAR, “Il Sistema di protezione per richiedenti asilo e rifugiati” or the system for the protection of asylum seekers and refugees. Of the 500 programs like Sutera’s that exist, Landro proudly said that 90 are in Sicily. Perhaps this is because southern Italians and Sicilians can commiserate, having a reputation as being migrants themselves, frequently traveling to northern Italy where it is more industrialized. Sutera, Landro explained, used to be a place that just send people away however now it has transitioned in one that receives people.
This is fitting because the name ‘Sutera’ comes from an ancient word meaning ‘salvation’ or ‘welcoming.’ Many years ago, the city emulated its image today, as a city accepting of desperate migrants. In addition, during the era of feudalism in Italy, Sutera remained autonomous and for this they are proud; thus, the village highly regards and continously tries to instill the power of autonomy in its inhabitants. When asked about their thoughts on economic vs. political or cultural migrants, both narrators said they saw no difference. Landro explained that the same issues that cause war cause poverty, thus both categories are deserving of help. While such is a progressive view among Italians, this has clearly been their attitude for a long time. In fact, it seems to have influenced officials on the Italian mainland. In the official document that described SPRAR’s purpose it reads, “ a network of local authorities that set up and run reception projects for people forced to migrate,” thus removing the need to distinguish between the push factors by not specifying why those people were forced to migrate.
Sutera provides a good example of the situation in which many Sicilian municipalities are finding themselves. While the European Union provides the programs with funding for the migrants’ housing, finding those houses in the first place is not a challenge. Most of the immigrants in Sutera live in homes abandoned by families and youths searching for education and job opportunities elsewhere. Many Suterans used to emigrate to the United States and later to Germany. This trend was so common that the commune now has three “twinning” villages in Germany with whom them share cultural traditions and facilitate communication between their respective schools. Mass emigration from Sutera seemed like a sensitive topic for the Deputy, who described a situation in which the the diaspora of youths had left an old and dying population. He continued, saying that there are only around 12 births a year, a figure lower than the death rate. One of the teachers later commented on how they all celebrated each birth in the town and she could name all the children: Destiny, Divine…. Who had been born in the last year. This suggests Sutera had alternative reasons for accepting immigrants, besides a desire to help the displaced. With an elderly population who likely struggle to navigate the village’s slanted – indeed vertical – landscape, there was probably an increasing need for mobile people to perform jobs around the commune and farms. Therefore bringing in a youthful and job hungry population was crucial for the livelihood of their economy. A number of Romanian women have come to Sutera to help care for the elderly as badante. Other more transnational migrants are welcome to stay as long as they want in Sutera but they must stay at least as long as it takes for their application for asylum to be processed. As we learned earlier in our trip, this can take as long as two years.
In such a small population, around 1500, it has been easier for immigrants to integrate. They themselves make up just 9 families, 30 people total, 12 of which are children. Lombardo talked about this, describing some of the ways the native and foreign population have come together. Most notably was the sharing of traditions and celebrations. In fact, there is a holiday each year during which the migrants make their traditional foods and clothing and the whole commune comes together to celebrate. Interestingly, the woman used the verb ‘infect’ to describe how the foreign cultures meet the native one. This verb tends to have a negative connotation in English, whether or not she meant it that way was unclear. She did, however, tell us that many of the elderly population were not open to taking in migrants at first. The small population luckily has remedied this situation, for now since there are so few births, any newborn is treated like the village’s collective grandchild.
The arrival of migrant youths to Sultera was particularly important since, with the declining population, there were not enough children and resources to support the school. In fact, it had to close for a couple of years. With the external support for immigrant programming and the increase in immigrant children, it meant the school could reopen – another major benefit for the community. The commune places a great importance on their schooling. One aspect in particular that Landro and Lombardo discussed was their focus on encouraging migrants students to tell their stories. Teachers they said, were taught to support their foreign students in talking about their voyages and adversity. Never in an intrusive way for course, but with the student’s best interest at heart. In addition, there were councilors available for the migrant children as well as for the Suteran adults who may be unprepared to hear such traumatic stories from the students. These services are paid for by the program’s Roman headquarters.
Our interview with these two individuals gave us great insight into how integration can be done successfully. After visiting a number of places where this had not yet happened, it was inspiring to speak with some individuals who were on the right path. While there are still some troubles facing the program, since jobs are still scarce, Sutera still provides a welcoming and safe temporary home.
