Pri­vate cit­i­zens aid refugees as Ital­ian so­ci­ety grows wary

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Michael Birn­baum

MESSINA, ITALY» Ab­doulie Jal­low lives on the Si­cil­ian coast, but un­til re­cently, look­ing at the Mediter­ranean Sea filled him with dread.

The azure wa­ter re­minded the 17-year-old Gam­bian of his jour­ney from Libya last year, a mid­dle-of-thenight de­par­ture on an over­crowded dinghy in which he had to aban­don him­self to his faith in God.

Now Jal­low has dipped his toes in the wa­ter again, join­ing classes in a lo­cal trade high school that pre­pares stu­dents for a life at sea. His swim­ming and res­cue train­ing aims to calm the trauma of a pas­sage that has claimed the lives of at least 2,300 mi­grants and refugees this year.

And as Italy stag­gers un­der the weight of thou­sands of ar­rivals — 7,000 in the se­cond part of last week alone — an in­creas­ing num­ber of Ital­ians are tak­ing mat­ters into their own hands. El­derly re­tirees have thrown open their doors to house mi­grants. Churches have taken in chil­dren. And the Nau­ti­cal Tech­ni­cal In­sti­tute in this gritty coastal city is try­ing to help emo­tion­ally scarred teenagers over­come their fear of the wa­ter in a re­gion where most jobs are tied to the sea.

The ini­tia­tive comes as Ital­ian so­ci­ety grows sharply more skep­ti­cal about tak­ing in mi­grants af­ter years of in­creas­ing num­bers. Af­ter im­mi­grant-friendly politi­cians were swept out of of­fice in lo­cal elec­tions last month, Ital­ian lead­ers pro­posed bar­ring many res­cue boats from dock­ing in Ital­ian ports. They have banded with Libya’s coast guard to in­ter­cept and re­turn mi­grants to a con­flict-torn na­tion where many mi­grants, largely from sub-sa­ha­ran Africa, say they have en­dured abuses in­clud­ing slav­ery.

The cool­ing re­cep­tion puts even greater pres­sure on ef­forts such as those in Messina, a port town within spit­ting dis­tance of the Ital­ian main­land.

“I could not go far in the wa­ter, be­cause if I went far maybe I would not come back,” Jal­low said. “I would think of bad things.”

The pro­gram, which started in May, aims to teach ba­sic first aid, and res­cue and div­ing skills to the roughly two dozen teenage boys who live to­gether in a dor­mi­tory at Basil­ica di Sant’an­to­nio in Messina. All of the boys are from sub-sa­ha­ran Africa. Some fled wars. Oth­ers are es­cap­ing poverty. All made the des­o­late jour­ney through Libya, where many mi­grants are forced into la­bor, im­pris­oned and bru­tal­ized.

The teenagers are among the most vul­ner­a­ble of the mi­grants stream­ing into Italy: cut off from their fam­i­lies and forced to ne­go­ti­ate with smug­glers and traf­fick­ers and to con­front per­ils at an age when most Amer­i­can teenagers are fret­ting about ju­nior prom. This year, 14 per­cent of all sea ar­rivals in Italy have been un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors, ac­cord­ing to the Ital­ian In­te­rior Ministry. Over­all, more than 83,000 peo­ple came to Italy in the first half of 2017, a 19 per­cent in­crease over the same pe­riod in 2016. More than 600,000 mi­grants have ar­rived in the past four years.

Jal­low’s mother is blind, he said, and he has no other fam­ily mem­bers. His plan is to be­come a pro­fes­sional soccer player in Italy and send money home.

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