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Nov 09, 2015 | Jill Drzewiecki Rios

A Place at the Table

Seven hundred migrants feared dead in the Mediterranean after deadliest boat disaster ever. The news arrived to my iPhone as I was preparing dinner for three men, who’d survived a similar journey across the Mediterranean in 2011. Seven hundred migrants feared dead in the Mediterranean after deadliest boat disaster ever. The headlines repeated themselves throughout the evening and over the next days. The final body count was rounded neatly to “over 900” leaving us to wonder if there were one of two others – disposable, forgotten lives, lost to the statistics of indifference and violence. Only 28 people were pulled from the water alive. Days later, I learned that part of the reason for the high death toll was that the traffickers of human cargo had most of the passengers locked in the hold of the ship. They never had a chance.



Seven hundred migrants feared dead in the Mediterranean after deadliest boat disaster ever. I wondered if they had arrived safely to Italy, would they have been welcome, loved, integrated – or feared. Would someone delight in making them dinner? Am I crazy to enjoy their company and the way they enrich my daughter’s experience of the world? I think I am lucky, especially if you look at the statistics.



At a recent presentation, I learned that five out of every 100 migrants die on their journey to Italy. Being a migrant is a pretty serious disease. By comparison, in October 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that there were 4,900 deaths from Ebola in that year. Ebola, transmitted through contact with bodily fluids, is much less contagious than airborne diseases such as influenza or measles, but the fatality rate upon contraction of the disease is about 50%, though rates vary from 25% to 90%. By comparison, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) reported that up to 3,072 migrants died in the Mediterranean in 2014. Globally, IOM estimates that at least 4,077 migrants died in 2014. It seems that being a migrant is also a very contagious and fatal condition. As the global community unites to rid the world of Ebola, I can’t help but wonder why we are complacent about the epidemic of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean and beyond?



As 700 migrants were feared dead in the Mediterranean after the deadliest boat disaster ever, my daughter constructed a memorial out of her Legos. The multi-colored blocks read, “For the migrants.” We lit candles next to the Virgin of Guadalupe that reigns in our hallway. Then we prayed over our hamburgers, in Arabic with our Muslim dinner guests, “for the migrants.”



The men gathered around my kitchen survived a similar journey at sea. ­ They were fleeing violence in Libya in 2011. ­ They had migrated from their home countries and were working in Libya for years before the revolution broke out. Anger, fear, racism, and xenophobia had always existed during their time in Libya. ­ These were daily


realities of their lives as black foreigners working in the country, but always held slightly below the boiling point. When the revolution began in February 2011, the Western media reported that Gaddahad hired black, foreign mercenaries to fight alongside him in hopes of bringing down the revolution. At best, maybe there was a handful – but it seemed to be exactly the fuel that unleashed violence against black foreigners in the country.



My dinner guests were among those who became scapegoats and suffered brutal and violent consequences of being undocumented laborers, doing mostly shitty day jobs, in dangerous conditions, and being exploited … just to get by.



My dinner guests weren’t hired mercenaries for Gaddahad. ­ They were day laborer taking whatever job came along, a line worker at a Pepsi factory, and a welder. ­ They were trying to make an honest living. One of my dinner guests has a wife and three children back in the Ivory Coast. His eldest daughter has the same name as my own daughter. He was providing for his family back home after the factory he owned was burned in a civil war that ravaged his country.



I remember listening to the story on National Public Radio about these supposed “black mercenaries” being attacked. I was just arriving to the community college where I taught English classes to immigrants and refugees in the evening. I listened while one foot propped the heavy door of my 1983 Mercedes Benz open. I didn’t want to be late for class, but I felt deeply connected to the outcome of this revolution raging on a continent where I’d never set foot. I’d turned o‑ the ignition on the biodiesel-powered antique to stop the throbbing of the car beneath me. Still, there was a throbbing within me still as I sat there listening to the story. With one foot inside the car and the other outside the car, I knew that my heart and life were somehow bound to what was going on in Libya.



