MotM Reunion | Meet Fabulous: One Year Later
30 July 2019
Most people I meet on Lampedusa island. But I did not meet Fabulous there. He was rescued in November 2016 and brought to Catania. That’s half a sea away from Lampedusa on mainland Sicily.
We met instead by mutual contacts or from getting wind of each other through some grapevine. To be honest, I’m not sure I can tell you exactly how I was introduced to Fabulous, although I do know our first conversations began via Facebook.
What I also know is that he was instantly and wholly open and available to speak and share what had happened to him. As soon as the opportunity presented itself for me to get to Naples, Italy, the closest major city to the village he currently calls home, I got there. That was in November 2017.
It’s a funny feeling showing up at the busy central train station alone in one of the grittiest cities in Italy not knowing what’s going to happen. Or even knowing if you’ll recognize a person you’ve never met before.
Somehow, though, pictures sent over WhatsApp were enough. Don’t you find it surprising how easily it is to not mistake one person for another? Everyone is so distinct. For the total blur of faces rushing through any public place, your intuition almost always tells you without a fragment of ambiguity who is who.
So that’s how I found Fabulous.
First, we were total strangers. Then, we became family.
That sounds dramatic, but it is actually natural when you speak so often––usually weekly, but sometimes even daily––and about such personal things. There is trust built up in this process. You go back to the people who give that to you.
What makes this brotherhood with Fabulous so much easier is his unshakeable insistence on upholding his well-being. I have yet to have an encounter with Fabulous that doesn’t end on a high note. He simply does not speak on a down beat.
It’s because he believes in himself. He knows his worth. He has self-respect. He really is positivity embodied, and that is rewarding to be around, especially as you understand the resilience it must take to maintain it. After all, he does this in the face of a society that, right now, struggles to tell him he is much more than a burden.
That is what sets Fabulous apart, all of his light, all of his knowing that he is much more than the world around him says.
We met again in April 2019 in central Naples to find out what’s new. We recorded his journey story to document the atrocious inhumanity he faced to arrive here; now, we get a bit more texture to who he is––from language and West African vernacular, the Italian economy and his prospects for employment, to his own practice of gratitude and patience.
Language + African Diversity
“I am not your boy,” Fabulous said.
We laughed because we knew it was a typical greeting from his Gambian friends. But we also knew to call a black man “boy” was an incredibly diminishing racial slur. The same way Americans might say “What’s up, dude” or “Hey bro, what’s up?” to a friend with affection, a Gambian will address other male friends with “boy.” “Hey, boy” I always hear them shout with a smile and a hand slap.
Fabulous though is Nigerian, and Nigeria and the US have more compatibility apparently on what that word means.
This example in the vernacular is just one poignant example of the diversity found among West African people in Italy, not to mention those who might hail from East Africa, or even the Middle East or countries within Asia.
Which is to say, there is no monolithic “migrant” in Italy. This is harder for Italians to see who live in a mostly white society, but the lesson in language here is just one among many reminders of the incredible diaspora that surrounds them.
Work + Opportunity
Fabulous, like so many others, had a dream of becoming a footballer when he arrived in Italy.
He still has that dream, and although he feels it fading as time goes on, he said he’d never deter anyone else in Nigeria from leaving home to pursue that dream either. It’s okay if someone wants to come to Europe to pursue football, he said, just not the way he came, through the torture of Libya and the terror of the sea.
Work that he has done over the years instead includes an apprenticeship at a local lumber yard, but even that came without the legally required contract. A contract from an employer is a rare thing among migrants. It means the company must pay taxes on the employee and pay them a fair wage, something many businesses are eager to avoid. Police have come at different intervals to raid his former place of work. Management would escort Fabulous and the other undocumented workers out the back way, and they would run. Some people would hop on their bikes and pedal away.
Migrants were paid 30 Euros for an 11-hour day; Italians or contracted workers would receive 55 Euros for the same day’s work. That’s a signifiant rate reduction employers can exploit because they know every undocumented worker is desperate to avoid sitting idly by and to earn a living when work is already scarce in the poor economy.
Some people do get contracts. This helps a person’s case in the asylum hearing, because it shows integration and giving something back to the economy; it shows your value. Fabulous introduced a friend to the boss at the sister company where he was previously working; his friend received a contract in the end, but still, Fabulous did not.
Patience + Gratitude
“I learned to be patient,” Fabulous said. When I asked him what lessons have come out of his experience so far as a migrant in Italy.
Ghanaians, Gambians, Senegalese, Nigerians, Malians, and more are all a part of the diverse group living in his housing of about 47 in a small town in Campania.
When they first arrived the townspeople didn’t know they were coming. People were “scared,” Fabulous said, because they so infrequently encountered black people. He said people would point and stare. Worse, at the time, he didn’t speak any of the language either, meaning he couldn’t break the tension and even say hi.
This was still just weeks after his rescue, when he was wearing the donated navy blue track suit with white stripes down the side. That’s the standard-issue outfit given to many people as they arrived in Italy in years past. For months, that track suit was his only outfit.
On laundry day, he would take the clothes from his body to wash, then wrap himself in the bed sheet while the clothes dried on the line. There was no other change of clothes, not even while he managed laundry. It was winter in those early months too and his only shoes were a pair of rubber flip-flops. He said he stayed indoors almost all of the time.
He went for his asylum hearing, but he was given a negative outcome. He has appealed the verdict in hopes of a positive one, so that he may stay to live and work in Italy. There is no date for it scheduled.
Still, he insists on having patience––and gratitude.
“I am not yet where I want to be, but I am grateful for where I am,” Fabulous said.
Fabulous is an amazing human being.