18 September 2012

Chapter Ten: Goodbye!

A Sicilian Diary of Nina Perkowski

With the blink of an eye, three months have passed and I am finding myself on a plane high above the earth, heading back to Berlin. The last days were hectic, as they usually are when leaving one life and heading towards another. Until now, I have barely thought about the fact that I am leaving Sicily, that my brief stay there has already come to an end. I have not felt the goodbye, have not realized yet that I will not be coming back any time soon.
Nevertheless, it is time to pause for a second and reflect on these three past three months. Did I achieve what I came to do? Was it as I had hoped it would be? In the last few days, many of my supporters and friends in Sicily asked me these questions. The truth is, I can’t remember what exactly my expectations were before coming here. Did I even come with clear ideas and objectives?

What I can say is that it was an important time for me – it allowed me to reflect on things in a different and more intense way. Partly, that is because I found myself without any of my daily routines, without any institution or person who would expect me to turn up on a regular basis, without friends and family. There was the need to re-create a new life outside of any formal context such as university or work. And that allowed for free time to reflect on what I wanted to do with my time and what I thought would be worthwhile doing on an almost daily basis.

On the other hand, I reflected more because I was confronted with new realities and new frustrations in terms of migrant and refugee rights. Being on an island where more than 3000 people have arrived irregularly via boat this year was in itself already a significant change of my living context. In addition to that, the problems refugees and asylum seekers face in Italy more generally are of a different calibre than those they face in Germany.

In Germany, refugees and asylum seekers can rely on being provided with a bed, food, and basic medical care – which is a lot in the eyes of those who cannot access such support infrastructures. In Italy, refugees and asylum seekers similarly have the right to such support. As there exists a severe shortage of places in housing structures however, many end up sleeping under bridges, in parks, or in abandoned buildings.

Other issues asylum seekers struggle with then again are very similar: both in Italy and in Germany, people I spoke with complained about the waiting times before they hear a decision on their case (although at this time in Italy, waiting times are extraordinarily high as a result of the rise in asylum applications after the ‘Arab Spring’ last year), they suffer severely from the isolation in remote, collective camps and the condemnation to stay idle instead of work, learn the local language or train for a job. Isolation, idleness and increasing use of detention seem to be systematic in Europe more widely and cause tremendous suffering and psychological harm for individuals. Suffering that is not incidental and inevitable, but part of state policy that seeks to ‘discourage’ migration and pressure asylum seekers to return back home.

Going to Italy and finding out for myself some of the differences and similarities between it and Germany, where I had worked with asylum seekers in Brandenburg, was very insightful. As I had previously studied European and international law relating to refugees, the growing realization that there exists a chasm between what is codified in laws and what is practiced in reality in Italy was important for me. While I still struggle to accept this gap as given, I have begun to understand that legal and political reform on the EU level is not necessarily going to having direct positive impacts on the ground. Not only in the area of refugee rights, laws seem to work as guidelines more often than anything else, guidelines which may be followed but do not necessarily have to be.

More generally, I have begun to appreciate more fully that southern Italy’s political system is different from that of northern European countries in some ways, that people’s attitudes towards politics and politicians are more negative and that distrust prevails. Tales and stories about corruption, nepotism and mafia linkages are one significant reason for this, as is a history of exploitation and oppression by the north. Within three months, I only caught glimpses of the political and social realities in Sicily, and could certainly learn a lot more – yet I have felt and seen that they are significant differences from the countries I have lived in most recently.

Apart from initial insights into realities in Sicily, what else have I taken with me? Throughout the last three months, I have taken a renewed interest in some more ‘fundamental’ questions I had been grappling with already for a few years, but which I pushed away again and again. Right now, I am considering shifting my research interest away from EU migration policies and instead towards more basic questions such as ‘how do you get people to care about others?’ A talk with an asylum seeker in Mineo was important for me in this regard. After chatting for a little while, he said, “I know you are one of the good people. But your president, your people, they are against what you want. They don’t want change in how we are treated.” Polls all over Europe (and not only here) show how negative people’s attitudes towards migrants are. Well-informed, critical articles on EU refugee policies in newspapers all over Europe often provoke hostile responses from readers, who seem to just want ‘all of those people out’. In many of these responses, one finds not a trace of compassion – even when the article responded to clearly denounces injustices and difficulties and argues on behalf of migrants, refugees and/or asylum seekers. As long as voters remain hostile or indifferent, it will be difficult to convince politicians to reform unjust and racist policies. At the moment, I have the vague hope that I might be able to find out more about how it could be possible to foster compassion, interest, and engagement within people as my three-year PhD project.

Apart from this important change in research interest towards questions I asked myself already more than six years ago, I have obviously improved my Italian – and I have a renewed interest to work on improving it further also after my move to Edinburgh. In addition, I am taking a new sense of curiosity and warmth towards southern Italy with me. Despite of all its flaws and deficiencies, I did somehow fall in love with this region, and I very much hope to return, explore and learn more some day.

Ending my time in Sicily with a visit in Riace was a wonderful coincidence, which reminded me of the passion and determination with which some individuals do work for positive change. It still seems like a beacon of hope from afar, while I know that it also has its cracks and blemishes. Maybe it will be possible to return and understand it in some of its complexities one day…

For now, it will be time to focus on other things for a while. First of all a move to Scotland and the attempt to find my way back into academia. Getting used to the cold, the dark, the rain, to sitting in the library for hours, to a different way of talking and living and questioning. Building up a new life, once again.

With the blink of an eye, three months have passed. Part of me wishes I could hold on to this time just a little longer. The other part has long begun to plan and imagine the things ahead.

Nina Perkowski came to Sicily to research the living situation of immigrants from Africa in Sicily for her PhD. For borderline-europe, she reported the situation in Cassibile and Mineo, where there is a collective home for asylum seekers. Within ten chapters Nina wrote down her experiences and her monitorings.

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