At the school, “Scuola Primaria Senatore G. Mormino”, we were curious to see how the children of immigrants were being integrated into the school. There are about 12 refugee students at the school, out of a hundred students total. When you first walk into the school, there is a large photo of a rickety boat taking refugees and migrants from Africa to Lampedusa. An unusual visual greeting as you walk through a school’s front door, but it’s symbolic for the community. It’s a sign of hope as the refugee children attending classes there have brought the school back to life after multiple waves of emigration from the area. The image is also a powerful reminder of Sutera’s history as a place of refuge, as evidenced by its name.
We started in the kindergarten classroom. Wow, were they all adorable! Plus they spoke Italian, which is obvious, but always such a shock to my ears because I am so used to hearing little kids speak in English! When we were there, they were on a break of sorts for having worked hard and attentively all morning, so they were rewarded with TV time, something that shocked me actually. I never watched cartoon TV shows in all of my years of public education.
One girl from Pakistan, who had been there for almost a year, clung onto her teacher for the whole 20 minutes we were there. She was the only child of immigrant parents in her class of about 15. Her older brother has adapted more quickly . We were pained to leave them, but needed to keep on track and go visit the other grades. The first classroom we stopped in was a class of sixth graders. We did a quick introduction of names and why we were visiting and then learned all of the students’ names. Patricia, one of the students, was called up to talk to us because she has good English skills. She is the daughter of two Nepalese refugees. We later found out that the reason she is so good at English is because her father was an English teacher at an all-English high school back in Nepal.
As we passed through the rest of the classrooms, Patricia helped introduce all of the students and then tell them why we were there. Her Italian was very good – and she had only been in Italy for four months! Her parents had to quickly escape from Nepal and were able to bring her to Italy after they had been here for 2 years. Meanwhile Patricia lived with her grandmother and experienced the devastating earthquake. I was so impressed with her! 11 years-old, great English, warm personality, and practically knows Italian already. It’s amazing how agile brains are when you’re young. I’ve been so fascinated with the language aspect of this trip. Language really affects what happens in someone’s life. Patricia is lucky because she is able to learn Italian while young and in school. Migrants who come to Italy looking for work rarely find the occasion to learn Italian and therefore cannot become part of society as easily. Language can both create and breaks so many barriers!
Visiting the school in Sutera was a cool way to gain more perspective on young immigrants and refugees in the educational system. It was also interesting to compare it to the Besta School in Bologna. Each school is doing the best with what they have. The Besta school may have better access to resources and a higher student population, but Sutera’s school is still thriving thanks to the influx of immigrant children and the community’s dedication to education, integration and the future.
After lunch we ended our day in Sutera with Patricia’s (one of the students we met at the school) family. She lives with her dad and mom, Siam and Pragia, who graciously invited us into their home to talk with them about their personal migration story from Nepal and their experiences living in Sutera. The former mayor, Gero Difrancesco, of Sutera took us to their house and stayed during our talked with them because he was a good friend of the family. When we walked into their house it immediately felt like a home, you really got the sense that a family lived here. The house was warm and smelled amazing with a mix of different smells from spices. They had family pictures and decorations up on the wall. They got chairs for us to all sit with them in their living room and Patricia and her mom brought us traditional Nepalese crackers and tea to eat and drink (they were both delicious!).
We sat down and started talking with them, mostly the dad and Gero, as Patricia and her mother kept coming in and out bringing us more food. We learned that they are the only Nepalese family in Sutera The dad and mom had been in Sutera for the past two years, but Patricia only had come to Sutera about four months ago. That was astonishing to hear as Patricia seems to know Italian so well already and seems to be very well adjusted in school with many friends. Her mom and dad are also learning Italian through classes offered to them. We learned that the her mom and dad left Nepal due to ethnic violence between the people in the mountains and the people in the plains. The father was an English teacher in Nepal and also faced threats since many did not approve of his teaching.. They had to leave Nepal very quickly to escape to safety. Patricia stayed behind to live with mom’s family when her parents left before her. When the parents left Nepal they were telling us that they did not know where they would end up. As the dad put it “people of poor countries have no destination,” they must go where they can.