Now I know why I felt that way. Maybe at the same time that I was listening to those news headlines, one of my dinner guests was running for his life in blood-covered clothing. His arms and chin were bleeding and the blood was not his alone. He has this nightmare still. ­ His nightmare is inspired by real events; it could have been the story reported that evening on NPR.



­ The night before running through the streets in blood-soaked clothing, a group of eight to ten men came into the room where he lived. He shared a room with six other migrants from throughout Africa. Among these men was his stepfather, who also happened to be his only living family member. I never saw the building where they lived, but I don’t imagine it was very nice. Rather, I imagine it to be a room that six tired workers came home to at the end of each day.



I never asked him what he was doing on the day of the attack. I only know about the attack itself. I wonder if he had worked a full day or found no work at all. All I know is that they were resting when suddenly there was yelling and a group of men broke into the room. ­ They pulled those who were resting from where they were sleeping. ­ They beat them with sticks. ­ They were screaming at them in Arabic. My dinner guest was being beaten relentlessly; he has the scars to prove it. At best he could cover himself with his arms, trying hopelessly to protect himself the blows. ­ Then his stepfather came to his rescue and covered him with his own body. ­ They beat his stepfather so badly that he fell dead. ­ Then did the attackers leave the room. ­ The living couldn’t go outside to seek help because there was a war raging in the streets. ­ They prayed. In the morning, my dinner guest ran blood-covered through the streets–leaving his stepfather’s body behind. This is the act that will become a scene in a recurring nightmare. He ran to the home of Mr. Amthu, a Libyan who hired out he and his stepfather for manual labor: breaking down walls, cleaning toilets, maintaining his garden. Mr. Amthu said he’d check in on his stepfather and do his best to guarantee a proper Muslim burial.



As for my dinner guest’s safety, the only thing he could do was guarantee his safe passage out of the country. Mr. Amthu took my dinner guest to Janzur – a port region where thousands of black migrants were desperately seeking passage on boats out of the country. Mr. Amthu probably paid a smuggler to guarantee my dinner guest’s Mediterranean passage, along with 171 others.



Still in shock, that’s where Maiga and my other dinner guests, Adama and Ibrahim, left Libya on a boat. ­ They weren’t thinking about sneaking into a different country or scheming to be a burden on the system of a host country. No, they didn’t check the unemployment rate in Italy on their non-existent smart phones for before risking their lives in a rickety boat. ­ They didn’t know anything about the Dublin Regulation and how it would impact their lives forever.



As much as humans like to differentiate and disassociate themselves from the natural world, it turns out that human beings, like any animal species, seek to save their lives when they are in danger. ­ They run for their lives when they sense danger – or when they have been brutally and indiscriminately attacked for being strangers in a strange land.



At first the seas were calm. After three days, there was a problem with the boat’s engine stalling or running out of gas. ­ They were stranded for 10 days at sea, drinking only seawater. ­ There were children on that boat. Once they told me of a child who cried all day long. ­ There was no way to console the child and the father wanted to throw himself overboard. As a parent I can only begin to understand this feeling of helplessness. I’ve stayed awake all night with my child when she’s been restless with fever or vomiting. ­ This experience doesn’t compare to being stranded for ten days on the Mediterranean Sea.



Still, human emotions are the same. I believe that loving your child and watching them suffer evokes similar emotions whether you’re a privileged white woman from America or a black migrant from West Africa.



While they were stranded at sea those ten days, they saw several boats that did not come to their rescue. ­ They held up the children in the boat for the other boats to see in hopes this might evoke empathy and that they’d come to their rescue. Instead the Maltese media reported that the migrants were such animals that they were throwing their own children overboard. ­ They lit their clothing on fire to signal distress.




This is what the passengers of another boat tragedy did in October 2013. But in October 2013, 366 migrants died when their boat caught fire and sank off the coast of Lampedusa. ­ The passengers panicked and crowded too quickly to one side of the boat. The overcrowded boat caught fire and capsized, dumping hundreds of migrants into the sea.



