Making the best of things: Exploring migration in Sicily

By Kelly McKinney

In the spring of 2016, I received funding from John Abbott College in Québec where I teach in the Department of Humanities, Philosophy and Religion to travel to Siracusa, Italy. In July I joined my friend and colleague there, Cristiana Giordano, an anthropologist--like me--and professor at UC Davis in her ongoing research project on migration in Italy. One of Cristiana's main research contacts and collaborators in Sicily, Ramzi Harrabi will be the positive focus of this short report for RIF on migration and refugees. I will briefly outline the recent Sicilian migrant context, and then will describe a few of Ramzi's current and ongoing projects for readers.  

Once a young illegal migrant himself from Tunisia, Ramzi has made Italy his home, and currently works as a cultural mediator, educator and Director of the Intercultural Studies Center in Siracusa. Ramzi is that and more--he is also an award winning visual artist, musician, poet, local gadfly in the best sense of the word, and the Ambassador of the Educational City Project in Siracus. This list does not even touch a whole host of other positions and accomplishments in Ramzi's dossier. 

But what sets Ramzi's work apart from other migrant services are his deeply held intellectual and spiritual convictions that art possesses transformative powers to create new meanings and possibilities for dialogue and cultural change.  

Migration to Sicily

Today, migrants arriving in Sicily are mostly of northern and sub-Saharan African origin, fleeing poverty, war, exploitation, persecution, and corruption in their home countries or in Libya where they had hoped to find greater security and opportunities, but instead experienced new forms of violence and deprivation.


Travelling in small, overcrowded fishing boats or rubber dinghies launched from Libya and other countries on the north African coast, the migrants take the dangerous, costly and sometimes fatal journey across the central Mediterranean. If rescued by the Italian coast guard and Italian navy, they are taken to Catania or other cities, where they are met by Italian officials, NGO's, and other organizations contracted out by the government to manage emergency reception. 

From this point the migrants are usually sent to camps or shelters for longer term accommodation. The quality of these reception centers varies considerably depending on who manages the facilities; several reports describing deplorable conditions in many of them--in particular the larger ones such as CARA of Mineo--have been made available to the public. A number of migrants will leave these camps and centers to go underground in Italy as illegal immigrants, or they leave Italy for other countries such as Germany or Sweden where they believe greater economic and social security awaits them. For those who stay in the centers, they will receive pocket money, basic shelter, sometimes phone allowances, and if lucky legal counsel and opportunities for socialization activities while waiting to present their cases for humanitarian status to the Territorial Commissions for International Protection (CTRPI). 

Unaccompanied Minors

An unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors travelled to Italy during the first six months of 2016. According to a UNICEF report. out of 7,567 minors arriving in Italy, 7,009 of them were unaccompanied. Of these, 3,724 arrived from Egypt, Gambia, Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire. A recent article in The Guardian describes how increasing numbers of these young people get caught in human smuggling rings organized mostly by Eritreans, Egyptians, Somalis and, not surprisingly, the Cosa Nostra (Sicilian mafia) and end up leaving the centers. Since last year, at least 5,000 migrant children in Italy have gone missing after registering with the Italian authorities. According to The Guardian article, some minors expressed the desire to leave the camps because of the overcrowded, unclean and violent conditions there. 

While researching in Siracusa, I visited two shelters for male migrant minors, both located on the 3rd floor of a regular residential apartment building. Shelters like these are run by many different organizations and subject to mafia corruption and uneven management. In this apartment building, some of the other tenants are not happy about the migrant boys living there.  

Twelve to an apartment, the boys have recreational space, and can cook autonomously. Sparsely furnished and bare--but spacious and hygienic enough--one houses boys from countries including Gambia, Nigeria and Mali, and the other only boys from Egypt. Segregation of this sort is not uncommon. Ramzi explained that certain national and ethnic groups are perceived to be troublesome and require separation and greater monitoring and "control" than others. 

Boys mixed from both apartments with Ramzi at the theatre meeeting. Siracusa, July 2016

Boys mixed from both apartments with Ramzi at the theatre meeeting. Siracusa, July 2016

 

The boys tend to sleep in late and do not engage in many structured activities, but they do go out and play soccer or go to the beach. I noticed that cell phones, compulsively checked and used, are cherished objects for many of them. If they go out during the evenings, it is prudent for these young men to travel in pairs and to stay on the main roads to avoid violent encounters with local Sicilian teenage boys and men. If they can figure out ways to make some extra money, through panhandling (discouraged by Ramzi) or by other means, they do it. According to Ramzi, worries about paying off their smugglers continually gnaw at the boys, but he does his best to keep them on the straight and narrow so they do not engage in money-making activities that will get them into trouble.

Some of the boys during a meeting with Ramzi and Cristiana about a theatre project they were planning. Siracusa, July 2016

Some of the boys during a meeting with Ramzi and Cristiana about a theatre project they were planning. Siracusa, July 2016

Most of the boys I met expressed the desire to receive the humanitarian status which would allow them to stay and make their homes in Italy. To do this they must present their cases to the Territorial Commission who will then decide if they legitimately qualify. In Italy the state grants all minor migrants the right to legally stay in Italy until they are 18, at which time if they have not received legal status, they could be deported. By that time, many will have left Italy or entered the shadowy economies and social worlds of the undocumented. 

