WMC Women Under Siege

The refugee girl I barely met in Lampedusa

Lampedusa, Italy—The end of June was hot and dry in Lampedusa, as summer always is. The week I spent on the island of an estimated 5,000-6,000 Italians there was a very separate center of town for a population of 771 people. In their part of town—one shunted off to the middle of the island, among dusty scrubland plagued with scarabs—men slept outside on the ground and women remained behind a locked gate of a refugee and migrant detention center. And these people were getting angry.

Most had been at the center two or three weeks—much more than the 48 hours Lampedusan Social Services Minister Stefano Greco claimed they spent at the first-reception center. (Italian law prohibits someone from being deprived of personal freedom for more than 48 hours without the consent of a judge.) While technically unconnected to the center, which is run with federal oversight, Greco wanted to talk about how well Lampedusa is coping well with the massive, ongoing influx of refugees to its shores.

“It’s been going on for many years,” he said. “It’s a good system. We’re happy with it.”

He made clear: “Lampedusans are not racists.”

But the week I was on the island, men were gathering in frustration and yelling about being held (illegally) for so long. “It’s a problem of communication,” an NGO staffer told me at the gate. The ferry that was supposed to take them to their next detention center, in Sicily, had a broken engine. Regional bureaucrats who run interference for media prohibited my entry because they classified this yelling as “riots.” (In 2011, refugees burned down the original Lampedusa center.) “It’s a safety issue,” I was told. I could see, however, with my own eyes that these were far from riots; this was a normal expression of exhaustion with an unbearable situation.

Out of sight but near the men who expressed their anger, there were 72 women at the center that week. And 12 minor children. Among them was a girl named Breka, 14, from Somalia. Staffers at an NGO at the center told me whenever I finally gained entry, Breka was eager to talk to me. She was very smart, they said; she had left Somalia alone because of the militant group Al-Shabaab, which has been squeezing the life out of the country one terror attack at a time. She dreamed of becoming a pilot, she told the NGO workers. She likes technology and computers. When she arrived, they said, she had scabies.

I spent a few more days trying to gain access to the center, during which time I heard again how excited Breka was to talk to me. When I finally was allowed inside—for 20 minutes, and only inside about 20 yards—the center’s authorities told me I was not allowed to speak to her.

This young woman has ambitions and experiences I will likely never be able to tell you about. I did, however, get to walk with Breka from a bus to the ferry that finally took her and 170 others to their next detention center, this one in Agrigento, Sicily. With about 15 seconds to chat, all I got to ask her was, “What will you do next?”

“I will stay in Italy,” she whispered, the “correct” answer for anyone who has disembarked on Italian shores (the Dublin Regulation requires refugees to go through the asylum process in the country of first landing).

And off she went onto a boat again, and onward into an unknown future. I do know, however, that she’d told the people who worked at that NGO and others that she would like to go to Belgium. Because of the chocolate.

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Lauren Wolfe
Journalist, former director, WMC Women Under Siege
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