This is a post I’ve wanted to write for several weeks now. It’s been an interesting few months here in Italy, and I absolutely adore Europe – I would do it a thousand times over. But when people ask me how study abroad is going, I can’t wholeheartedly say that it is all incredible.
When people describe Europe to you, they never fail to talk about how beautiful it is: there’s everything from snowy peaks to rolling green hills to dramatic cliffs ending in bright blue beaches. They describe the shopping, the tucked-away trattorias, the incredible wines and buttery pastries. When I told people I was going to study abroad, I got a thousand glittering recommendations and reviews. I didn’t get a single account of the millions of people sitting outside of train stations with nowhere to go. Nobody mentioned the slums you drive through for miles on your way into Naples. No one talked about the fact that when you sit outside one of those beautiful cafes in Rome, someone will approach you selling tissues or friendship bracelets or umbrellas. I was never told to appreciate the fact that I can present my passport, that traveling for me never means dodging the authorities. No one complaining on the flight over realized that I paid a few grand to sit in an uncomfortable plane seat for 10 hours, instead handing over my life savings to sit below decks in a hastily repossessed fisherman’s boat, shivering, caked in someone else’s vomit, and praying that we’d make it to the other side. Nobody seemed to have any idea about these people, like they didn’t exist. Or at least they didn’t notice.
I want you to notice. I want this to be a quick education on the hundreds of people flooding Italy’s shores every day. Because when I got here, I had no idea. I wasn’t expecting it. It made me uncomfortable to tell people selling things on the tourist streets no thank you. I cringed when I had to interact with them and I wondered why they couldn’t just leave me alone, not make me feel so guilty. It seems to me like even the Europeans don’t understand why they’re here, or how they arrived, or where they want to go. So I promise to keep my emotional rhetoric in check from now on and offer you a lesson on the refugees that just keep coming, that are a part of Europe, that you will certainly meet if you come here.
So, who is coming?
Afghans, who for the most part have been in Pakistan in refugee camps for the last two generations, fleeing conflict at home. Pakistan is not home, and they are not welcome there. Pakistanis are leaving anyway, because of the astonishing levels of violence; not to mention the overpopulation and poverty.
Syrians, if you have paid attention to the news at all, who are leaving whole cities at a time to escape the three-way civil war in their homeland. These are generally the only people who fit the UN description of “refugee”, making them incredibly lucky, but more on that later.
In East Africa, Somalia’s massive civil wars powered by clan-based militias left the country in mass starvation. Rape and murder are part of everyday life. In Eritrea, of which we know practically nothing except from refugees themselves, the war of independence from Ethiopia gave way to the leadership of a dictator. The only way to leave your house is to be a student in school, or to be a military conscript. Absolutely everyone is forced into unpaid military service work, although there is no war; therefore, the conscripts are essentially state slaves.
From West Africa: Gambia, Mali, Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso. As for why they are coming, it varies: there are no jobs, death is rampant, Nigerian parents sometimes sell their children to human traffickers, disease riddles everything, AIDS is unstoppable, rape is used as an ethnic cleansing tool… and just straight poverty motivates many. When I worked with Yaya, from Senegal, who looked about 18 or 20 (although he told me 28), he told me a bit about his journey in immaculate (and very very fast) French. From what I could put together, I believe he is one of few who survived the shipwrecks in the Mediterranean in 2014 (if you research the movement of refugees, you will find this summer as the one that their numbers doubled and thousands died in a series of fatal sinkings). I asked him if he knew how dangerous his journey would be, to which he laughed and told me of course he knew. Shocked, I asked, “And why on earth would you leave if you knew?” He stopped laughing, and for a moment was quiet. “And why would I stay?”
And this is the reason they will simply keep coming, no matter how long the EU wants to pretend they won’t or that they aren’t here. They come despite knowing what the journey has in store.
There are two main routes to Europe at this point in time. From Libya to Italy, and from Turkey to Greece. In case your sense of geography is as bad as mine, here’s a map.
