18 April 2017: More Than 8,000 Easter Arrivals
Chaos on a Backdrop of Normalcy
I’ve been trying not to look at American newspapers very frequently because it’s too distressing to consider their contents from this distance. I’m too far to feel what it all means, but everything’s clearly gone off the rails. A friend in Chicago posted pictures of the Tax Day protest in Daley Plaza on Instagram. I double-tapped them all in a show of support, but my solidarity is obviously remote.
That, it turns out, has become the dosage of American media coverage I prefer from Lampedusa. It’s minimal, obviously, and I tell myself that steering clear of it maintains a level of cleanliness in my thinking here on the island. I don’t know if it’s working, because I can feel all of that unrest simmering somewhere else inside me. It’s like I’ve packaged it away in some part of my body, to be reopened when I arrive again Stateside.
And to say I’ve not been taking in American media coverage is a total lie anyway, because every time I open Facebook there’s something trending about, basically, how miserable Melania Trump is, or what her husband, this unfortunate character we call the president, did on Easter.
Easter in Italy goes for days. Festivities start on Friday––there were processions here in Lampedusa––church services continue on Saturday, Easter Sunday itself brings everyone out to Via Roma, and yesterday, Monday, was Pasquetta, which roughly translates to “little Easter.” My mom says that when she was growing up in her Polish neighborhood in Philadelphia there was something like it, but it’s nothing I had ever celebrated, and I’m pretty sure most Americans reported to work yesterday.
Here, there is a deeper reverence for holidays and traditions. You’re going to feel Easter as a day in doppler effect, a buildup of festivities that crescendos Sunday and disperses into a placid Monday. A marzipan lamb is still sitting on a dish on my table, to be eaten eventually, maybe. It’s the equivalent, I think, of an American Cadbury Egg, only the lamb is christened with a flag and a halo with an image of Christ. So, like, the same but different.
Saturday was quiet and I never figured out why. I had a no-show interview with two young men from Sudan, but again, who knows what kind of logistics are happening in the hotspot that might have prevented them from coming. The main thing that’s happening in the hotspot is the sheer number of people. Literally, it is overflowing with new arrivals.
It’s in the news, the number of refugees who’ve crossed into Sicily from Libya this weekend, and it’s a record. The number keeps growing as the days continue. In the middle of the night on Thursday there were four landings at the Guardia Costiera dock a few meters from where I live. Friends I have who assist with the arrivals worked through the night.
On Friday there were already reported figures into the thousands. I wrote to a friend in Los Angeles yesterday that that number had grown now to over 7,000. I told her not to quote me though, because the figure keeps evading me, it keeps growing. I woke up today and saw the spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Flavio Di Giacomo, had tweeted the new total as 8,360 refugees.
An eight-year-old boy died. There were 55 rubber dinghies recovered, and three wooden boats. At least 13 others died. I asked a migrant from Egypt yesterday on the street how many people were in the hotspot in Lampedusa––was it 1,000? He gestured with his hand, “higher.” The last figure I saw for the Lampedusa hotspot was at 1,045, but who can tell. The center is built to hold about 300 for perspective.
But on the street, you can’t exactly sense the kind of chaos and distress that’s actually unfolding. I was at the office on Sunday morning taking coffee with friends. There was no sound in the overcast sky we had that day. The same stray dogs jogged up and down the street. The same regulars at The Royal poked their heads in for hellos. I brought a bag of Reese’s peanut butter eggs for my Sicilian friends to sample, and a box of yellow marshmallow Peeps as a gag gift to another, who ended up beholding them like the eucharist. The only sign of the hell that was actually happening just a short walk away on our own shore was the TV coverage in an unending montage of rescuers and boats. So what the hell is normalcy, anyway?
That night, everyone came out for passeggiata, the afternoon walk and pause for aperitivo. I sat at a cafe table and emptied I don’t know how many bottles of wine with friends who hailed from Norway, Tunisia, France and Eritrea––all people who are here to help. The clouds had gone away and the sun was hot by then. The migrants from the center came out to enjoy the remains of the day too. They’re always swaddled in donated winter coats––thick, puffy jackets with hoods. In good weather, Lampedusa to me is hot; I wear shorts. But to Africans, this is cold; they wear what I would in New York in winter.
Lucy is Looking
In the approaching winter of 2015 a woman named Lucy had her final contact with a friend named Omar from The Gambia. She emailed the MotM address wondering if I’d come across him. On her last call with him, he was leaving on a boat from Libya. She heard of a capsizing and deaths, but hasn’t heard from her friend since and doesn’t know if he is dead or alive. She sent me photos, but his face is not familiar to me. I’ll be showing them to Gambian friends next week who may be from the same area of Gambia as he. It’s a tight-knit community there, so there could actually be a chance that one of them has an idea of who he is. Or where he is.
A lot of people go missing. A lot of people become unaccounted for. There are unmarked graves at the cemetery in Lampedusa. And then there is the sea itself, formless, shifting shape, and absorbing every story of this time that we may never be able to account for ourselves.
I’ll be traveling to northern Italy this week for more meetings. A friend who works for a state agency invited me to Como to visit with refugees who are about to be deported. I have no idea what this will look like, but I imagine it will be in sharp contrast to the typically idyllic lakeside scenery we associate with the village George Clooney has made famous. Then, there are reunions with migrants you’ve read about already on the site, guys from Gambia who I met in Lampedusa on my last visit here in November-December. They’ve been transferred now to multiple cities across Italy, and I plan to find out how they are doing and what the next stage of the immigration process looks like. Stay tuned.