What Saddens Me…



Over the last few days, the news around the world has been covering the tragic loss of more than 900 refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. But, while this may be news to North Americans, but Middle Easterners and Africans have been travelling back and forth to Sicily since the 11th century BCE. Sicily and Sicilians have been influenced by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Byzantines, and the Islamic army made up of Arabs, Berbers, Moors, Saracens, and Persians. This influence can be seen from the architecture in Palermo to the baths at Cefala Diana to the couscous festival in Trapani to the towns with names that harken back to early Arabic.


“Wherever you go in Sicily, you will come across towns and villages bearing names of Arabic origin: Caltagirone, Caltanisseta, Caltabellotta and Caltavuturo all derive from the Arabic calta for castle, the gibil in Mongibello, Gibilmanna and Gibellina’ denotes mountainous locations, Regalbuto, Racalmuto and Regaliali all stem from rahl, meaning area or village, and Mislimeri signifies the resting place of the Emir (Manzil-Al-Emir). Marsala, or Mars’Allah is God’s Port, and Alcamo was founded by the Muslim General Al-Kamuk…

Arabic surnames survive too, with Salimbeni, Taibbi, Sacca’, Zappala’, Cuffaro and Micicchè fairly common reminders of Sicily’s partly North African geneology.

And when Sicilians choose to communicate in dialect, their conversations are strewn with words of Arabic origins, a few examples being cassata (qashata – cheese), gebbia(già-bìa – water tank for irrigation), zagara (zahr – orange blossom) and mischinu(miskin –poor/unfortunate person).”

From “The Glorious History of Sicily Under the Arabs.” 



In modern times, Sicilians have been aware of the trafficking of North and Sub-Saharan Africans back and forth between the Sicilian island of Lampedusa and Libya since 2000. And, as always, nations play with the lives of those who live without privilege, power, and often hope. Early in the 2000s, the Italian and Libyan governments made a secret deal in which Libya agreed to accept all African deportees from Italy, a secret deal that meant that by 2005 there was a mass repatriation across the Mediterranean. This return of unwanted immigrants to Libya helped build an unwanted illegal business – that of unscrupulous Libyan smugglers who took large sums of money to ferry desperate people in rickety boats back to the shores of Lampedusa. The numbers of refugees continued to grow until by 2009, the temporary refugee centre in Lampedusa was brimming with more than double the number of illegal migrants than it had originally been built to hold. The Arab Spring brought a whole new wave of migrants. By the end of August in 2011, over 48,000 refugees had arrived, mostly young men. Over the last four years, the waves of illegal immigrants into Sicily have been steadily increasing and making riskier and riskier crossings in the hopes of making a new life in Europe. Desperate refugees from Syria, Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, Pakistan and Palestine are fleeing to boats on the most dangerous migrant crossing in the world – over 1700 people have perished since the beginning of April. To put the numbers in real perspective, over 11,000 migrants have been rescued in the same time period. That means, in the last 3 ½ weeks, almost 13,000 people have attempted to make the crossing from Libya to Sicily that we know of.


So much about this saddens me…

  • These people are so desperate to leave their homes, they will scrape together the equivalent of $1500US each to climb aboard these unseaworthy vessels.
  • The powers that be have been looking the other way for years – in fact, the EU had just cut the budget for Mediterranean Sea patrol programs in spite of the continued increase of refugees.
  • So much of what is happening in Africa and the Middle East today has its roots in colonialism yet the countries most at fault do little to ease tensions. I include Canada and the US in this category because, even though North America was colonized, the people who are in power now and the people who hold the purse strings, for the most part are descended from the colonizers and still often play that role in the world.
  • The Global North, with all its privilege, continues to place profit before people and the environment. All of this plays into the situation in Africa which leads people to flee their homes.
  • The United Nations often stays mute on what is happening in Africa while focusing on other, more profitable and more “important” (at least to the Global North) parts of the world. Think Rwanda.
  • Countries – and I include Canada in this – are making it harder for refugees to stay even though all evidence shows that refugees work harder and do better in the long term than many other immigrants.


Immigrants who sell trinkets on the beaches spend hours walking up and down selling their wares for a pittance.

Immigrants who sell trinkets on the beaches spend hours walking up and down selling their wares for a pittance.


Don’t believe me on this last one? According to IIE (a field office of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants), “Refugee workers…Strengthened by adversity, they make capable, resilient, and loyal employees.”  

