Italy offers swimming lessons for refugees traumatized while crossing Mediterranean
By MICHAEL BIRNBAUM | The Washington Post | Published: July 15, 2017
MESSINA, Italy — Abdoulie Jallow lives on the Sicilian coast, but until recently, looking at the Mediterranean Sea filled him with dread.
The azure water reminded the 17-year-old Gambian of his journey from Libya last year, a middle-of-the-night departure on an overcrowded dinghy in which he had to abandon himself to his faith in God.
Now Jallow has dipped his toes in the water again, joining classes in a local trade high school that 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 this 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 sub-Saharan 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 roughly 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 half 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 Party, 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 authorities 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 19-month 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 just 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."