When Patricia finally came to Sutera to be reunited with her family she had to fly all by herself 22 hours to make it to Italy.. The whole community of Sutera was anxiously awaiting Patricia’s arrival. This shows the nice sense of community we had felt and seen in Sutera the whole day we were there. Patricia’s family has really valued this sense of community that Sutera has given them these past two years but the father said, it can also feel like prison. Given our own observations, we guessed this was due to the isolation of the mountain town. With only one bus going up and down the mountain a day and being a two hours train ride from the capitol, Sutera feels very removed. Furthermore, being on a hill, the buildings have cleverly been built adjusting to the slant. The unfortunate result of this is that the close rows of houses feel as though they are leaning inwards. As previously mentioned, there is little social mobility due the limited job opportunities thus, this potentially monotonous life style in place whose physically layout making the inhabitants feel walled in can understandably make them feel imprisoned. Since Sutera was so open to taking in migrants they were also very open to experiencing their different cultures. One way Gero and Patricia’s family became such good friends was through inviting each other into their homes and sharing their different cuisines and cultures with each other. Sutera has many festivals where people make various foods and share their different cultures.
We also talked with the family about if they think they will stay in Sutera. They told us that it is too difficult at this time to ever return to Nepal. They have loved their time in Sutera, but there are also some negative aspects they have to deal with. Since Sutera is on top of a mountain you need a stable form of transportation to get anywhere, but there is only one bus a day in the morning. This makes it really hard to get anywhere and it can feel really isolating to not be able to have access to leave Sutera when you may want to, or need to. Also the job opportunities are extremely limited in Sutera, and if you do not have a car to travel for work it can be really hard to survive. The decision to stay in Sutera, or move on somewhere else will be something they will need to figure out as time goes on.
As we leave Sutera we are left with the amazing people we have met and interacted with in this extraordinary little town. We are also left with the most amazing views of the whole trip! Sutera is a beautiful town full of rich community that is pushing it to continue to thrive. It was such a memorable experience that we will all cherish!
Eight years. In that time a newborn child can grow enough to speak, to articulate arguments, to read, to tie a pair of shoes, to become an acknowledged member of a community. In eight years a student can timidly begin their freshman year of high school and confidently graduate from a university- ready to enter the job market as a competent adult.
In eight years Samuel has lived in Italy, he has held one job. He has never owned a home; he has not seen his family. Samuel is an immigrant to Italy, and for him eight years has meant a perpetual limbo, a never- ending cycle of uncertainty and insecurity. Samuel currently lives at Casa Don Gallo, a previously abandoned building that has become home to many African immigrants living in Padova. Men from Sub- Sahara, West, and Northern Africa, with support from Razzismo Stop have transformed this once empty building into a communal living space- and a support system- as they search for their places in Italian society. The search for stability takes on many forms- job security, housing, documentation, etc- and for the men living at Casa Don Gallo none of it is promised.
Many of the men began their journeys in Sub- Saharan African such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Gambia, and traveled to Northern Africa- some to escape ward, some to search for economic prosperity. This journey can take weeks, even months, and we heard stories of men who had traveled between half a year and a year just to move north across the Sahara. A number of the men we had the opportunity to speak to had the end goal of working in Libya, previously an economic step- up from many Sub- Saharan African nations. Many of them found decent, steady work in Libya as mechanics, construction workers, and English teachers in the early to mid- 2000s. However, once war broke out in Libya and the Gadaffi regime fell, they had to flee along with the Libyans.
The journey from Tripoli, Libya to Lampedusa, Italy- although a relatively geographically short distance of under 300 kilometers, is one of the most straining aspects of this migration path. In a boat from anywhere between two days and two weeks, people immigrating are placed in sub-standard boats with untrained navigators for captains, surrounded by sometimes hundreds of other people all looking for refuge or simply a better life. After landing along the shores of Lampedusa, they were identified and given health asssessments at the initial reception centers and then dispersed throughout Italy. This is how many of the men at Casa Don Gallo came to live in Padova. While there are roughly 60 to 80 men living at Casa Don Gallo, none of the tenants know the exact number of other men living in this home without running water or electricity, as migrant influxes vary since people are always coming and going depending on relocation, work, or documentation.
Our group received a glimpse into this community through the hospitality of Debrey, a man from Ghana whom we interviewed the evening prior. Debrey’s journey took him from Ghana, to Burkina Faso, to Niger, to Libya, and finally to Italy. As an English teacher, his initial intent for migrating was to teach in Libya- and he did so, living in Benghazi from 2006 until 2011 when he fled the outbreak of war. Pushed farther away from his home in Ghana, he took a small boat across those 300 kilometers from Libya to Italy, a process he described as “selling yourself to death.” In his ship alone, twenty-eight people died while on board.
