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Italy: I went nowhere so what's the point?
15 October 2014

Kofi's wife and two children died as they crossed the Mediterranean to join him in Europe. (Oscar Spooner / Jesuit Refugee Service)
JRS report: Rescued – What next? Protection seekers stranded in Sicily
Soccorsi e poi? Voci di rifugiati arrivati in Sicilia
Even if they had the all-important document conferring protection or permission to stay in Italy, they still had no stable job, no home they could call their own, they didn't really feel part of the community... and they had given up on seeing their dreams come true.
Sicily, 15 October 2014  – The eyes of Kofi left the most lasting impression. Big, black and mournful, filled with tears, they willed us to understand his words, simple and repetitive in themselves.

"I have too much stress, I want to free my mind, because I have a lot of stress. I have so much stress," he kept saying. A young man from Gambia, Kofi was – like so many refugees and forced migrants – a victim of circumstances that had spun out of his control. After reaching Sicily he tried to go to Switzerland but was returned as per the Dublin Regulation. His wife and two children, aged six and two, drowned in the Mediterranean when they tried to follow him to Europe.

"I used to be a happy type of guy, cheerful and making jokes all the time, but now I've really changed, I just can't laugh and smile like I used to. If only I could have another family, at least one child, so I can start over again," said Kofi.

Kofi was verging on a numbing despair that threatened to suck all his reserves of strength, energy and hope. We saw this despair in other asylum seekers and refugees in Sicily. Sometimes, the longer they had been there, the deeper their despair, because they could see they weren't going anywhere. Even if they had the all-important document conferring protection or permission to stay in Italy, they still had no stable job, no home they could call their own, they didn't really feel part of the community... and they had given up on seeing their dreams come true.

Those who had been in Sicily for months, as opposed to years, clung fiercely to hope – if only I can get my document, it will be ok. Even Kofi , despite the personal tragedies he had endured, nurtured a glimmer of hope that he could start over.

In common with refugees around the world, the people we met harboured trauma from past experiences, chafed at enforced idleness, and worried constantly about their families back home. They were frustrated about delays in the asylum procedure and their dependence on the decisions and goodwill of others for everything from a daily meal to the precious documents they so badly needed. However, not all those we interviewed were negative. A few were actually optimistic and cheerful while others adopted a "wait and see" stance. Here we saw smiles and hope or at least a semblance of serenity.

Whatever they felt about their fate, practically all the asylum seekers and refugees displayed two sentiments we found moving: one was an unwavering belief in Europe as a mecca of peace, human rights and democracy – even if they felt let down by the way they have been treated here – and the other was warm gratitude to the Italian people for rescuing them from the sea and for the hospitality extended to them.


Abdul: "We thank the Italian people because they are lodging us in a peaceful place and that is wonderful. Please understand: there is no place like home, if you have no problem in your country, you don't leave, we are here because we had a problem. I have too much stress, I feel myself getting more useless by the day. I can't even speak the language; my mind is not here, how can I learn if my mind is not with me? I have two children, but I haven't seen them since I left my country more than two years ago, they couldn't even talk then. Sometimes they give us phone cards but it's not enough time to talk. If I could at least call my family, it would steady my mind."

Matthieu: "Here you're not with your parents, you're not with your family, you don't know what is happening to them and they don't know what is happening to you, so we think about each other all the time and worry."

"You have problems at home, then you find problems here again, what can you do? Remember, we are all here because we have problems in our country. No one would leave otherwise. So if I leave home because I have a problem, you are supposed to look after me like I am in my country... I want to acknowledge the efforts of the Italian people because they are trying hard to help the immigrants who come by boat. Were it not for them, so many more people would be dead."

Abraham: "I left Afghanistan after two of my brothers were killed. My home was destroyed, my father's shop was burned down and nothing is left. I don't want to remember how my brothers were killed, please don't ask me about it. I traveled via Iran, Turkey and Greece. I spent two and a half years on the road, crossing the mountains on foot, going on horseback, in trucks, by boat. Many of those with me died. The first time I tried to cross from Turkey to Greece, we were 24 in all, and we were deported. The second time we tried, the boat sank and only seven survived. I fell in the water too and a Greek policeman saved me. Finally I came to Italy and then from here I went to Norway, France, Germany and Belgium. I requested asylum in Norway but they rejected my application.

"So I came back to Italy. I want to be ok, I want to have a better future, not an ugly one, without problems, without fear. But every day, my heart is down. I haven't heard from my family in seven months. When I call my parents, they cry and I cry, I can't even talk. What can we do? When I am alone, I cry, I remember everything, people lying dead in front of me, my brothers, my friends on the journey drowning in the sea or suffocating in the truck under the cargo because there wasn't enough space... I want to be happy but I am always thinking about these things. I want a peaceful life for my family and for me, but it has never been this way. It has never been good, not since the day I was born, when there were bombs falling on my home. I hope the future will be better but I can't see it yet."

Jawad: "I was well off in Afghanistan. I left because the Taliban tortured me; they shot me and smashed my teeth. This is why I left my country, to find peace, to move ahead. But there is nothing, I feel like I am drifting in the middle of nowhere and that I will remain like this all my life. I can't go back home but I want to go whether they kill me or not. What can I do here? Roam the streets day and night? I've lost so much weight this past year; I was never so thin. My head doesn't work anymore, night and day I am thinking, thinking, grinding my teeth. This is no life to live. I am tired of my life, I swear, I burn myself so I won't think anymore because I can't take it.

"I have no hope for the future in Italy. I thought that once I got a document, I could study, but nothing happened. After seven years, my hands are still tied, I went nowhere so what's the point? I don't care about my life anymore – I'm tired. I've lost seven years, I could not go to school, I could not work, so why give me a document at all? I've become very desperate now. I don't want to talk, not even one word, I want to stay alone, in a place where no one can talk to me."