In Canada, the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society says, “…the majority of these new arrivals bring positive working habits such as loyalty, hard working [sic], etc. to the new workplace…”   


Yet, in spite of all this, refugees struggle to find and keep work in their new countries.

“Statistics Canada says that new immigrants continue to have more difficulty in finding a job than Canadian-born residents. “   

And they do this in spite of an almost blanket experience of PTSD – another area in which help is being repealed. “[Canadian] Feds deny funding for BC’s largest refugee mental health agencies, leaving hundreds of trauma victims without help.” 



I want to end this post with a (longish) quote from the most recent print edition of The Economist.


Europe’s boat people


THE European Union likes to boast that it is a force for good. But in the past ten days as many as 1,200 boat people have drowned in the waters of the Mediterranean. An unknown number were refugees from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia fleeing war or persecution. They perished in part because the EU’s policy on asylum is a moral and political failure…


“Officials say 1m migrants are camped on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, waiting to embark on a life that is incomparably better than the one they are leaving behind. The Arab world is engulfed in fighting that is likely to last decades and which has set whole nations adrift. Chunks of Africa are prey to sectarian and ethnic strife and to environmental depredation. An enclave of stability and wealth in an ocean of violence, Europe has not begun to grapple with the choices ahead…


“…the plight of Europe’s boat people also exposes the failings of countries with a duty to shelter them. In Europe that starts with a breakdown of ethics. The EU is putting only a third as much money and less than a tenth of the manpower into maritime rescue as it did last year. Several countries, including Britain, argued that a high chance of being rescued acts as a “pull” factor which only encourages more migrants. In effect, the EU was proposing to stand back and watch one lot of innocent people drown so as to deter another from following them into boats. That logic was wrong as well as morally repugnant. 


Although UN conventions say refugees are the responsibility of the country where they turn up, allies have sometimes shared the burden… But co-operation in Europe has been in short supply. Although leaders negotiate asylum policy at the EU level, they jealously guard their national powers. That way, mindful of public opinion and the threat from anti-immigration parties, they can both cynically deflect responsibility towards Brussels and also avoid having to accept many flesh-and-blood refugees. Last year 626,000 people applied for asylum to the EU (only a fraction of them came by boat); roughly half of the applicants who were processed were successful. France granted asylum to 15,000; Britain to only 11,000. Despite honourable exceptions, including Germany, with 41,000, and Sweden, with 31,000, most countries wish the problem would go away.


“If the EU is to live up to its values, it must act on many fronts at once, from saving lives at sea to helping countries with the greatest burden. EU leaders are right to boost the rescue mission—but it needs to be much bigger, larger even than the one in operation last year. The EU is also right to take on the people-smugglers. But they will be resilient, as the profits are irresistible and the supply of crew members almost inexhaustible.


“The best way to stop the boats is for camps to process asylum applications to Europe on the south shore of the Med. If camps are seen to work, refugees will prefer them to the risk of drowning. Setting them up will not be easy. The EU will have to pay north African countries to host them. Asylum-processing must be fast, fair and efficient. The economic migrants who are rejected need to be sent back home. And member states must sign up to their share of refugees—which should be well within the scope of 500m wealthy EU citizens.”







 If you would like to read another blog on the subject, I would recommend the MigrantSicily blog, hosted by blogspot.  



6 thoughts on “What Saddens Me…

  1. At some point, the refugee asylum-seeking trickle becomes an invasion. Most of the people interviewed want to go to Norway and Sweden, and the UK. Those nations are alleged to have the best benefits. Would they be prepared to accept one or two or five million new residents receiving benefits?

    The only long-term solution is to return them to their homes and let them help rebuild their countries to political freedom, religious freedom and economic progress.

    • I have to respectfully disagree. How can they be returned to places that are so incredibly dangerous. Do we want to see them go back to another Rwanda, Burundi? To another Holocaust? Our global responsibility as humans with privilege, is to extend our hands.

  2. I have to agree with Diane C… we have a responsibility to help those who have no other recourse in this world. The situation in some of these 3rd world countries is really indescribable and very hard for most people to comprehend the real extent of the danger these people face every day of their lives. While escaping in an overcrowded boat is in itself an inherent danger … what other means do they have? They have no money, no defense … nothing but a glimmer of hope they may be able to escape with their lives by taking this one last chance.