After the initial stages at the reception center, Debrey was released onto mainland Italy with no contacts, no job opportunities, and no housing. Even the agencies he was directed to contact were of little use. He attributed these difficulties not only to his status as an immigrant, but because he is a black immigrant. The struggles he faced with bureaucracy were heightened because of the color of his skin, and in a society where his skin makes his presence hyper- visible he found himself with less agency than ever. The strength of Casa Don Gallo is the community of support that has developed: While Debrey has so little influence over his situation in Italy, Casa Don Gallo provides a space of opportunity within- where, unlike in much of Italian society, the skills, potential, and humanity of each individual is recognized while they await the outcomes of their search for residency status and documents.
For all immigrants, the image of documents is riddled with hope, fear, and often desperation. Most of the men live at Don Gallo while they wait to hear back on their application status- if they will be accepted as valid candidates who can remain in Italy or within the rest of the Schengen region. While this process takes a minimum of 2 months, it’s not uncommon that this lasts years. Until they have official papers it is difficult to find work; yet, confirmation is not a guarantee that they will find work and move out of Don Gallo. So many of the men- like Samuel- remain in a state of ambiguity where they wait for Italian men and women- like themselves- decide their fate.
And yet, despite these dire circumstances, a diverse and supportive community has emerged. Within Casa Don Gallo there are internal groups of people from specific countries that allow for people to converse in familiar languages, reminiscent of their home, and creating some sense of belonging within a society that has pushed these people to the margins. Within Don Gallo, systems have emerged that make this home a beneficial community. The bicycle system that the residents have designed is an example of that. Although unable to find work in Padova, a mechanic living at Don Gallo is able to continue his trade by fixing up broken and discarded bicycles. From that point, the men living there are able to use the bicycles to move around Padova. This small- scale communal structure not only forms bonds between those living at Don Gallo but also creates a collective mentality of communal uplift, where everyone contributes to the strengthen of each other. It is not uncommon to hear the word “brother” in reference to another community member, as their individual struggles forge communal empathy and brotherhood in the face of adversity, discrimination, and sometimes a seemingly impossible situation.
Bienvenuti! Today’s blog will be starring Northern Italy’s oldest city: Padua, or as it is known in Italian: Padova. Coincidentally enough, as we are in Italy studying migration, likewise it is said that Padua was founded by the prince of Troy fleeing the loss of his home (some might call him a refugee), ultimately growing into one of the richest cities in the Roman Empire known as Patavium. Then again during the scourge of the Huns, refugees fleeing Padua found safety in the wetlands to the east that would ultimately become the famous city of Venice. Therefore it is interesting to note that while today some 30% of the citizens of Padua support Lega Nord, the very conservative anti-immigration political party in Italy, the city itself has a very rich history of migration and refugees. To further elaborate on the political climate, Veneto the province that Padua is a part of, Lega Nord received around 35% in 2014 while in Emilia-Romagna the province of Bologna and neighbor to Veneto, only had 19.4%. This was further shown by the experience that some of our group had while listening to a very intense taxi driver express very anti-immigration sentiments on the way to our destination. To paraphrase: ’The invasion of the immigrants is due to a conspiracy supported by the U.S. and Italian left-wing parties.’ However all in all, while this rich history and brief background into the political climate of Padua may be interesting, it is time to discuss what we did today.
Our goals for the day were to first meet with an advanced english language course for masters level students studying political science and international relations and just have conversations with university students about their own perceptions of migration, whether or not they had academic knowledge.
Personally, I had the pleasure of speaking with two students with different migration stories which they willingly discussed. The former, was a Syrian Human Rights lawyer with a focus on violence against women, who was in Padua on fellowship for six months. The most striking points that this student made were her takes on Europe’s methods of approaching the migration “problem” and her own personal feelings towards the position of her countrymen as refugees.“I don’t want to be here, instead of worrying about refugees in Europe, fix the problem in Syria so that I can go home.” It was at this point that I reflected greatly on the real reaction by the western world in regards to Syria and the refugee crisis. In addition to these remarks the passion and the desperation that was expressed by this intelligent young woman showed the struggle that many in her shoes face. In the media the western world sees words such as “invasion” and “flooding” of migrants into Europe, worried that they’re going to suck away at their social security systems and cause a burden on their economies. However, not only is that wrong, most recently Sweden’s GDP increase for 2015was higher than expected, due in part to migrants. For the most part, these people who escaping war, violence, and persecution want to return to rebuild and live in their homeland.
