I came to Lampedusa for a vacation in July 2016 and left as a participant in a global crisis.
For over fifteen years Lampedusa had been at once in my field of vision and completely invisible. In 2003 I saw a film that was shot on the island, Respiro (2002), whose panoramic big-sea images never escaped me even as the island itself was practically erased as a locatable place on the globe.
Overseas, Lampedusa doesn’t make much news, so it was only the most dramatic of migrant shipwrecks where I’d collect a fleeting recognition of this elusive place. When I arrived that July the hotel receptionist wondered in fact how I had found it, “Lampedusa’s not even on the map.” Lampedusans, it seemed, were accustomed to being unseen.
I fell in love with the island for its beauty and for the clarity of vision its landscape provided me as quickly as I was shocked by the acute reality of life there. We were still breathing air of trepidation then, one week after Brexit, when a tourist informed me I would not see migrants on the island because “they keep them away.”
But my response to that was that I already had: on my first afternoon at the town’s central beach, migrants had been segregated on the rocky cliff adjacent to the sand where I sat among a crowd of Italian tourists, in a paradise that could now only reasonably be called imagined.
I was shocked by the discrimination and embarrassed that we all agreed to carry on as if nothing was wrong.
Walking through the port later, a migrant called out as he strolled by, “Hello, boss lady!” Here was the crisis we had looked at from afar, aghast and afraid, and all it did was say hello.
I returned to Lampedusa twice more that year for fieldwork until finally developing and launching Migrants of the Mediterranean in February 2017, and now split my time permanently between Lampedusa, Rome and New York City.
Telling migrant journey stories has been as much about creating a document of the truth as it has been about making a migrant feel welcomed when few else will. It has been about simply saying hi. That tiny act helps us see someone as they are, not as we imagine them to be; it breaks down perceptions and prejudice, and connects us in turn to each other and the world in a deeper way.
There seems no more special place to do this than in Lampedusa, the very island set adrift at sea, nameless and nondescript to so many, just as the very migrants who make their first steps across it toward freedom.
Now, the work to connect readers with the migrant’s experience extends beyond Lampedusa to greater Italy and Europe, with the same hope to restore a face and a piece of humanity to an otherwise politicized world crisis.