MotM Essay | Reflect, Celebrate & Anticipate


31 December 2018

MotM Essay
Reflect, Celebrate & Anticipate

Happy New Year!

I took MotM into its second year of existence in early 2018, in February, the official launch month of the website. Even in those early months the work was more or less carrying on at the same pace as the year before: continued documentation of migrant journey stories to archive and account for the people who lived through this extreme phenomenon in the central Mediterranean. Now, this is shifting, and in direct response the the changing politics in Italy and in the EU.

Much in the migration landscape changed swiftly early in 2018, and dramatically. It was the first weekend in February, in fact, that the mass shooting in Macerata occurred. It marked a dark moment of fascism that went on display unapologetically, and tragically as the shooter, who injured seven west African migrants, draped himself in the tricolor flag before being dragged into police custody.

A month later, the Italian elections on 4 March showed much of what migrant advocates had feared most, a striking shift from the left-center government at the helm to one marked by populism and fascism. While the outcome produced no clear winner to take the position of prime minister, the leadership was split between the two front runners, Luigi Di Maio of the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and, most notoriously, Matteo Salvini of the fascist Northern League, both of whom now preside as deputy prime ministers.

In April, I was invited to the University of Toronto as a visiting lecturer for a graduate seminar in migration studies, a tremendous honor that was extended again as a guest lecturer with the university later that fall by professor Alberto Zambenedetti. His students were exceptionally bright, and eager for the details of life and of migrant reception on Lampedusa island.

It was also at the University of Toronto where Paolo Frasca, a PhD candidate offered his translation services for the MotM journey stories. I was proud to share the launch of the “MotM in Italiano” page to our Italian readers as of summertime. Valentina Pigini has also generously contributed translations.

In late April, I accompanied Pazi to his asylum appeal in Rome, and am thrilled to report he has been granted three-year documentation to remain in Italy. I am immensely proud of his accomplishment, and of him.

In May, I made a quick trip to Lampedusa island that proved to be one of the most difficult yet. Tunisians and Algerians were arriving in slow but steady numbers, which remained under reported if not altogether unreported; while the townspeople’s anger grew by what was increasingly seen as a burden, if not an invasion.

“We’re just tired of it,” one shop owner said to me of the migrant arrivals, a refrain suffused with smug self-defeat that has not stopped echoing in my mind since. To be “tired” of humanity––of one another––in the midst of the blessing of one’s own life struck me as a staggering sign of depression of the collective.

By June, Matteo Salvini, who was appointed as Italy’s Interior Minister, and thus given the power over migrant reception and management, was operating at full-throttle. It’s fair to argue that migrant reception has in fact been mostly erased with the new Minister. In late June, more than 600 vulnerable people were picked up by the Aquarius, the rescue ship owned by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and operated by the NGO SOS Mediterranee, but were not allowed to port.

Earlier that same month, on the other hand, MotM celebrated an incredible moment of growth, having been named partner to the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) world conference in Rome. I brought our dear friend Bakary David to the Swiss Embassy where he shared his experience of living with the trauma of missing people to an audience that included influential leaders in international government, human rights, and the press.

By August, on the Italian political stage, Salvini took his powers to treasonous levels, disallowing even his country’s own coast guard vessel to dock and disembark in any Italian port after rescuing 190 people a mere 17 miles from Lampedusa island. The stand-off with the Italian coast guard ship, the Diciotti, went on for weeks until finally the people on board––migrants who had suffered extraordinary abuses in detention in Libya and needed medical attention––were reluctantly allowed to disembark in Catania, Sicily.

Those that were held on the Diciotti were later transferred to mainland Italy, according to a personal source who has worked with them regularly. Now, I am in active communication with this source to obtain connection with the migrants who were aboard the ship to finally capture their fragile journey stories in 2019.

There is also increased urgency to capture the integration stories of those who are left marginalized now all across Italy’s mainland. I documented a number of these anonymously in a report in August, which I encourage you to revisit––to hear the timbre of their voices as they describe the kind of hopelessness they live with. I will be following up with each of these people in-person in 2019.

Weekly, if not daily, my communication with migrants comes laced with anxiety, fear, and sometimes anger. Each echo back to me the headlines they read of Minister Salvini’s latest threats. None feel secure in their futures in Italy. All remain alone, without family, and with only scant neighbors who stand with them in solidarity. Some are still teenagers.

In September, MotM gained its first fiscal sponsor, which set us up to process tax-deductible donations. For those of you who have contributed already, thank you very much. For those of you who have not, please consider it! Every single dollar truly helps me get on the ground to greet the wonderful people who so much need to be heard.

Also in the fall, I signed the contract from my new dedicated pro-bono legal team. They operate in offices across Milan and Rome and have offered great understanding and support of the MotM mission. I am thankful and lucky to have them.

In October, I attended the 20th Annual WAVE (Women Against Violence Europe) Conference in Malta. Just before getting sick and losing my voice, I presented the work of MotM and in particular, spoke about the gender gap that exists on the site. You can read the report here. In 2019 MotM is on a mission to seek out the much-needed women’s journey stories with greater determination.

In early November, I visited the emergency room in Milan for a diagnosis of acute tonsillitis. Amidst this work-halting illness plus the record-setting torrent of rain across Italy, I ruminated instead on things that were out of my control, and focused on what was: my having witnessed the truth in Lampedusa. I told a dear friend over dinner that what we saw on the island could not be taken from us––no matter what.

This gives us power.

I took that resolve, and the tonsillitis, to Rome and Napoli for further reunions with Bakary David and Yoro, and of course, Pazi. All of these people are becoming so much more than mere subjects I write about in my advocacy. They are becoming my family. “You are part of me [and I] am part you,” Pazi said to me just before the Christmas holiday.

There were others who emerged too in December––two people I met in Lampedusa who I never thought I’d hear from again. Ousman and Yanks contacted me out of the blue, and we are in touch now about seeing each other for a full interview in 2019.

They have already shared new, incredible details of their memories of Libya, of their terrifying time crossing the sea, and now, of their difficulty adjusting to life in a country that has a growing sentiment against them. Your jaw will drop when you see and hear the things they’ve experienced. 

And with that, I conclude this note on an optimistic one. I am developing new projects and productions for Migrants of the Mediterranean that I will share with you soon. So while this closing is vague, things will soon pull into focus. Stay tuned for the reveal!

Be assured in the meantime that 2019 is already looking to be the year of the greatest change and opportunity I’ve yet to see.

With love, luck & solidarity,