The other student in our group was a man whom had migrated from Calabria, a city in the south of to Padua for an education, and like most other Italians following this trend called himself a migrant to the north, an interesting concept for a country that has been unified for over a hundred years yet still holds very regionalized opinions about their fellow citizens. This was followed by an intense discussion of the “Caporalati” who are migrants (usually illegal) that have been manipulated or coerced into forced labor in the fields working for usually only 15 euros a day. Much of this illegal work is controlled by the Camorra and is used for their own profit. The most interesting aspect of this trend is the government’s inability to fix this trend even though they have put in legislation that has no effect because of the control over the local governments that the Camorra has. While this breaking into groups was an amazing experience and the first time that we had the ability to understand what our peers in Italy were thinking of these same topics that we’re covering, it was only the first activity that we did in a long day’s worth of immersion and interviews in Padua. That afternoon we engaged in a languaging workshop.
The concept alone of a “languaging workshop” is progressive. In it, the participants are encouraged to use language at their whim, to seamlessly meld multiple tongues into a textured conversation, accessible to many because of its multilinguality. The participants were from diverse backgrounds and each held personal motivations for practicing english. The group included Egi Cenolli, the female president of the Council of Foreigners, two elderly men, one of whom was a retired middle school head and the other an activist in Razzimo Stop. There was also Debre, a migrant from Ghana and Erica who works for Save the Children and an organization that promotes anti-racism through sports. Leading the group was Francesca Helm who is also a migrant, however, her journey was from London to Italy. Having spent a major portion of her life in Italy she is bilingual and directs the workshop with ease. After introducing the class, she explains that the freedom of language in the class creates a sense of solidarity between people. A consistent theme we’ve found during the mosaic is the unifying, and also dividing, power of language. Nonetheless in this setting the participants used languages to relate and share with one another.
After explaining the purpose of our program, Maurizio who is a part of Razzismo Stop launched into a thorough yet concise summary of migration policy and competing ideologies in Italy. He began by addressing how the geographical placement of Italy has always made it a transit nation. Migrant numbers did not rise though until the influx of Albanians in the early 1990s which in part he attributes to the romanticized images of Italy on television. The second wave of migrants were those searching for work. Most recently, the third wave of people are evacuating nations racked by war and prosecution. While these migrants are fleeing from violence often perpetrated by other citizens of their country, “we are to blame,” he said, because “we the Europeans, U.S., and Russia start and incite the wars.” The activist continued. He explained how politicians use information to polarize people, get votes, and create doubts. He identified the mayor of Padua’s position: ‘the solution was to help migrants in their home nation first before they come to Europe.’ This led him to bring up what had been happening contemporaneously the day before, Greece and Macedonia closed the border and the refugees in Calais, France were evicted.
The microphone then passed to Debrey (on the left with Dickinson student Isaiah Gibson) , who came in a little late but made sure to go around and shake each of our hands. Previously a teacher in Ghana, he made his way across Africa, stopping in Niger to earn money teaching. By 2006 he was in Libya, dangerously close to the rebel base. To escape, he travelled to Lampedusa, eventually reaching Padua. Two years ago he was accepted into the Casa de Don Gallo home for migrants. The building, occupied by squatters 2 years ago, houses 60-85 migrants, mostly men. They live in what was once bank offices without running water or electricity; the commune had recently cut off the electricity.. Many of the inhabitants hold seasonal jobs, some have none. Debrey told us of how it became crucial for the men to work together, pooling skills and creativity in generating income. In the outdoor space, they fix bicycles and do small carpenter jobs. The city council was of little help, for while they listened to the migrants complaints, they never took any action to help. When asked how come people still come to Italy despite knowing, how difficult life here is for migrants, Debrey had a simple response: no one wants to live like their parents so the only option they see is to search elsewhere for new and better life chances.
