Palermo Perspective # 6: The Young Faces of Migration

Palermo Perspective # 6: The Young Faces of Migration

I just finished reading a beautiful, tragic novel about what happens when a child must endure what should never happen to any person. (I am deliberately leaving out the name of the book because I don’t want its narrative to inadvertently, but inescapably get associated with the sketch I am trying to provide here. If you want a book suggestion, please ask me separately.) In the novel, the protagonist carves out a life — such as it is — despite what he endured. But he never quite gets beyond the shadow of what happened, the harm done to him.

My comparison is pointed but not exact. I want simply to suggest, as in the novel, the the glimpses I often got from the young Africans I met this summer, unaccompanied minor migrants in the resettlement programs and at church —  I heard of experiences young people should not have had to navigate. Unlike in the novel, it is my prayer and belief that these young people will not bear scars that will mark the rest of their lives. In fact, I trust that their courage and energy, their hope and life skills, and the world at large — as personified in the care and support of the Italian commitment to support resettlement, as I saw at Centro Diaconale / Casa dei Mirti — will enable them to transcend the difficult paths they have traveled.  I trust that they will have full lives ahead of them well beyond the shadows of what they have seen in their pasts.

Though the young men and women from Gambia, Mali, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Egypt and Eritrea are incredibly and unfailingly optimistic, as I heard bits and pieces of their stories, it was impossible to miss that most of them traversed difficult passages on the journey between where their homes were and the place they now call home. I was privileged to know them through two programs at Centro Diaconale and two congregations in Palermo and Trapani.

This “report” makes no claim to be statistical. Instead, it’s my impressions. Observations. What I’ve heard in passing conversations. Anecdotal in a sense, but I’m pretty sure pointing to some broader strokes of a painted picture that is important for the world to see.

The image of the dead Syrian child washed up on the Greek shore gave a face to that refugee crisis. The problem is that most of the Syrians caught up in the crisis at home or in neighboring countries or trying to find asylum, they will never be seen… or recognized. The same is true, perhaps even more so, of the unaccompanied minors from Africa who are trying to make their way to safety and life in Europe. Why? Because the situation isn’t neat or clear or easy to sum up. The causes of their flight and the paths of their journeys are more varied and less obvious. I fear many are getting lost along the way, literally and figuratively. And to add to all these difficulties is the fact that Africa is often overlooked and therefore underreported.  

I didn’t like to ask the young people specifics about their pasts: one can assume they faced difficulties back home and on their journeys to Italy. It seemed most respectful of their stories and privacy and persons  to wait until they chose to share, volunteered information. Why? I’m reminded of an important insight I have often heard in North American discussions of the need for immigration reform: No one willingly leaves home. No one willingly leaves home.  Negative realities make the risks of trying to emigrate less than the difficulties of staying home.

So I didn’t ask, but often, all of a sudden, when they were talking with me, suddenly they would mention something or tell me a story. In the face of what I was hearing, I found myself hoping that there was something cathartic or healing in their telling me. But even if it was not, I know listening always enriched me, even when what was being shared was hard to hear.

What have I learned?

People are on the move. Always have been. Will continue to be. Moving from something: war, poverty, oppression, limited and limiting circumstances. Moving towards something: safety, greater opportunity, the promise of schooling, work, a better life, room to breathe and be themselves. I was always intrigued by the things from home that individuals guarded sacredly and the new aspects of life they took to quickly, almost hungrily. Africans in their late teens who know more about contemporary American music than I do, but then are incredibly proud to cook and introduce me to a dish from their native country.

None of this should be particularly surprising to a reader in the U.S.: it’s the motivations and hopes and experience that make up the history and myth of our immigrant nation (despite the xenophobic revisionism of the current administration). And, if we are listening, we have heard similar echoes in the backgrounds and hopes of more recent immigrants, for example Latin Americans and Chinese.

But the specifics of the migrations to Italy I want to describe are of their current time and place. They speak of the economic, social and political crises in many contemporary African nations, of long uncertain journeys by notably young people, across many nations and whole quarters of a continent, of a lawlessness in Libya that allows the smugglers free rein, and of a European Union in which the southern-most nations (Spain, Italy and Greece, because of their proximities to coasts of origin) are struggling with disproportionate number of migrants to welcome, resettle and absorb.

What is perhaps most startling to me is how young the migrants are. It seems apparent to me that it is more likely for people to leave home in the first half of their lives, even in the most dire refugee crises. But still, the majority of the Africans emigrating are still minors.They leave home and travel by bus across multiple nations and a big corner of the continent to the Libyan border where they entrust themselves to smugglers; work in Tripoli to earn their smuggler’s passage fees, live in Tripoli earning money to pay their smugglers; and then get into boats, overpacked rubber rafts these days, and head out after dark into the Mediterranean… the majority are in their mid-to-late teens. Few are legally of age to make their own decisions.

