After 4 days of driving through Italy, I finally got to the city of Palermo in the region of Sicily, which is, to be fair, an Island kind of … but a huge one … nothing compared to Lesvos.
Even through there’s something similar in the scenery, coastal shores, rocky mountains and beaches all over the place … volcano and tiny islands popping up far on the skyline, lost in the Mediterranean sea …
Well, the place feels a bit familiar and at the same time completely different.
First, the size of it … Sicily is roughly about 200km wide.
Secondly the weather … even if Lesvos was cold in winter … here it’s freezing. The wind, the rain and the snow are really making the place completely different than the sunny and bright scenery you’ve in mind when you think about “Sicily”.
Thirdly, nobody here speaks neither English, french or Spanish … only Italian, and then, to communicate with people is a funny thing made of a mixture of each language ; one kind of “Italospanicofrenchinglish” … it’s a bit weird.
Nevertheless, I made my way through it and I first get in touch with Emanuele Cardella who’s running the Astalli Centro, a place taking care of the new comers from Africa in Sicily. I also met Tomasso, Martina, Gabrilele and other people in town involved in the migration issue and the humanitarian work. The place they used to gather was a co-working space and bar called “Moltivolti” like in the pub “Bobiras” of Lesvos …
The first impression I’d from the migrant center was very good.
Emanuele shown me the place and everything they’re bringing to the people in need : breakfast, clothes, shower, Italian classes, juridic advises, etc … It was way better than what I expected and I was happy to get involved in the daily work.
And then I started working, doing the same old things that is a routine work which is always changing ; preparing food, bread and stuff for the breakfast, tiding the place, taking care of the shower, drying clothes, listing the beneficiaries, etc etc … but as usual, even if the work looks like the same on paper, it’s a whole new thing that you need to learn again.
Every morning, the center was opening around 8.30am (we’d to prepare everything an hour before) and was serving breakfast to the hundreds of people currently in the city. Sorting the frozen breads coming from the unsold stock of the city’ bakeries, warming it up, splinting it in little pieces, serving bowls, spoons, tissues, milk, coffee to everyone etc …
After the 1-2 hours of the breakfast, we were then continuing the work with the showers, the Italian classes and administrative requests of the people.
The different steps of the help were also planned through the week, one or two afternoon per week for clothing, other times for advocacy and paper stuffs etc …
We’re then doing something different everyday beside of doing the same routine works.
As Emanuele told me the center was running for ten years now and has been taking care of roughly 10000 people, which is telling a lot about the ongoing situation of the island, about the fact that migration here is not something new.
Some people have left their home long time ago and were coming back from Europe, from countries such as Finland, France or Belgium … the most of them have been pushed back, due to a negative answer regarding their asylum seeking or simply because of their absence of legal documents.
And you could find a huge diversity of origin countries … Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Morocco, Gambia, Ghana and of course, all the other countries I already knew …
As matter of fact, you could see many “migrants” in town, living alongside the Italians who don’t seems to see the situation as a problem, at least they’re living with it … and if the NGO’s were a bit difficult to find on the web (if it wasn’t impossible …) they were definitely operating on the field.
Furthermore, you could feel here that the “travellers” were more welcomed than in other places I’ve been … Local people were helping, caring for the “migranti” setting up collects, donations and fundraising to help ; you could feel that a big bunch of people were really involved … And the migrants were also living in one kind of harmony with the locals, sharing the same places, going to the same events and working with them etc … Of course the well integrated ones had spent a lot of time here and had built there new “european life” step by step, but still, the new-comers did not looked like facing the same hostility I used to notice in other places.
As instance, Graziella introduced me to one of the action ran by the locals, WelcomeRefugee was enabling families from Palermo to host migrants in need for a period of 6 months or more … the aim was to improve their life by the time they were staying with the family (finding them a job, giving them classes etc …)
The month I spent in the city makes me realise the huge diversity of its community and, more than simply migrants, refugees and humanitarian volunteers fighting against the harsh situation that’s facing the island, I met honourable people, all willing to make a change in their life, city life and the life of the migrants …
Palermo is definitely not the place I expected to struggle in, and even if things remain hard and difficult, I’m confident in the ability of people to face the trouble and to fight with any resources they have.