Erica spoke next. She began by saying, “my life is a story of immigration” since she was born in Palermo, Sicily. Her talk was focused on the anti-racism sports organization. In addition to providing athletic outlets for the players, the group also concerned themselves with the players’ quality of life. The organization worked towards changing the rules regarding players registered abroad. Formerly barred from them registering again in Italy, these individuals can now play in Italy too. Erica works for Save the Children that also provides beneficial services for the migrants. One service they provide is a the safe space for children both with and without their parents. Another topic Erica also discussed was her dislike for the term “integrate;” she believed it insinuated that someone is integrating into another culture, as though leaving their previous one behind. She would prefer a meeting in the middle or a more hybrid meld of the two cultures involved. Interestingly, she said she would prefer to use the phrase “melting pot,” a term once popular in the US that has now fallen out of favor. The quality of melting pots, boiling down all the components into one homogenous substance leaves no room for individuality. Social scientists today prefer the analogy of a tossed salad in which all the unique parts work together to make the whole.
To close the panel, Egi Cenolli spoke about the Council of Foreigners. The main issue was the failure of the city council to facilitate elections since their last ones in 2011 and thus, foreigners can not vote or have a voice. During their prime, the council had been working towards achieving voting rights for all immigrants. Denied the opportunity to speak with the mayor about holding elections, the council of foreigners is at a standstill. They can sit in on city meetings but can do nothing. This corroborates Debrey’s statement about the ineffectual and inactive behavior of the local government.
The panel came to an end around 6:30pm because a number of its participants wanted to attend a protest taking place in the main square. In light of Padova’s political reputation, this protest for migrants rights was bound to be controversial. It was already dark but the square was lit by street and traffic lights. There were people milling about in groups throughout the square with most congregated around a large stone tomb. Holding it up are four large pillars. The two in front of which the crowd gathered had been wrapped in orange life vests. With the artificial light in the square, these vests glowed eerily as though on fire. On the vests there were stickers reading, “#overthefortress”.
The rejection of “Fortress Europe” was a persistent theme throughout the protest. The speakers discussed it, picketers called for its end. University students, older couples and everyone in between could be seen at the protest. A number of young people carried signs, most of which were in Italian; one in english read “Open the Borders”. Two large sheets hung on a nearby building. On these, they stated this was a demonstration to gain citizenship rights for all. A young woman explained this over a microphone in the center of the congregated people. She spoke sternly but remained composed. Shortly after, a young black man from Gambia was given the microphone, despite the hesitation expressed by one man orchestrating the demonstration. As soon as he began talking we all were entranced. Passionate, angry, in pain, each accusation and story became increasingly powerful. He spoke about his escape from persecution, and who his brother was unable to do so here and thus was sent back and immediately killed in the airport when he arrived. Pleading, he asked how Italy could let that happen? How could they let so many people die at sea? How could they deny aid to genuinely desperate people? Eventually the skeptical man came over and passed the microphone to someone else. Our mosaic dispersed a bit after that, some going to talk with the Gambian man, others to talk more with Debrey, and Ingrid and me to speak with Matty. Probably in his early 20s, Matty is a friend of Debrey’s who also lives in the Casa Don Gallo.
He is from Mali so we spoke French. Our conversation was casual but after talking to us about his position on the immigrant football team Erica organizes, he told us about his journey to Padova. First leaving Mali to follow his mentor in mechanics to Libya, Matty eventually had to separate from him and Libya itself due to the war that broke out in 2011. Traveling first to Lampedusa, he then made his way north. Matty’s gentle demeanor and casual tone gave the impression we were having a chat about yesterday’s Arsenal match. The juxtaposition of his composure and the passion of the Gambian speaker was striking. I am continuously impressed by migrants’ resilience even after such tragedy and trauma.
Today (March 4th), our group is all over the place. Some of us stayed in Bologna to film some B-Roll for our documentaries, some went to a reception center for refugees,“Villa Angeli” directed by Lai-Momo and the rest of us met Hayat, who we interviewed last week, at the train station to spend the day in Imola at an anti-violence shelter and intercultural women’s center, Trama di Terre. I (Ingrid) was in the latter group, along with Maddie, Nadia, Professor Rose and Professor Marini-Maio.
