During my first week as a volunteer in Lampedusa I experienced an arrival of refugees, joined by plenty of journalists, politicians and helpers of diverse organizations. Such a copious and well timed welcoming committee is certainly not common – even less when the arrivals happen in the night.There is nothing glamorous in getting a call at 6.30 pm, that lets you know, that ships with a total of 450 persons will arrive within the next hour and a half. On sunny Friday mornings represents of many organizations drop by with good grace. With a jovial backslapping deputies of the European Parliament hand out tea, that was filled into tiny, white plastic cups by volunteers like on the assembly line before. Journalists and politicians use to do small talk with the refugees – as long as they are able to talk Italian or English.
Without any doubt the medial interest in situations like these are of high importance. But how the refugees are called welcome must depend neither on the media’s presence nor on the visits of prominent politicians. What counts are the ones who help even when there is no one around to look at their work. In these cases even more.
At Tuesday the 6th of October there are ten of us. Us, that means: The Forum Lampedusa Soridale; Lampedusas Forum for Solidarity. Beside the team of Mediterranean Hope the forum today is composed by a few volunteers, who participate in every single arrival and tourists, who came to Lampedusa for the memorial on the occasion of the memorial on October 3rd. Furthermore we meet at the harbour the same persons as usual: The members of Misericordie stand smoking nearby the ambulance, the coast guards arrange some spotlights, policemen stand in the harbor’s entry while the Financial Guards just do some calls on the quay. A quite manageable number for a group of 450 expected refugees.
The first boat appears about 8.30 pm. It is the moment, that gives a first impression of Lampedusa to the refugees – and the moment, that gives a first idea regarding the groups and the current composition of the groups to us.
On the first boat are almost only women and children. Many children. Helpers of Misercordie hold babies in their arms, when the mothers need to be supplied with medical care. Many women drank too less, are weak and need to be backed. A mother screams, as she’s separated from her infant for a moment. The Misericordie helpers manage only hardly and only by using sign language to calm her down. As we distribute tea and crossaints I count five babies. I assume more of the arrival’s half to be underage. Who doesn’t require immediate help is accompanied to the bus, that heads on towards the reception centre.
“In consideration of being Europeans you’re quite messy organized”
The second ship arrives half an hour later. The bus hadn’t returned yet, the waiting time stretches. This time it’s almost only men standing in a row and wait. We chat a little.
Majid is from Palestine and 27 years old. In consideration of the fourteen hours he spent on the open water he is quite unstressed. He says, that the sea had been very calm and that he and the others had the chance to sleep during the journey. He reports as well, that no one got seasick. Majid came alone, without brothers, sisters or friends. Just as the 20-years-old Naif, who is as well from Palestine, the 15-year-old Ahmed from Somalia and the 16-year-old Abdul from Syria. Naif asks me for sugar for his tea. I answer, that we unfortunately didn’t keep that in mind. He slaps me on the shoulder: “In consideration of being Europeans you’re quite messy organized”. We laugh. It’s good to see, that he and his fellow travellers are well and healthy.
In the meantime the bus returned. Covered in their golden rescue blankets Majid, Naif, Ahmed, Abdul and some 50 more young men leave the harbour. This sight reminds me of a picture, that my colleague Francesco had drawn a few months ago; Lights on Lampedusa. The spotlights and lanterns reflect on the blankets – literally bright spots.
The bus just turns the corner, as the third boat arrives. The procedure delays even more. We can’t follow the big demand for tea and have to serve water in the meantime. But the longer waiting time means for me as well more time for conversations with the arrivals.
I talk to John from Nigeria. His friends call him Rasta, he says, and with regard to his hairstyle this nickname makes totally sense. He is 25 years old and a painter. For seven years he lived in Libya. I ask him for the key moment, that made him finally leave the country and he reflects for a while about it. Then he says: “I just wanted to be free.”
In search of freedom
John tells me, how his best friend was shot. For no reason. He tells as well, how they visited him self at home and beat him up.
„Who are they?“ I ask. „Policemen?“
„In Libyia you can never know. It’s hard to say. I’ve got pictures of my injuries on my phone. I would like to show them to you, but the coast guards took it away from me.”
„The coast guards took your phone?“
„Yes, but I’ll get it back in the centre. We got numbered.“ John shows me his wrist. He is the number one 187. I ask him for his further plans.
„I don’t have“, says John. „God helped me doing the whole way to Europe, so I guess, he means well for me. So he probably has as well ideas for my further way too. I’m alive, I am free and I am willing to work – so all things will fall into place.“
He translates our talk to a group of young men, who sit on the harbour wall. Twenty minutes later the bus arrives. John is covered in the rescue blanket as well and joins the chain of lights.
Altogether 410 people arrive on this evening. There were no dead people, as a few coast guards told us as we left the port about 11 pm. 410 persons, who arrived in the dark, entered a bus behind a high wall and later on a sad, prisonlike building, that they can not leave before the day of the continuation of their journey.
Arrivals like these happen all the time – the most Lampedusians do not witness anything, no paper will tell about it. But it happens though. All the time. Sometimes more persons than today arrive, sometimes less. It happens mostly in the daytime, but sometimes at night as well. On regular company time as well as afterwards. Whether soccer is broadcasted or not, whether journalists and politicians are around or not. All the time.