    • Thank you Sharon. It can only be sheer desperation that would bring people to the point in which they are willing to climb into the death traps that are being used to transport refugees to Sicily. Those of us who live with the privilege of having spent our lives only in the Global North cannot begin to imagine the horrors that some of these people have faced. I had a friend a number of years ago who had, in the 1980s taken part in the student demonstrations in Burma. She and a group of these students had to flee through the jungle into Thailand because they were being chased by Burmese soldiers. At one point, one of their group was captured by the soldiers and she and the rest of the group sat hidden in the thick vegetation and watched as the soldiers killed their friend by cutting out his heart. How could someone like me even comprehend the enormity of the terror and distress this would have caused when I have lived what is by comparison a pampered and spoiled life? Sadly, my friend’s PTSD pushed her over the edge into psychosis and she became wildly paranoid. We lost touch mainly because she imagined that I was victimizing her and it became dangerous for my daughter and I to be around her. It still saddens me. I want to quote Romeo Dallaire, one of my heroes: “Where you are born should not dictate your potential as a human being.” And he would know. He lead the peacekeepers mission into Rwanda when the worst of the genocide was ramping up and he was hung out to dry by the UN. Why? Because they were too busy with the genocide in Bosnia-Herzagovenia. The UN belonged in Bosnia-Herzagovenia, of course, but they needed to be in Rwanda too. But then, Rwanda was a country in Africa – not a trading partner of either the US or the EU. There was no pressure from world powers to step in and really help the black-African Tutsi Rwandans (the belief of a difference between Tutsi and Hutu, the surface cause of the genocide, was originally set up by the Belgians – in reality they were the same people, it was simply a class distinction) whereas the whole of the EU was pressuring for intervention in Bosnia. So, the UN made a choice. Support the white Europeans and ignore the black Africans. Let’s not kid ourselves. The same thing is happening today. The black and brown refugees (let’s call them what they are – to call them immigrants is minimizing their dire situation) would be ignored by the EU or they would be turned back and deported back to Africa. But, let’s say (God forbid) the situation in the Ukraine heats up to the point that there are white European refugees flowing into the rest of Europe, I suspect the response by the EU and the rest of the world would be quite different. You are right, Sharon. We do have a responsibility.

  3. I’d like to ask you, with so many homeless & unemployed Sicilians, who is helping Sicilians? Btw the 14% is what’s on record, not everyone in Sicily works on the books. I have friends in Sicily who have nothing, except the apartment they have taken over illegally, after living in tents on the streets, social services is non existent in Italy, except for foster care which pays about 1500 euros per child after they take them away from parents who can not take care of them. Have you bother to check how your less fortunate Sicilians live? I bet you have no idea, look into that and you’ll see the truth about what really is going on, but follow the media and you won’t find anything.

    • Strikerino, you seem to be suggesting that I don’t know about the plight of Some Sicilians. I do. Of course I do. My neighbours are Sicilian. I have Sicilian friends and family. Hell, my own husband is Sicilian-Canadian (which, btw, I do know is not quite the same thing) and that has opened many doors for us that otherwise we would have never seen behind. I am well aware of the huge under the table industry that goes on in Sicily and that the avoidance of taxes is a national pastime. And I realize that the extremely low property taxes means that infrastructure is almost nonexistant. I was in the hospital in Sciacca this summer, picking up charts for an ill friend who was flying back to Ireland for treatment. Why was she leaving her home and her friends that she loves? Because the wonderful doctor that diagnosed her illness told her that they couldn’t treat her in Sicily and that she would get the full care she needed if she returned to Ireland. Why? Because half the hospital in Sciacca is shut down. No money. The reason that my husband and I will not live full time in Sicily is because we don’t want to lose our Canadian medical insurance. I know that years of corruption and mismanagement by Berlusconi’s government has driven Italy into the ground and the south got hit the worst. I know all this. Just because I state that one group of people in the world is in need of help, does not meant that I think others should be ignored. However, while I understand the plight of the poor in Sicily can sometimes be desperate, they are not having to flee situations in which they are in danger of being killed, raped, tortured or having their children forced into an army to fight a war of which they want no part. I could write of the plight of Canada’s First Peoples, many of whom live in terrible conditions with unclean water, insufficient food and substandard medical care and education. Or of the plight of the migrant workers in the US. Or of the children in Thailand who are trafficked into the sex trade. There are so many people in need of assistance in this world and I would never suggest that any of them be ignored.

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