Hayat has been volunteering at Trama di Terre since she was 16! It is thanks to her that we were able to visit today and spend time learning about the association. Fourteen women from five different nationalities founded, the now internationally renowned, Trama di Terre in 1997. Loosely translated from their web page “chi siamo”, their guiding idea since starting the association has been to find a meeting and sharing point among women in the community from all different nations (including Italy), while being aware that often for migrant women the fight for access to material and symbolic resources places them a position of dual vulnerability. Without citizenship, migrant women have fewer legal rights and recognition from the government, but also from regular Italian citizens. Not only is it a community and educational center, but it’s also an anti-violence center that provides refuge for women of all nationalities seeking to escape domestic violence.
Staying true to this statement, when we arrived around 10:30am, there were women from various African countries, Eastern European countries and even some Italian high school girls who were volunteering that day. Our main goal of the visit was to share the Global Clothesline Project with the women there. The project bears witness to violence against women and invites them to create t-shirts that express their experiences with violence and healing. Professor Rose gave a short talk about the project, including how it was founded, where she has done various projects and a viewing of the documentary trailer that featured women from various countries talking about the making and the meaning of their shirts. I spent a lot of that initial time just observing the women present in the room. As the whole project became clearer and clearer to each woman, I saw their eyes light up and smiles creep onto their faces, which made me all the more passionate about our mission today.
After hearing all about the project, the women were invited to create t-shirts that expressed their violence and healing. It’s harder than you’d imagine to find solid color t-shirts, puffy paint and feathers in Italy. I guess America really is the crafty capital of the world. We did manage to grab some shirts and markers, though. The color of the shirts is important, because each color represents a different form of abuse or whether the victim survived the experience. Going into a Clothesline Project, though, you never know how many of each shirt you’ll need, so you get what colors you can and then hope for the best. In the end, none of the women were upset when their color wasn’t available, they were just excited, or at odds, about how they would be decorating the shirts!
Some did shirts on their own, while others shared a shirt. I made a shirt with Hayat, Maddie and Professor Marini-Maio. Since we were making a white shirt, which is for women who have died because of violence, I decided to do a sunrise and Starry Night-esque sunset. I wanted to represent the cycle of life, as well as the hope and community that is always there to see us through our dark times. While my paintings were not so personal, most were, including all the other parts of the shirt I shared.
The wonderful thing about the Global Clothesline Project is that you can put whatever you want on the shirt, freedom some women may not experience elsewhere in their lives, and then your unique, intimate masterpiece gets to be displayed in public. Women who are often silenced can “air their dirty laundry” without anyone knowing that it’s theirs or facing repercussions because of “speaking out”. To be free. To be creative. To know that you are sharing this emotional journey with others. To finally have a voice. To just walk away. This project is empowering.
Once we had finished hanging the shirts, taking photos, sharing the meaning behind each one if we felt comfortable, together we all got to share a meal, handmade by women at the center. Everyone got a big bowl of homemade Moroccan couscous with vegetables and chicken, and after devouring that, we moved onto dessert: sweet mint tea and a traditional flatbread that reminded me of a combination of pita and crepes. Sounds weird, but it was oh so perfect. In my opinion, sharing a meal is a powerful experience. I felt that at Casa Don Gallo in Padova, and I felt it today. Everyone needs to eat, and the conversations, laughter and happiness that come from eating makes anyone smile. We left Trama di Terre this afternoon with full bellies, and full hearts.
Trying to find Prato’s Catholic Church, we are let off the bus in an empty parking lot with a wall lined with graffiti.
“Born to take care of oneself from destruction.”
Surrounded by concrete and industrial looking businesses, we set out in search for Parrocchia dell’ascensione, Prato’s Chinese, Catholic Church. A gray, drizzling day, we walk through a nearby narrow street, dilapidated structures lining its ways. Broken windows, crumbling exteriors, garbage, and various debris mark the buildings. Aesthetically Prato is more diverse than this snapshot, but reflecting back on this particular space at the end of our day in the town, one can’t help but wonder who takes up home in that neighborhood.
Prato is home to the largest Chinese community in Italy. In regards to the Chinese population, the recorded number in 2008 was 9,927, yet local authorities estimate 45,000 to be the more realistic number if one includes “illegal” immigrants. The Chinese Catholic church, in addition to being a place to worship, might also be seen as a hub of sorts for the Chinese community. We’re welcomed in to the nave of the church which seems a different world than our initial view of the town. The church’s marble floors and incredibly high ceiling were coupled with marble statues and extensive stain glass windows. Despite its size, the church was only about a sixth of the way filled. After mass given exclusively in Chinese, we set out for the community room to speak with some Prato residents.
