Private citizens aid refugees as Italian society grows wary
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.