Where are we? Are we in Italy? Why are we not in Rome or Milan? Where have they sent us? When can I use a telephone? How can I reach my family? These are the most frequently asked questions the mediators of the temporary shelters in Sicily have to answer on a daily basis during the registrations at the centers. With the increased number of minors and women, the centers are now crowded with children, teenagers, young pregnant women and babies who are even more disoriented than adults. Many of them don’t know where they are and most of them doubt they are actually in Italy, until someone shows them a map, providing them a first geographical orientation. Others find it hard to believe that they’ve made it, like F. moroccan girl of 27 years arriving two months pregnant. Others are convinced they’ve landed in America, where they have other family members. Many women who’ve managed to flee, arrive with very young children, like Y. from the Ivory Coast, 30 years old, with her daughter of 1 year. Some others come with very precise requests, full of despair and hope like K., a bangladeshi boy who repeats a phrase like a mantra “my mom told me to go to Pisa to study”. These are just few of the stories populating the temporary shelters, stories with very similar beginnings but each of them with their own path.
Surviving from different experiences, small groups of young boys and girls are transferred from the CPSA of Pozzallo (Welcoming and First Aid Center) to the temporary centers. This is where the emergency turns into a warmer, personal and more comfortable welcoming. These centers are an oasis where these boys can find the pleasure of smiling again, enjoy the company of people and release the tension, all before they venture out to the longed and awaited “new life”. Which, unfortunately, is sometimes quite different from the one they had imagined.The average age of migrants has significantly lowered in the last 18 months, undergone dramatic growth and confirmed that the phenomenon crosses various ethnic groups, cultures and religions. Indeed, it is on the youngest ones that the burden of the families’ salvation is dumped on and not on the adult males of the family anymore. Unaccompanied minors and women (often pregnant) are the ones that generally decide to face the “journey of death”. They abandon their countries, escaping from wars, famine and epidemics to fight hard to get the only chance for a change that the historical and geographical circumstances have denied them from birth.
Waiting for a new identity
Since the end of the Navy and Air Force rescue mission that began in October 2013 and ended in November 2014, the CPSA of Pozzallo became the first center of landing with ever increasing numbers of disembarkations that have touched peaks of two or three boats per week.
On September the 7th, 2015 the eyes of nearly 300 newly arrived migrants are focused on the operational offices at the center. Placed in a large room with many beds, they alternately lean along a glass wall that separates them from those two small rooms in which their fate is decided. One room is for the scientific identification and the other one is the immigration office. Constantly observing and using the little energy left to prepare themselves for the legal hurdle, which becomes harder and harder, they try to understand from every little move they see and become more familiar with that environment.
The await is masked with a muffled calm, sometimes interrupted by complaints of operators trying to keep the order and shouting those few words of arabic and french they have learnt at the center.Some of the immigrants sleep on a bed for the first time in a long time, others pray, some talk and share stories; but everyone is waiting anxiously. Waiting for someone to call the number written on a white plastic bracelet, given to them on the dock of the port. M. is the number 328-S, he is 14 years old and he is gambian. He is sitting next to me in the atrium, surrounded by the probing looks of his fellows. Despite his exhaustion, he can not stop smiling because he arrived safely. He speaks English, and we have a conversation before he is called by the scientific identification. He would like to go to Germany, but he knows there are difficulties and risks bigger than him and I am amazed by his surprising awareness . M. is not the only one to know the obstacles of the contorted legal path as the information has been more or less accurately widespread, especially when concerning the details of a higher protection for those categories defined “vulnerable”. Although there is always an essential variable relating to the area of origin, to the cultural and financial resources, this information and stories of “successes” are disseminated and shared by word of mouth, over the phone and by internet via social networking. Reality has been idealized and mythologized to the point that this new glorious image has certainly contributed to the change of human cargo on board of the craft.
What they may not know, however, and what they are kept in the dark from, is that the type of declaration may be worth a return or immediate expulsion, regardless of age, gender, and class. To express the simple and legitimate willingness to work can be the reason of a transfer to a CIE (Centre for Identification and Expulsion) and the wait to be questioned in a systematic way for the assignment of an identity, using procedures somewhat ambiguous, adds to further suffering, tormenting and psychological damage.
The temporary shelters’adjustment
Due to the rise of minors and women with young children arriving, all the structures in place for the migrants welcome have had to adapt to more specific emergency situations – from small scale such as the first aid care, to a much larger scale like the secondary temporary centers. Attention to details is crucial in order to be well coordinated with each other in a coherent manner, providing new rules and, importantly, starting new targeted social programs and welfare system.