In the case of my dinner guests, I’d like to give the captains of the vessels who did not come to their rescue the benefit of my doubt. Maybe they were fearful that they were pirates. Or maybe, in the end, they were the ones who alerted the Maltese Coast Guard who eventually came to the rescue. Alternatively, I’ve read the hateful and sickening threads of comments on news stories about migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, including comments about the most recent boat disaster.



Maybe these more seaworthy vessels wanted them to die, so that they didn’t reach London. Maybe they didn’t feel their lives were worthy of rescue. Maybe they experienced some sense of entitlement or perverse pleasure from watching these lives shrivel with each mouthful of seawater they ingested. Maybe they retreated into their 2000€/night rooms, not wanting this reality to spoil the Mediterranean cruise for which they’d saved for years.



My dinner guests shared this traumatic experience, but they don’t really share a common language. Despite communicating in several non-native languages, there is depth of communication that is beautiful to witness. There is humor. ­ There is deep care and concern. ­ There is love. Gathered at this table we share a magical evening in at least five languages.



During those ten days, Maiga—who doesn’t know how to swim—threw himself into the water at one point. Was he hot? Was he desperate? Was he delirious? He describes the experience of sinking and thinking he was about to drown. He caught the sight of a thin yellow rope attached to a bucket that the passengers of the boat were using for seawater. He describes the rope. It became his focus and lifeline. Grief-filled, in shock and stranded, the spirit of human resilience was still alive and rose within him.



I’ve seen Maiga attempt to swim. It is a miracle that he was able to struggle back to the surface and grab that rope. It is a miracle that he has come to sit around my dinner table.



Even in the darkest and most desperate moments, there is beauty. We have heard stories of this rise out of Nazi death camps and natural disasters. Just a week ago, a baby girl was born aboard an Italian navy vessel after her mother became one of nearly 6,800 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean in a span of three days. Beauty in a broken world. In the case of my dinner guests, there were dolphins. The day before these guests were finally rescued, dolphins arrived, jumping and swimming next to the boatload of stranded migrants. My guests describe the beauty of these creatures and took them to be a sign. At dark-thirty on April 12, 2011 after 10 days at sea, the Maltese Coast Guard arrived. One woman was straddling a thin line between death and life; she was frothing at the mouth. She died just before the arrival of the rescuers. ­ The other 171 were transferred via inflatable rescue boats to two larger ships.



Ten days after boarding the traffickers’ overcrowded vessel, Maiga was the last migrant off the boat that left the Libyan port of Janzur. He helped the others to safely. He helped the rescuers arrange the dead woman in a body bag and transfer her to the rescue boat. Finally, he was transferred into one of the rescue boats and led away from the boat that had precariously cradled his life, the lives of my other dinner guests, and 168 other human lives for so long.



At six in the morning, they reached the shores of Malta where they were identified and processed. ­They are given a number according the boat and a number a number to identify them as a passenger of that boat. Maiga was number 54. ­ Then, they were taken to mandatory detention for 16 months.



At the time of their rescue the European Commission cited that the center, “welcomes more than 1000 immigrants living in several buildings managed by the Armed Forces of Malta.” Consistent with dozens of reports and extensive international press, my guests have shared stories of the deplorable living conditions at the Barracks: “It is worse than a prison, it is not a detention center.”



A 2013 Amnesty International Report about detention facilities in Malta reported:“Conditions in detention centres remained poor and were exacerbated by overcrowding, with hundreds experiencing lack of privacy, insufficient access to sanitary and washing facilities, and poor recreation and leisure facilities. ­ There were consistent and credible reports that being detained in such conditions was adversely affecting the mental health of migrants.”



Surviving detention in Malta is another story entirely. In fact, it’s one of the traumatic experiences of my friends’ journey that we try to avoid speaking about too often because they seek to put the past behind them and rebuild their lives. Who would want to relive being handcuffed in order to be seen by a doctor? Who wants to remember conditions so desperate that fellow detainees committed suicide by drinking bottles of shampoo and hanging themselves with bed sheets? Who wants to remember being referred to as a number, endless days spent in front of the television with little access to the caged outdoors, or cold nights spent in barracks? Who wants to reflect upon the many crimes for which they were detained?



