Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

"We Never Thought It Would Be like This": Refugees' Experiences in Sicily

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

"We Never Thought It Would Be like This": Refugees' Experiences in Sicily

Article excerpt

The work that I am now doing in Sicily is a very natural outgrowth of a world that I have been observing since I was a very small child. I have always been rather hyper aware of my identity as an Italian-American. I was born and raised in a town in which most Italians and Italian-Americans came from the same town in Italy. My family was no exception. My neighborhood was predominantly Italian as was the parish that my family belonged to and the parochial school that I and my siblings attended. My mother frequently distinguished between "us" and "them"--Americans, who were rarely willing (or able) to claim a distinct cultural "identity."

I grew up hearing about the hardships of Italian immigrants, most specifically, the discrimination they faced upon arrival in the United States. I heard how they became ashamed of their language and were both proud and bewildered when they raised children who learned to speak English (American) but who they, sadly, could not understand. I was aware of how this shame stopped many from teaching their children the language. Anecdotally, few Italian-Americans can claim to speak the Italian language, or even a poor dialect! I saw so many immigrants proud to be American only to turn angry and bitter when they were not seen or accepted as actually being American. There are myriad reasons for this, which goes well beyond the scope of this paper, but suffice it to say that during the period of time when Italian immigrants were coming in droves to the United States, assimilation was the rule of the day. No one was celebrating difference. One was expected to melt within the pot, until we all acted in unison, with our thoughts, but more importantly our allegiances aligned.

My parochial grade school in the late sixties and early seventies had many Italian immigrant children, many of which often reported to class for the first time the very day after their arrival. They were often shy, confused and bullied, at least at first. I was quiet and patient and was often tasked to help them learn to read. They were often shamed in class and ostracized by teachers who seemed to loathe their presence. This caused a strange split in me. I identified as Italian-American. But these were real Italians. And they were being mocked by authority figures. I internalized the difference and began to feel a growing shame, but an even stronger indignation.

I have experienced the discrimination of my culture. I have heard the names, been called the names and I have had my intellectual heritage questioned. That there is not Italian-American intellectual tradition continues to dog those of us who are Italian-American. This rankles, of course, simply because it is not true.

I cannot remember a time when I was not acutely aware of the immigrants' presence in my school, in my family, in my town, in my parish. It has been a preoccupation of mine forever. Why do they come? Why do they stay?

This curiosity has cross-pollinated, in the other direction, exponentially. Italy, which has previously been a country of emigration, is now, most decidedly, a country of immigration. In unprecedented and steady numbers, both immigrants and refugees are leaving their countries due to not only war, direct threats to their lives, sexual persecution and other reasons, but sometimes, simply for economic reasons. Due to the Dublin Regulation, at least as it applies to refugees, they can only apply for refugee status in the country in which they arrive. This controversial law often means that, because of the route often taken through the Mediterranean, Italy is the first landing point.

Many refugees do not want to be in Sicily. They find themselves struggling, in just about any way that a person can struggle bodily, mentally and spiritually, in a country that does not want them, thanks, in large part, to the Berlusconi government who fanned the flames of hatred and fear of the immigrant and refugee (especially those from Africa) in a climate of rampant unemployment in many regions of the country. …

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