His deep brown eyes were serene, but veiled with homesickness for the sights and fragrances of his homeland and family, disturbed by images of God only knows what nightmare experienced in traversing the desert first, and then the Mediterranean, to reach Italian shores and finally my doorstep. -”Oh, Madam, how nice to see you again!” he said in his rather formal, African-accented English – to which I replied…how did you know I speak English?” So many of these young Africans have been coming around, selling their wares (dishtowels, socks, and underwear, mostly) –my first thought was that word had gotten around that they could at least communicate with me in their own language.
The young man replied “Don’t you remember me? I was here in January 2008 and we talked.” -He remembers the month and year, I thought…can it be that I don’t? I felt guilty for not having imprinted this boy’s face in my heart like he did mine. I was so sorry to disappoint him! I noticed the plastic rosary he was wearing around his neck, and then I remembered the sweet smile he’d given me the first time he’d come around, when he realized I spoke his language. “My name is Promise” said the young man, as we shook hands and with the other he pulled out his Red Cross ID, stamped with his date of entry on Italian soil. He insisted I take a good look at it, proud that he could show some kind of document even though it’s not enough, according to our most recent, toughened immigration laws. They’ve recently made life even harsher for these unfortunate people who risk their lives to find a better life in Europe, after incurring heavy debt to scrounge a spot on one of the treacherously unseaworthy vessels used by human traffickers for their unscrupulous business ventures.
His skin had a very warm, velvety tone to it but there were several marks on his face, possibly relics of arcane ceremonies celebrating the coming of age, or more simply the vestiges of the even tougher life he left behind. But maybe my first guess is right – I’ve noticed that the guys who come around all have these scars and they’re all Nigerians- I guess they’ve cornered the door-to-door sock, underwear and dishtowel market.
- ‘Promise’ I replied – what a beautiful name! Your parents put a lot of responsibility and hope in you, didn’t they?
-“Oh, yes”, he said, but then added, sadly “but there’s not much I can do to help them. I’m living a very difficult life, and I only manage to send a few Euros home”. “But you know, he added, lighting up “some friends and I have gotten together in the business. We’ve bought a van and we go around Italy. I come here every six months and we sleep in the van. During the summer it’s ok, but it’s hard in winter, so sometimes we spend more time around the town where we live, which is far away from here, up in the north, otherwise I’d stop by more often to say hello!”
When I see these kids, I think about my own boys – they’re probably about my oldest’s age. I try to imagine them living that kind of life. I wouldn’t want to even take such a thing into consideration but with the way our economy is, it’s not too hard to imagine them having to leave our area, and it would be nothing new, really.
Throughout history, entire generations of young Italians have left their families to find work, and in some areas they still do, although nowadays they usually just move North. Italian emigrants to America or Australia were not forced to risk their lives in barely floating dinghies like the Africans. Sure, more often than not they were packed like sardines, at least during the first waves of emigration, but they were on sealiners that were sturdy enough to make the crossing. And, of course, our youth faced the same discrimination that these young men face here in Italy, where people have no idea what the word means…or maybe the ones who left never told them what it was like back then. Many southern Italians who moved North know what it means to be considered inferior, dirty, untrustworthy, and that attitude is unfortunately, alive and well in the land of Padania (we have several separatist movements here). Being the daughter of immigrants myself, I remember what it was like back in the 60’s in the States. I just wish that once and for all, people would learn to “walk around in someone else’s shoes”, like Scout Finch said in To Kill a Mockingbird. If only people would take a moment to say, “Only by the Grace of God am I on this side of the door”!
After buying the umpteenth pair of socks and a little doormat, and after giving him an umbrella to protect him from the downpour that had started in the meantime, he left, I daresay with a spring hin his step. I guess he figures he has a sort of mother figure to look forward to seeing the next time he comes.
-Good bye Madam! See you next time, I promise! he said, smiling and waving as he left.
-Goodbye Promise, I’ll be here waiting for you! (“ promise”, I added under my breath)
I wrote this two years ago for my Italian blog, just after the last time Promise knocked on my door. I hadn’t seen him since then. Last Friday I was on my way home and I noticed a young African walking up a steep hill I was driving up. I pulled up behind him and pulled out 5€, asking him for a packet of socks. He said “hey, I know you, you’re the American lady!”
-Promise!! It’s you! I shouted, how wonderful to see you! – I exclaimed. We talked for a couple of minutes, and then I told him to stop by the house, because I had a couple of winter jackets for him and his friends. He did come by about an hour later, and I noticed that this change of winter wear had come none too soon. I’d had enough time to prepare him a box lunch, which he was glad to take, since he and his friend were about to leave in the van. He said they’d eat on the way home. Who knows when he’ll be back. I hope he’ll be ok. -See you next time, Promise!
I didn’t mention the spiritual/religious implications of this post because you know what they are, my few, but deeply loved friends. However, it seems clear to me that, due to the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East, from now on our lives in Italy and in all of Europe are about to change. In the next few months/years, the already heavy flow of migrants from poverty stricken areas of the world is going to increase exponentially, and we’re going to be called on to show just how Christian we really are.
In recent years the Italian political response to migration has been totally inadequate, and can be summed up in the repulsion of the boat people back to Tripoli, one of the many gateways to Italy, to be consigned to the Libyan prisons to be tortured, raped and ultimately killed. No other agreements have been stipulated with other North African countries to regulate the flow and above all, no help has been given to Africa so that people might just decide to stay because they have a chance for a better future in their homeland. Nothing but a cruel, short sighted policy in the interest of ‘national security’ and lucrative commercial agreements for the satiated few, with much hand kissing and theatricality.
The Italian government has been reprimanded by the UN and European Union for this policy, but apparently our prime minister is too busy entertaining his (minor) call girls at his infamous bunga-bunga parties. We’re in for a rude awakening…the European Union says we can expect about 1.5 to 2 million refugees in the next couple of years or so. The time has come for us to roll up our sleeves and lend a helping hand.