Refugee crisis: A journey that should not be destined to end in despair

Of the thousands of migrants sheltering on Sicily, many are unaccompanied children

On September 2nd, 2015, the body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. Alan, his mother, Rehana, and five-year-old brother, Ghalib, drowned together just 4km from the shore while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe Photograph: Demir/AFP/Getty

On September 2nd, 2015, the body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. Alan, his mother, Rehana, and five-year-old brother, Ghalib, drowned together just 4km from the shore while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe Photograph: Demir/AFP/Getty

 

In 1972, author and politician Leonardo Sciascia finished writing a collection of stories of his native Sicily called The Wine-Dark Sea. It weaves together tales of love, allegiance and brutality which hum with a mournful undertone.

In one story, The Long Crossing, a group of peasants determined to escape the misery of poverty get on a boat bound for New Jersey. They have sold everything they own to afford the passage, and will arrive destitute with nothing but their dreams of a better life.

Sciascia’s story concludes savagely when they make landfall 12 days later. They comment on the good surface of the road they walk on, “but to tell the truth they found it neither as wide nor as straight as they had expected”. The number of Fiat cars surprises them. Only when a driver curses at them in Sicilian do they realise their predicament: their life savings have been spent on a journey that has brought them only to the other side of Sicily. Terribly betrayed, their destination is one of despair.

The story was inspired by the fact that more than a quarter of Sicily’s population emigrated to escape poverty and corruption between 1890 and 1920. Today, history has been reversed, and Sicily is now sheltering thousands of migrants, many of whom are unaccompanied children.

There are a myriad of reasons why these vulnerable children arrive on their own. Under the awnings of Sicily’s Catania train station, some of those who spend their days on the streets and return there to sleep are as young as 11.

Fear

Some are fleeing Eritrea’s climate of repression and its indefinite compulsory national service that never pays more than $2 a day. Parents struggle to support their families (including mothers, as women must serve until the age of 47), particularly when they are away on service.

Others flee violence and insecurity. One 16-year-old boy told colleagues about leaving Gambia a year and a half ago with his brother. They said they had been threatened by police, and neighbours had died in gunfights. The brothers crossed through Senegal, Mali and Niger before arriving in Libya, where they were imprisoned for two months. They managed to escape and left for Europe on an inflatable boat with 118 other people.

“After a few hours there was something like an explosion, a fire. In the confusion, my brother slid into the sea,” he said. “I never saw him again. He’d given me his lifejacket.”

An Italian ship came to their rescue, but it was too late for his brother and seven others who had been sitting in the back of the boat, the part that deflated first.

Three-year-old Alan Kurdi

It is too late for Alan Kurdi and for the thousands of children who were not photographed, whose deaths only the jagged rocks of Lampedusa and the sands of the Sahara bore witness to. But it is not too late for young people such as Abdi (17), who travelled on his own from Somalia to Sicily. He is tall and smiles awkwardly at us like a normal teenager, laughing about how his English is not quite perfect yet.

But he puts his head down and fidgets with his hands when he begins to tell his story. Violence in Somalia took the lives of his parents. Abdi was imprisoned and beaten by smugglers in Libya. He saw what happened to people who tried to escape but risked a boat trip, from which he was eventually rescued. Abdi now lives in the Casa delle Culture centre supported by Oxfam and has received psychosocial support. He has some family in Sweden and told us, with tears in his eyes, how he hopes to go there some day.

It is time for solidarity with people on the move and to humanise the voices of migrants around the world. Because if we heard those voices, our response would be swifter and more generous.

Jim Clarken is chief executive of Oxfam Ireland

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