Ramzi with his indispensable cell phone and Ahmed, Siracusa, July 2016

Ramzi with his indispensable cell phone and Ahmed, Siracusa, July 2016

Ramzi and Unaccompanied Minors

One of Ramzi's jobs is to serve as an educator for the boys. According to him, a big part of this job is to change their "ethics" so they will become more motivated to get their humanitarian status, finish school, get jobs and become contributing members of Italian society. Thus, every moment Ramzi spends with the boys is potentially a pedagogical opportunity. As Ramzi explained, "Education is always above everything." He is a father-figure and a teacher to them, warm, kind and funny but also firmly guided by his moral principles. He does not romantize or feel what he calls "liberal" love or pity for the boys which he feels keeps them "victims," but treats them as complex moral agents.  

To illustrate, Cristiana's research project this trip included organizing a theatre workshop and production with the boys. At the meeting when Ramzi introduced Cristiana and explained to them about her project, a discussion around the Territorial Commission and the boys' cases for humanitarian status unfolded. Ramzi asked those who were denied (and in fact, many of them are, but this is for another discussion) and are appealing the Committee's decisions to think critically about why they might have been denied.  Never one to miss a teachable moment, Ramzi also instigated a debate with the boys about God, fate, and human free will.

My impression is that it is an uphill battle for Ramzi to get the young men involved in outside projects and activities--some of them are depressed and all have been "uprooted" and are in limbo until their humanitarian cases are decided. They are also young. Needing extra encouragement, structure and guidance from adults whose care they are under, the centers they are in seem to lack staff who are able to get them actively engaged in activities that will benefit them and will benefit their cases. 

The Ambassador

While Cristiana and I were walking around Siracusa with Ramzi as he made his rounds and attended to his many responsibilities and projects, it became obvious that he is an informal as well as an offically-designated educational "ambassador." In between his phone calls and texts, we could not take more than two steps before Ramzi stopped to greet someone, or someone stopped him to chat or say hello-- from restaurant owners to elderly grandmothers, shoemakers and UNHCR staff. 

One evening after work, we took a beer at Ramzi's favorite local corner store, and while sitting on the back stoop chatting and enjoying our views of the rocky Mediterranean coast and clear blue-green waters, Ramzi spotted a friend in the distance who happens to work for the UNHCR and serves as a decision-making member for Territorial Commission cases. She joined us for a beer and had very interesting views and experiences to share. This is life in Ortigia. 

Ramzi's natural gregariousness and openness foster his long-term goals: to make the Italian state recognize its responsibility to uphold the Geneva Convention and other international agreements--"without discussion"-- while at the same time to help the Italian people at the local level integrate with newcomers. In "occupying" public space with art exhibits, music, theatre productions and migrants themselves, Ramzi told me he is trying to educate and to enable local residents and migrants to be mutually involved in community-building, connecting and integration. 

In this spirit, Ramzi's approach to dealing with the hostile neighbors in the boys' apartment building is to orgazine a free-lending library in the entrance way of the building that the boys will run--- a cultural goodwill project from which both the migrants and the residents could socially profit. 

 

Streets of Ortigia

Streets of Ortigia

The Hostel

Ramzi opened a migrant-operated hostel artistically decorated with palettes and plants in the heart of Ortigia. Ramzi's hope is that this social integration project will become a fully self-sustaining operation so he will not have to worry all the time about getting or losing funds for it. Funding is always an issue for all migrant services, and even when funding is available (and at times it can even be plentiful) certain projects can be suddenly shut down, like another theatre project Ramzi had organized and was ready to launch, or operate dysfunctionally--- because of the mafia or the changing winds of government and politics.

Migrant-run hostel

Migrant-run hostel

The Church Exposition

Ramzi received permission to transform a church on a main thoroughfare in Ortigia into a group art exhibit free and open to the public everyday, all day. Ramzi's partner, Elizabeth Atkinson, works at the exhibit entitled, "Uprooted" and sells the lovely hand-painted scarves she made along with pieces by the other contributing artists. All proceeds from art sales go to migrant-related educational projects. 

Visually representing migrant politics and suffering, and above all humanizing migrants and recovering them from the de-humanizing effects of numbers, bureaucracies and political discourse, this exhibit is layered with additional meaning and symbolism by the Catholic church setting and religious icons interspersed throughout. It is a powerful space. 

Cristiana and I volunteered there one day for a few hours. Many tourists curiously peered into the space but didn't enter. Others came in, walked around silently, some asked questions, and some bought art.

Installation by Ramzi. Cristiana and I went with him on one of his expeditions to a migrant boat dump at Porto Palo to recover shoes, water bottles, life jackets, and other artifacts from migrant journeys. Ramzi then assembles these items and reinscribes their meaning through transforming them into art for public witnesssing.

