Wa­ter as ther­apy for the trauma of the sea

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL BIRN­BAUM

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 this 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

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 the Libya’s coast guard to in­ter­cept and re­turn mi­grants to a con­flict-torn na­tion where many mi­grants, largely from sub­Sa­ha­ran 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 about 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 of 2017, a 19 per­cent in­crease over the same pe­riod in 2016. More than 600,000 mi­grants have ar­rived in the past four years.

“In Gam­bia, I wasn’t go­ing to school. I wasn’t do­ing any­thing. There were al­ways prob­lems,” said Jal­low, who re­counted a long jour­ney through Sene­gal, Mali, Burk­ina Faso, Niger and the Libyan Desert to fi­nally ar­rive in Tripoli last year.

His 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.

In Tripoli, author­i­ties de­tained him and locked him up.

“In­side the prison, it was very dif­fi­cult. Al­ways they beat you. You can­not sleep. There wasn’t enough to eat,” said Jal­low, who says he es­caped af­ter two months.

The Ital­ian in­struc­tors say they did not want to sit pas­sively as ever-more mi­grants stream into their city.

“They have a trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence with the wa­ter. We have a lot of coast, and the sea for us is money, good jobs,” said Giuseppe Pinci, one of the div­ing in­struc­tors. “It’s im­por­tant to give them a good im­age of the sea. A lot of them are re­ally scared.”

Pinci said he had lit­tle pa­tience for how Ital­ian lead­ers have dithered on the is­sue of mi­gra­tion.

“The prob­lem is right here and right now. It’s real life,” Pinci said. “The politi­cians talk and talk. They’ll talk for years, and in the mean­time we have to live.”

Af­ter lo­cal elec­tions last month, anti-im­mi­grant forces in Italy ap­pear to be on the rise. Even for­merly cen­trist lead­ers have moved sharply right­ward in an at­tempt to cap­ture the current mood.

For­mer Ital­ian cen­ter-left prime min­is­ter Mat­teo Renzi said in a book ex­cerpt re­leased this month that “we do not have the moral duty to wel­come peo­ple into Italy who are worse off than our­selves,” spark­ing con­tro­versy in his gov­ern­ing Demo­cratic Parthis ty, which he is ex­pected to lead into elec­tions due by spring 2018.

Ital­ian lead­ers have pro­posed a code of con­duct for res­cue ships op­er­ated by non­govern­men­tal as­so­ci­a­tions that would re­strict ac­tions by the ves­sels’ crews — such as send­ing up flares at night as bea­cons for po­ten­tial mi­grant ves­sels lost at sea and pa­trolling Libyan coastal waters. Ital­ian auhalf thor­i­ties say these ac­tiv­i­ties play into smug­glers’ hands.

The new rules are ex­pected to be dis­cussed with the aid groups this week. But groups in­clud­ing Hu­man Rights Watch and Amnesty In­ter­na­tional say the restrictions would fur­ther en­dan­ger mi­grants’ lives.

The Ital­ian gov­ern­ment also signed a deal with Libya to re­turn many mi­grants to Libyan shores, a de­ci­sion that has come un­der with­er­ing crit­i­cism from rights groups, which point to the poor con­di­tions there.

Many of the teenagers in the swim­ming pro­gram said they felt abuse on both sides of the Mediter­ranean.

“Peo­ple are racist here. If there’s a bench, and white peo­ple are sit­ting there, and you sit down, they’ll get up,” said Richard Amegah, 17, who made a 19month jour­ney from his na­tive Ghana to Italy that started in 2014. He said he had been forced into agri­cul­tural la­bor in Libya be­fore he es­caped and made it onto a boat.

U.N. refugee of­fi­cials say that the rest of Europe needs to do more to ease Italy’s bur­dens, both by tak­ing in more asy­lum seek­ers and by do­ing more to help the na­tions from which many of the mi­grants are leav­ing. Un­like the largely Syr­ian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees who streamed into Greece in 2015, many of the mi­grants on the Ital­ian route are trav­el­ing north­ward for eco­nomic rea­sons.

This year, the prin­ci­pal sources of mi­grants have been Nige­ria, Bangladesh, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Gam­bia, Sene­gal and Mali, ac­cord­ing to Ital­ian In­te­rior Ministry fig­ures.

“Italy is not un­der emer­gency,” said Car­lotta Sami, a U.N. refugee agency spokes­woman based in Rome. “But if you have ev­ery year an in­crease of 10, 15, 20 per­cent, then re­ally you need a struc­ture” to send asy­lum seek­ers else­where in Europe, she said.

At the div­ing school, at least one of the stu­dents hopes to be­come a res­cuer.

Last June, it was near­ing mid­night when Hu­bert’s rub­ber dinghy, packed with 140 peo­ple, pushed off from the coast of Libya. Af­ter 300 yards, the en­gine choked with sea­wa­ter and they had to use their hands to pad­dle back to shore, he said.

In the chaos, boys started fall­ing off the slip­pery back of the boat. Among them was one of Hu­bert’s clos­est friends, Moussa, who drowned, he said.

Now the lanky 17-year-old says he wants to be­come a life­saver af­ter flee­ing his na­tive Ivory Coast when he was 11 af­ter rebels killed his par­ents. For his safety, he asked that his last name not be pub­lished.

Af­ter leav­ing Ivory Coast, he spent two years in Mali be­fore the pres­ence of the Is­lamist ex­trem­ist group Boko Haram forced him on­ward. He spent another two years in Tripoli, in­clud­ing an aw­ful four months in prison, he said.

“There was noth­ing to eat. It was ter­ri­ble. Once a day, they would give us a tiny loaf of bread for three peo­ple,” he said. Italy is a re­lief, he said. “I like what we’re do­ing here,” he said.

“I never swam. I was scared. I would stand on the beach, but I wouldn’t go in,” he said. “It made me re­mem­ber ev­ery­thing. If I can swim, it will help me in the fu­ture with sav­ing peo­ple.”

VALENTINO BELLINI FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

In­struc­tor Mario Aiello, left, Richard Amegah, an im­mi­grant from Ghana, Boubacar Barry, who is from Sene­gal, and Giuseppe Pinci, a pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor, take part in a div­ing les­son in Messina, Italy.

PHO­TOS BY VALENTINO BELLINI FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: In­struc­tor Marco Miceli helps Hu­bert Coulibaly, a mi­grant from the Ivory Coast, dur­ing a first aid class in Messina, Italy. ABOVE: From left, Giuseppe Pinci, co­or­di­na­tor of the project “Friendly Sea,” Sene­galese mi­grant Boubacar Barry and Ghana­ian mi­grant Richard Amegah wash off salt af­ter a div­ing les­son.

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