­These crimes include: being born into a life of violence, trying for years to endure and escape poverty and violence, having your parents killed in a violent civil war, being orphaned at age 9, being held for ransom and trafficked, drinking one’s own urine in order to survive desert crossings, being of a certain ethnicity, being violently attacked because of one’s skin color, being stranded during a dangerous Mediterranean sea crossing, being rescued from the sea. ­ These were their crimes. With a list of crimes this long, I wonder if I should be afraid to welcome these guests to my table?



On Friday, April 24, volunteers and guests of the JNRC held an interfaith vigil for those who have perished crossing the Mediterranean Sea. During the service we repeated the mantra, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”



There is a lot of conversation and controversy about the short and long-term economic, social, political and environmental impacts that refugees have on a country. A quick Internet search will reveal that you can spin it either way. Some cite as a negative social impact the rise of social tension, due to the inequalities that exist between refugees and non-refugees. Another negative impact – whether perceived or real – is that refugees pose considerable political and security risks for host governments. A May 2015 Op-Ed in the New York Times explores some of the positive impacts of immigrants, as well as the rationale for a revolving door immigration policy that allows people to come and go more freely. ­



The article mentions defenders of the ‘Fortress Europe’ policy who believe that “… if Europe abandoned immigration controls, it would be swamped with foreigners and our economies and societies would collapse.” It’s a deep-rooted fear, as if immigrants were the barbarians at the gates, when in fact, maybe they’re just the dinner guests at our kitchen table.


I am not blind to these real life impacts or the root causes of human migration. ­ There is difficult, long-term work that must address root causes. Since 1997, I have worked with displaced people and experienced the deep joys and sorrows of migration play out in the Andes, in Mexico, in my native USA, and now here in Europe. In the words of Don Quijote de La Mancha--with whom I identify strongly at moments such as when 700 migrants feared dead in the Mediterranean a er deadliest boat disaster ever--



“… I have seen life as it is. Pain, misery, hunger… and cruelty beyond belief. I have heard the singing from taverns and moans on the streets. I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle … I have held them in my arms at the final moments. These were [wo]men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairingly. No glory, nogallant last words … only their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the questions: ‘Why?’ I don’t think they asked why they were dying, but why they lived. Perhaps life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams—this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness. And, maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.



To welcome the stranger in our midst, this may be madness. Admitting this potential madness, I maintain a strong bias and worldview, based on personal experience that keeps me focused on the more positive impacts that refugees can have on a country, a community, a family, or my own life. Quite frankly, I’m not sure that we have a choice – as nation states or people of faith – if we wish to remain human or not be judged as barbarians by future generations.



My home is a 10-minute walk from the Coliseum. Like the proposed immigration policy in the New York Times article, our house has a revolving door that hosts refugees and non-refugee guests. Our house guests inevitably return from their quintessential tours of the Coliseum shocked by the brutality that once unfolded, for sport, inside this iconic amphitheater. Each year, 20,000 slaves were sold to be gladiators. Of these, 5,000 were brutally killed each year of the Roman Empire. Wild animals were torn to shreds inside the Coliseum. More shocking still is that for 500 years, hoards of spectators gathered to watch these brutal and savage events. Who does that?



House guests who’ve toured the Coliseum often reflect: What part of our modern lives will future generations look back upon with similar bewilderment and disgust at our lack of humanity? Maybe they will consider the complacency surrounding 4,000 deaths in the Mediterranean in 2014 an act of brutality? Maybe they will learn about 700 migrants feared dead in the Mediterranean after deadliest boat disaster ever – and wonder how we could sit back and watch these brutal and savage events unfold on our laptop screens with a strange disconnect?


Future generations might ask, “Why didn’t they welcome these victims of poverty and violence?”