Ensuring a more suited path to hospitality, recovery and providing a longer protection, with secure and stable procedures aimed to reunify families must be adopted as it is the only way to avoid these people getting totally lost in the system. Alternative methods can be quicker and easier to take, however they are extremely dangerous and migrants can end up in business of exploitation, drugs and prostitution. It is also for this purpose that was born a strong collaboration among the city hall social services and the temporary centers. This is both for minors and adults (called Sprar centers), and other external associations like MSF and Terre des Hommes. Each of them has a different priority but with specific and fundamental roles, all essential to building and maintaining a solid reintegration process focused on the individual needs. Also to fight the general migration cliches that can turn the procedure into a storage system of human beings.
The role of mediators, educators, coordinators, anthropologists and psychologists has become so important that they are seen as parental figures that these refugees listen to and respect. Redouane is the mediator of the House of Cultures in Scicli, he is Moroccan and he is the imam of the mosque of Ragusa. Completely devoted to the Mediterranean Hope project of evangelical churches, Redouane welcomes the minors to the House of Cultures in Scicli and immediately becomes the main reference to communicate.
The people that come here feel comfortable with him to do the registration interviews they must do to register at the center. An initial informal chat is the first step to explain the function of the center, dismantling that prison image from which the migrants struggle to get away from, and, at the same time transmit principles at the base of the project of unconditional hospitality, without any obligation.
Earning the trust of the children and building relationships of respect and appreciation ensures that in few hours the newcomers understand the different approach of these environments and the effort made to guarantee the transmission of truthful and non-misleading information, easy to understand even for the youngest.
The wait in the centers and the race to the new life
Mediators stress to the refugees that they must be patient during the registrations, as it’s the key to a more secure future. Any relative, friend or acquaintance may be able to provide the documents for the residence permit and a premature escape is nothing more than a hasty decision that complicates procedures further. But very often patience is the most difficult concept to convey to young people, especially when they are close to their legal age and a 7 or 8 months waiting can be a torture leading to a failure.
For those who then have a destination to reach and for who manage to have a little money, the logistics for the escape may start only a few hours after the arrival. Just enough time to figure out where they are, where they have to go, the transportation they need and the cost. At this point communication with family members and with the contacts they have to reach becomes an obsession as well as locating the nearest working payphone or mobile phone. Small sheets of paper, sometimes roughly covered with tape to protect them from the sea, come out of the pockets of those fleeing, often as their only possession on arrival. For every roll call there is always someone missing, escaped. For those who do not have a destination, these centers become places of longer permanence and the wait becomes more serious and heavy. As the psychotherapist Marianna of the association Terre des Hommes explains, the indefiniteness of the timing often causes aggravation of anxiety, lonelines, disorientation, distress, depression, behavioral and psychological destabilization and other pathologies. At the same time there is the realization of the problems related to the work introduction. In a country like Italy, in a time of deep economic crisis, this kind of disappointment goes to aggravate their condition, revealing a failure that initially seemed a success. To placate the looming post-tramautic disorders and to keep the guys both mentally and physically active, educational programs have been set up including, their first Italian classes, their first drawing workshops, geography, environmental activities and sports, with football being the common denominator between all ethnic groups, cultures and religions. For many children, just taking part in these activities is a completely new experience. They soon overcome serious relational limitations and establish friendships, learning what the pleasure of company itself actually means. As the anthropologist and collaborator at the House of Cultures of Scicli Osvaldo Costantini explains, every activity is carefully planned as the integration process must not cancel out the ethnic diversities but it has to keep them strongly bonded to strengthen the principle of a genuine integration with the western culture without leading into a cultural indoctrination.
What has been done to not to let people fall into the oblivion is extensive, but unfortunately not enough. The past weighs on their present, and in their present they are far from their land and their homes. Close to a new life, but at the same time suspended in a bureaucratic dimension of hard understanding, which makes them defenceless to their future.
Nowadays the emergency is too serious because the flow can be stopped and the flow is too intense not to become business. The disembarkation in a country rather than another is mainly dictated by geographical conditions, not always the place of arrival is the predetermined destination. It is often only a step of the journey, but it is made unreasonably long to become a forced arrival, or a point of constant return. To avoid this we need safer and more accurate sorting routes. We need dynamic policies focused on the various ethnic groups and individuals; an easier distribution and canalization for migrants, unfettered by laws and confusing government acts. Only in this way it is possible to alleviate the destructive nature of waiting and break bonds involving the whirling cyclical returns to the place of registration, leaving them free to begin a new respectable life.
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Thanks to Michela Salonia (Social Services at City Hall in Pozzallo), to The House of Cultures in Scicli (Casa delle Culture), to Mediterranean Hope, to the Madiba Center in Comiso, to the Filotea SocCoop in Pozzallo.