Installation by Ramzi. Cristiana and I went with him on one of his expeditions to a migrant boat dump at Porto Palo to recover shoes, water bottles, life jackets, and other artifacts from migrant journeys. Ramzi then assembles these items and reinscribes their meaning through transforming them into art for public witnesssing.

Ramzi scavenging for objects at boat cemetery

Ramzi scavenging for objects at boat cemetery

Painting by Ramzi from his Uprooted series, Siracusa, July 2016

Painting by Ramzi from his Uprooted series, Siracusa, July 2016


Intercultural Center of Siracusa

In addition to these projects, Ramzi is the Director of the Intercultural Studies Center of SiracusaA field school and community center with many offshoot projects (cooking classes, tours for high schools students, you name it!) college students can do summer internships in Siracusa and receive 3 hours of college credit doing research and working under Ramzi's supervision. Given the many programs and activities in which Ramzi plays a key role, I think these internships for students with an intermediate to advanced level of Italian language proficiency and commitment to social justice would be amazing! 

https://www.facebook.com/InterculturalStudiesCenter

Siracusa Citta Educativa (Educational City Project of Siracusa) and Cultural Mosaica: Music, Theatre and Art

In the Largo Della Graziella, a beautiful small square in Ortigia, Ramzi organized Thursday night cultural integration events with music, poetry and theatre this summer through the municipal program, the Siracusa Citta Educativa. On the square is a charming building which houses the "laboratori" --a program headed by Rossana Geraci--which brings together native Italian preteens and teenagers with young migrants. At the laboratori this summer the kids spent days together, talking, eating, sewing and making lovely and colorful decorations and seat cushions, and then on Thursday evenings they were responsible for setting up the square and taking down the materials. The Italian kids who volunteered there were adorable--articulate, outgoing, helpful and kind. Amadou, the young man pictured below, told me he enjoyed coming there because "It is good to keep the mind busy." 

 

Sewing together at the laboratory

Sewing together at the laboratory

Setting up

Setting up

Working together

Working together

 

I was there for the first Thursday evening, which actually wasn't the official start of the Thursday events, but was kind of a preview. The square was gorgeous and everyone was in good spirits. Ice cream was served and people milling about. Then--in what Ramzi explained was not unusual in Sicily--when he arrived later in the evening with his musical instruments and the other musicians he plays with, everything had already been put away and shut down. The other organizers were tired and wanted to go home and have dinner and be with their families. 
 

Making the best of things : Ramzi playing and singing

Making the best of things : Ramzi playing and singing

So Ramzi and his fellow musicians arrived ready to play, but faced an empty square (I was one of the few people who remained there partly because I did not quite understand what was happening), and then a whole group of boys from the two shelters I visited arrived to partake in the festivities. It was sad and disappointing to see them arrive to quiet emptiness, especially given how difficult it can be for them to engage in these activities, but Ramzi played his tambourine and sang revolutionary communist songs loudly anyway with a few native Italians who came to participate.   

The good news is that since that evening, the subsequent Thursday evening events have been successful and well-attended by curious neighbors and other community members. Cristiana and Ramzi spent several weeks working with interested migrant boys and neighbors around the square in theatre improvisation workshops. I helped out the first few days they held the improv activities.  

Those migrant teenagers who participated the first few days seemed to enjoy it (although many of them were greatly distracted by their cell phones) and kids from the laboratori joined us as well as Linda, a neighbor with great spirit, and Dudu, a Roma boy who lives in the area and plays the accordion beautifully. After that, attendance dropped with the boys, until a new smaller group from another shelter committed and became the actors in the final performance. 
 

Poster for the final performance

Poster for the final performance

Teatro di Sabbia (Theatre of Sand) Cast for "Sogni e Miraggi" (Dreams and MIrages)  

Teatro di Sabbia (Theatre of Sand) Cast for "Sogni e Miraggi" (Dreams and MIrages)  

 

The performance of "Sogni e Miraggi" took place the evening of 11 August 2016.

Since my visit, Ramzi and his colleagues have renamed the square "Piazza Mosaico." By doing so Ramzi is transforming public space into a space for everyone--it is no longer pure Italian space invaded by a mass of undifferentiated foreigners--but an intercultural one created by everyone.  

Final Comments

Not surprisingly, Ramzi Harrabi has many other projects, and plans for new ones are always percolating in his creative, active mind. Here I just highlighted a few I directly observed. In addition, in this report I hinted at but did not delve too far into the politics at international, national, and local levels in which Ramzi and others working in migrant services are implicated. Suffice it to say, Ramzi has to negotiate political challenges and obstacles everyday in his work.   

I encourage those interested to click on the hypertext links and to follow Ramzi on social media for more information on his work and for great photographs. And certainly for readers working in immigration, refugee reception, resettlement and integration, my hope is that Ramzi's projects and creative approaches to education and social justice will inform and inspire.

Kelly McKinney, New York City
kelly.mckinney@johnabbott.qc.ca

That's me on the left with Cristiana

That's me on the left with Cristiana