Maybe you need the hopefulness or naivete of youth to brave such a journey and risks, but as a parent, it felt too young to make such decisions or face such challenges independently. My parental doubts seem to be reflected in a fact about the beginning of many of these journeys: the young people often sneak away from home without their families knowing. Since they end up incommunicado for some weeks or months after they leave home, families often don’t know where they have gone, and sometimes fear the children are dead.

Most of the immigrants are young men, in part because the journey is more dangerous for young women who can be sexually assaulted or forced into prostitution en route or more likely in Tripoli.

Depending on how they have aged, some of these people look like men and women, albeit young. But others, some leaving home as early as 14 or 15, still look more like kids carrying baby fat, children really, than adults who are ready to be on their own, much less negotiate with or entrust themselves to the smugglers.

Why do they leave home? They are leaving because in their experience they have little choice left. From what I have gleaned, the reasons are multiple. They often involve the various difficulties that teens face making the complex transitions into young adulthood, for example generational differences and the frustrations of feeling older and more ready to make decisions for themselves than their elders recognize.

And there are family problems too, deceased parents and failed marriages and families living apart as parents too have needed to travel to find work. I heard stories about families already separated. And young people growing up without parents and in the care of someone else, for example, older siblings.

But all those difficulties are complicated and heightened by the specifics of their communities’ situations in the nations of Africa where civil unrest, poverty, disease and lack of opportunity, either for education or work, can be grinding, relentless realities that both magnify other problems and make resources for redress almost impossible..

To understand these African realities one needs to look back to colonial history, but also include current dynamics — climate change and continued corporate exploitation. For example, with unstable weather conditions, it is harder for families to grow food to feed themselves much less surplus for trade to meet other needs. Or another example, West African fishermen from the coastal nations are having difficulty competing with the overfishing of their waters by Northern European commercial fishing operations.

Many of the young men can tell stories of seeking work first in neighboring African nations. And of deportations and prison time for being in another nation illegally. One young man tried to find work in two neighboring nations, was deported from one and jailed in another before he decided that Europe, a longshot, was his best chance.

The long bus trips across multiple nations seemed fraught to me, but I never heard much about them. I am not even sure where most of the young people came up with the funds for bus tickets and food along the way.

What I heard much about- Libya- sounded sort of like the wild west with very little rule of law at this point. The buses the young people have ridden to Libya stop at the border. There the young people meet smugglers with vans. They work out a deal and get in a van and are taken into Tripoli where smugglers sort of warehouse them until they have worked enough to earn their passage. Some young people have someone back home who can contribute to the cost the smugglers exact. In that case, the smugglers have agents in all the countries of origin to collect money. But it’s never enough. And so it is routine for young people to need to work in Tripoli for some time.

The young men do manual labor in construction and the young women do domestic work. One works until one’s smuggler is satisfied that enough has been paid. Young people spoke of their time in Tripoli being as little as a month or six weeks.but apparently some youth have been working there as long as 3 or 4 years.

The sub-saharan Africans, much darker-skinner than Libyans, are obvious and subject to discrimination and abuse. You can imagine how this whole situation leaves the migrant teenagers incredibly vulnerable. To make things worse, many of the smugglers are police officers themselves. .

And then there’s the Mediterranean crossing. Under the cover of night, the smugglers load people in vans and drive them out to a beach outside of Tripoli. They used to use old wooden boats, but lately, inflatable rubber rafts have become the preferred mode of transportation. They are cheaper because the smugglers take the migrants out into the Mediterranean and abandon them. The boats are dangerously overcrowded and have been known to capsize, causing the death of the migrants. People are often not in good physical health, and they are left in the middle of the sea waiting to be found. Some rafts make it all the way to Lampedusa, the Italian island nearest to the African coast, and people come ashore.. Others are rescued at sea by the Italian Coast Guard or NGOs that now patrol the waters in a rescue operation.

One young man told me that on the night he was to leave Libya, when he and the others got out of the van on the beach in the dark, and he saw the raft and all the people they were going to load into it, he thought to himself, “I should just run away from here. For surely, in that boat out on the sea, I’m going to die.” But he decided that he had come that far, so he was going to take the chance.  

As I said, so far, Italy has maintained its commitment to offer resettlement to everyone who is picked up at sea or makes it to land. But there is rising political concern about immigration, and these questions are expected to function powerfully in upcoming elections.

Once rescued or landed, they are registered by the Italian government and begin the resettlement process. Minors are cared for until about 6 months after they turn 18. Hopefully in that time, they learn enough Italian and meet all the requirements to get work authorization.

But who knows how many were lost along the way? Or what all happened to these young people along the way? And how can Italy because of proximity to the African coast bear the burden of these numbers of resettlements without help from other European nations (or other nations, like ours)?

Still, I am grateful that for the ones who made it. And thankful for the prospects, even with the challenges, that Italy offers the futures of some young people who became very dear to me.

Respectfully submitted,

Michael