Those landing in Greece are more likely to be Syrians or other Middle Easterners (southern Asians to be perfectly correct). By the time they reach Izmir or other port towns in Turkey, they have likely trekked several hundred miles in buses, crammed in the back of smuggler’s trucks, and on foot. They have crossed through dozens of borders, likely in secret or at night. Most are not allowed into Turkey without papers and must be smuggled in, or wait in camps outside the border to petition for entry. Once in Turkey, they tend not to linger. Clothing stores in Izmir have mostly been transformed into lifejacket stores. Smugglers for the sea passage are not difficult to find, and their prices are high: there is beachfront property to be used and its owners to be paid; government officials to be kept quiet, and fuel supplies to be purchased. These supplies are almost never enough for the people crammed onto inflatable dinghies to reach their destinations; once the boats reach international waters, they are instructed to place an SOS call. Maritime law dictates that passing ships must rescue drowning ones; but the limited patrol program in place by the EU is not enough to help every boat crossing. And often, because they are patrol and border control boats (not search and rescue) they are close to the border (obviously) and to reach the marooned boats takes too long. This is how boats sink.
Those landing in Italy likely came from Libya. Libya’s government is completely collapsed and smuggling gangs and militias run the coast. Before reaching Libya, though, most people have to cross the Sahara desert.
In case you forgot how eternally big the Sahara desert is (I did) here’s a map.
It is 9.4 million square kilometers in area. Agadez, a city in Niger that is on the border of the Sahara, receives most of the Subsaharan immigrants. Why go out of your way to get to Niger when you can just cut across, I wondered? Well, because literally no one can cross the Sahara desert except for the people that have mostly spent their lives learning the dunes inside and out. Any given moment, a sandstorm can transform the way the desert looks. There is no road. Getting lost in the Sahara is certain death by thirst. Most people argue the Sahara is more dangerous than crossing the sea. Truthfully, we will never know if it is or not; we have no idea how many thousands of people have died in the Sahara on their way to Tripoli. Once in Libya, if it is reached, dodging the civil war is its own hell; once you find a smuggler to take you across, you wait to be snuck out of compounds called “mazraa” (mostly just places of torture and rape for vulnerable migrants waiting). Then, refugees are loaded on an inflatable dinghy meant for 30 people or on a wooden fishing sloop meant for maybe 60-75. Usually, they hold anywhere from 3 to 5 times their capacity. The same process happens here, but for far longer and usually in much more dangerous waters. Most smugglers appoint a captain from among the refugees to hold the rudder steady, in order to avoid losing one of his own men. This, naturally, leads to being lost or stranded; if inflatable dinghies spring a leak, they sink in minutes; and capsizing is easy when there are 300 people on a boat in a storm.
Once they arrive, they are registered by the state. If they do not have documents, they are required to apply for asylum. This system is very slow and inefficient, and usually people are not granted visas for work or given refugee status (unless they are Syrians). Most people wait in camps all across Italy and Greece for months or years on end. They cannot work without documents, and so relying on charities or aid associations is the only other option. This is why many peddle little things on the streets. Although the aid workers valiantly take in hundreds of refugees and work them through the legal process, the best they can do is usually less than 5 euros a day for living money.
Yaya and Fanny laughed at the bracelets on my wrists from my conversations with as many refugees as I can talk to (many speak perfect English and far better Italian than I will ever be capable of). At this point, I simply can’t settle to say no thank you and turn someone away. They asked me who gave the bracelets to me and Fanny told me that they have gone from having no work in Africa to having no work here. They told me they would have loved to go to America, but without papers here any country under EU jurisdiction will simply send them back to Italy, where they applied for asylum. No country wants to take a share.
There is so much more to say, but mainly I just want people to notice. If you finished this, I salute you. It is much easier to turn away and return to your life. It’s what I want to do most of the time people approach me at lunch. I don’t want to notice them, I don’t want to feel guilty, and I certainly don’t want to be faced with the fact that there isn’t much I can do. But I can notice, and I can give what I have, and I can petition for safer and legal routes of passage around the world to take in those who no longer have a home. Europe has a long way to go, and the States could and should certainly do more. In the meantime, my heart is heavy here. As much as I love study abroad, I am constantly faced with something I now notice. We have to remember that generosity is not a vice, but indifference is. Something I saw the other day read, “If you are more fortunate than others, build a longer table, not a bigger fence.”
I’ll be finished for now; but know that this is something I am passionate about. I welcome any theories, suggestions or questions!
Yaya and I post Big Event in Arezzo (We planted an herb garden in a school courtyard. Any time I wanted to sit down, he would pick up another trash bag and fill it with weeds. He did absolutely all of the work and told me to stop whining about it being hot.)