Panorama of Vatican

"No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark"

November 27, 2018 / By: Alexandra Morrison
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Alexandra Morrison is a sophomore majoring in Environmental Science with a double minor in Geology and Materials Science and Engineering. She plans on going to graduate school and hopes to work in Wildlife Management or Nature Conservation.

When you come to Rome, you will notice the one thing that every traveler recognizes. In almost every piazza, there will be people selling various low-cost products. Since I have been here, I have seen so many of these products. Some are roses, some are hand-carved figurines, and some—the most annoying of which—are toys that scream and squeal when they splat on the ground. I am not accustomed to seeing these people on a daily basis at home, since I do not regularly notice people like this in my normal routine in Minnesota. Here in Rome, the vendors are quite forceful and in your face about buying their products. Frequently, those selling roses will shove a rose at you or even stick it in your hand, saying “it’s just for you” or “here take it.” If you do take it, they will then say you owe them money. If you don’t take it and say no thank you, they will persist until someone else wanders by. These types of actions are not common for people that I see daily in Minnesota, so it was unsettling at first to experience this almost every time I walked outside. Now, I have gotten used to saying “no, grazie” and just continuing walking. At points, I get annoyed with their persistence, but I always revert back to feeling sympathetic, and thinking about their lives and pasts. Where did they come from? How did they get here? What are their lives like now? I see these people every day, and I think that maybe they are from Bangladesh, or Libya, or Nigeria. Some would write them off as foreigners. But, I have come to see them as refugees.

In the course of this semester, we have learned that Italy has a large number of people entering the country every year, as it is the first access point to Europe from Africa. Often, the people making the journey are fleeing their home countries in search of safety, people regularly called refugees or asylum seekers. But what actually is a refugee? According to legal standards, a refugee is someone who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” This definition presents three main standards: outside of home country, fear of persecution, and unable to have home country’s protection. Many people come to Italy, hoping to meet these standards and gain refugee status, but only a small percentage achieve it.

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African immigrants are accompanied by a Libyan coast guard as they journey to Italy, seeking asylum and refugee status. Many people hoping to make it to Europe get stuck in Libya and are held in detention centers, hoping to pay smugglers to get them across the sea. (Taha Jawashi, The Nation 2017)

From what we’ve learned in class, the main form of transportation to Italy is across the Mediterranean Sea. Yet, no one will be able to fully understand the terrors of this journey unless they’ve lived it. “Home” by Warsan Shire, a poem we examined in class, highlights the horrible conditions that force people out of their homes and the terrible conditions they enter into on their journey to Italy. “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark” she writes. Can you even imagine how terrifying your home would have to be to qualify as the mouth of a shark? The mouth of a shark is bloody, excruciating, petrifying, deadly. The people fleeing have no choice but to leave their homes, because all that is left for them there is death. They don’t plan on ever having to leave, but when those conditions arise, you have to. Think about where you are right now. In this moment, I can’t even imagine have to flee my country for fear of death. That thought just isn’t fully conceivable to me right now. That’s the same feeling refugees have years and maybe even days before they are crossing the treacherous waves of the Mediterranean. And the conditions they endure on the journey over are not much better. Shire’s “Home” continues:

No one would choose to crawl under fences,
be beaten until your shadow leaves you,
raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of
the boat because you are darker, be sold,
starved, shot at the border like a sick animal,
be pitied, lose your name, lose your family,
make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten,
stripped and searched, find prison everywhere…

People who willingly traverse the sea and endure these atrocities are not doing so lightly. Children make this journey. Five, ten, thirteen years old. They are doing so because “home won’t let [them] stay” and “the water is safer than [their] land.”  I can’t imagine experiencing these conditions at 20 years old, let alone at five!

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Syrian child on the shore of Greek Island, Kos, after journeying across the Aegean sea. (Yannis Behrakis, Huffpost 2016)

We spent time in class reading Anders Lustgarten’s play Lampedusa, in which Stefano—whose job is to pull bodies out of the sea—explains his experiences of working on the island in relation to refugees. His descriptions paint horrifying but realistic moments of refugees’ journey to Italy, more specifically the ones that don’t make it. In one of his accounts, Stefano stressed that he and his colleagues “pulled out four times as many dead last year as the year before…more than three thousand corpses…[which were] just the ones…found.” This problem is actually an apparent part of the crisis today. As Lampedusa is the first section of European soil between Africa and Italy, refugees flock there. But it is only a small island, not made to be inhabited by the thousands fleeing their homes. With more and more people fleeing, more and more people die before reaching the shore. And a large number are the youth… “you have to be to make the journey.”

Everyday, I walk by hundreds of people on my way to class. Women, men, children, elderly. How many of those people crossed the sea? How many of them found the safety they were seeking? To many traveling here, these questions and thoughts aren’t even considered. But it is important to understand the history and underlying problems in the country you are staying in. If you want to be a student or traveler abroad and really want to become part of the community, you must see that country for what it really is. Otherwise, you are just a tourist.