My home in the center of Rome also sits atop the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center (JNRC). When folks visit our home, the beauty and historical significance of our apartment, the artwork within, the white marble floors and the size of the bathroom stun them. My kitchen window, atop this ivory tower, gives me a perfect view of the entrance to the refugee center. Each morning, I open a refrigerator full food and prepare a healthy breakfast for my daughter. As I fry an egg or flip pancakes, I watch as refugee guests arrive by the dozens to take a small breakfast in our center. The juxtaposition of my daily life breaks my heart over and over again.



As we exit our front door to walk to school, we greet the refugee guests who have gathered outside the center. We say “buon giorno” and “as-salam alyukum” to minors and men who have never had access to education. ­ The weight of my daughter’s backpack is crushing. When I return from taking my daughter to school, I go down to work in the center. I bear witness to hundreds of casualties of war. ­ These civilian causalities are not fallen bodies in a war zone or bloated corpses in the Mediterranean. ­ They have breath, dreams and have blood pumping through their veins. But, I fear that they are barely surviving versus thriving.



I’ve heard some call these refugee guests, “the lucky ones.” ­ They are well meaning in saying this. After all, they are the survivors. But, as a mother and humanitarian worker – I see lives of great potential unrealized. I witness innovation at work in the refugee community that could put Google to shame and inspire the world’s great philanthropists to invest heavily in these lives. I bear witness to lives that are lived in search of documents and weighed down by barriers and bureaucracy. I bear witness to thousands of “walking dead” who, because of current law, are relegated to spending their days in search of basic needs: a meal, a shave and shower, a donation of clean socks and a squirt of toothpaste.breakfast in our center. ­



Seven hundred migrants feared dead in the Mediterranean after deadliest boat disaster ever. I mourn the loss of these lives, and others, with my entire being. At the same time, I fear that thousands of other lives are being lost daily in our home communities. ­ They are the strangers that we are afraid to welcome. ­ They are the dinner guests for whom we don’t create a place at our table. ­ They are the friends who were celebrated when my daughter lost her tooth on the way home from school! ­ They are the men who she likes to have read her bedtime stories in thick African accents. ­ They are the men who prayed with us when my husband’s uncle died. ­ They are the men who carry my parents’ suitcases to the train station after another visit. ­ They are the men who cook and deliver food to the hundreds more refugee men, who continue to be forced to sleeping outside at the same train station and are who are waiting for someone to welcome them around their dinner table.



Looking back now and looking around the dinner table that night – I know I glimpsed my future during that NPR story that I listened to three and half years ago about the violence against black foreigners in Libya. And, in the more recent headlines: 700 migrants feared dead in the Mediterranean after deadliest boat disaster ever, I glimpsed my humanity.



After the deaths in the Mediterranean were confirmed – and the death toll was officially recorded as the largest migrant death disaster in history, our center planned a public a vigil to mark the loss of lives and also to call for action as it relates to creating safe channels for migrants to escape persecution, poverty and violence. ­ The vigil also served as a broader call to welcome the stranger in our midst as commended by the major religious tradition that transcend political allegiances and boundaries.



At the vigil, refugees lit candles and spoke in six different languages “I am a refugee and my life matters.” In response, and borrowing from the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu the gathered responded, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”



I fear this is true. I fear more migrant deaths in the Mediterranean. I fear communities that do not welcome the strangers in our midst, especially those who are escaping poverty and war. But, I don’t fear my dinner guests.



­ They are not strangers to me any longer. Sitting around the kitchen table with my dinner guests, I am struck by the real possibility that they too could have died on their journey. ­ They too, could have easily been among the “feared dead” who never gathered around my dinner table. Really, I can’t imagine not knowing them and I fear life without them.



Rios is from northern Wisconsin, USA. She is a certified Specialized Operator in the Reception of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Italy and also holds degrees in International Studies (BA) and Environmental Education (MS). She began her work with displaced people in 1997 in Bogota, Colombia as part of an internship working with street children. She is an educator and has served numerous environmental, interfaith, and social justice non-prot organizations in the US and Mexico, including NC Interfaith Power & Light and AB Tech Community College. Additionally she has advised on statewide boards and panels in North Carolina, USA.