We met Thomaso and Paolo, two fairly young Chinese men who shared with us some details of life in Prato. Translation was a bit difficult at times as Thomaso and Paolo spoke Chinese and their translator, a priest, spoke Italian. Translating and retaining the true essence of what was said is difficult enough when filtering through one language let alone two. This meant, for an English speaker like me at least, I missed those important cues and nuances of language and instead heard only the literal words. Even so, the things Thomaso and Paolo had to tell us were striking.
The Chinese community in Prato doesn’t have much contact with the Italian population except in terms of work. Most of the community works in textile factories, having to settle for poor wages and extreme hours. Many work up to 18 hours, 7 days a week. They literally sleep, eat, and work, and if 18 hours are spent on work that leaves only six for other needs including sleep. How they had time to meet with us even, was unclear. Thomaso says they came from working in sweatshops in China only to be working in sweatshops in Italy. He tells us “everything you wear is from China. It was made in China and if not China, Prato.”
Many employers take advantage of the situation Chinese Immigrants are in and manipulate and force them into circumstances of such extreme work. Often times the employer will take their documents when they first arrive and make them pay to retrieve their own documents. The problem, says Paolo, is that work in Italy is unregulated. In China his factory job commanded just 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Here, it’s a different story. In fact, companies provide housing for employees to maintain control. Any wages earned are saved or sent home. The difficulty with sending money home are the phone calls that follow. It’s not uncommon for immigrants to tell their families about the terrible working conditions and be met with disbelief. If money is being sent home, the logic goes, things must not be that bad.
Relations with home differ for each individual, but Thomaso estimates about 20-30 out of every 100 (im)migrants return to China. Additionally, babies born here are sent back to China until age 15 in order to preserve their culture. It is clear that community ties are strong both locally and abroad. After the interview, we all went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. On the cab ride over I check my suede jacket’s tag and the tongue of my sneakers only to find “Made in China.”
During the evening on Friday, March 4th, we interviewed a representative from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) organization. UNHCR is responsible for reviewing applications and providing support to asylum seekers and refugees. Furthermore, the UNHCR is responsible for protecting the rights of refugees, resolving refugee problems, and assisting stateless people. This was the first interview where we could understand the process of asylum seekers from an institutional perspective by one of the primary organization that grants asylum. Our interviews before were focused mainly on non-profit organizations and councils that supported incoming migrants and tried to give voice to the migrant communities. At times we saw institutions as impersonal and distant, but institutions are made up of people. Some people will be cold and distant, but there are people who are dedicated to supporting people through difficult times – including the asylum seeking process. Some who represent these institutions have gone through similar experiences as the migrants and want to be a resource and support system for them. The representative empathized with the people he interviewed because they went through a similar experience. They want to ensured that that they were attentive during the interview with a mediator, if needed, so the applicants have a chance to tell their story.
In the beginning of the interview, the representative, an eligibility expert, explained the process to request the status as an asylum seeker. Firstly, people fill out the necessary forms to apply for the status as an asylum seeker. After the forms are filled out, the applicant goes through a personal interview by a UNHCR representative. Earlier when we met with Ngo Ka, he explained those requesting asylum need to be interviewed by four persons in order to be considered for asylum. They have to be interviewed by representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNHCR, and two other representatives. During the interview with a UNHCR representative, the applicant is asked a series of questions pertaining to why they are requesting asylum, the conditions of the country they were leaving, and information about themselves. After the interview is completed, the representative completes a background check of the applicant to check the credibility of the information provided.
After explaining the process, the representative explained what policies and legislation can support the status as an asylum seeker. The Dublin Regulation was created to determine which Europe Union member state is responsible for reviewing an asylum seeker’s application. Although the regulation was enacted, it is not used as often because of the complications of identifying which EU member state the migrant entered in first. This becomes complicated because this information is based on the information migrants provide.
The representative helped clarify many terms, but I think one of the most needed and beneficial clarifications was about the capacity and the quota system in European legislation. In the news, there are many EU member states like the United Kingdom that say they are going to impose a cap on the number of refugees they receive. According to the representative, there is no legislation that allows for member states to have a cap, this is merely politics. There is a quota system, however, that requests member states to take in a certain percentage of refugees that enter EU member states to equally distribute the number of people that request asylum.
To learn more information about the UNHCR and the asylum application, please click on the hyperlink.