24 July 2016
Refugee children live alone on Sicily’s streets after having risked their lives in the Mediterranean
“Ahmed! Ahmed! Ahmed!“ – a breathless voice can be heard at the opposite side of the square and, like a domino effect, awakens everyone who rests in the area. They get up and nervously try to find out who is the lucky one, reverently repeating the name. The one who called out holds a cell phone in his hand, Ahmed (a made-up name) jumps up from a bench and runs towards the person to receive a gift that is very precious in the Italian city of Catania: a telephone call from a different European country.
He picks up the phone and listens; he smiles. On the other end of the line is his sister; she is calling from Sweden. Ahmed is from Eritrea and has arrived on the Italian island a month ago after having crossed the Mediterranean with a plastic boat, after having suffered weeks of fear, abuse and imprisonment in Libya, after crossing the desert in Sudan and Ethiopia on a pick-up truck without any water or enough food. Ahmed is 12 years old and has traveled alone, without any family, for thousands of kilometers.
The kid lives with 15 other people – most of them hailing from Eritrea, children and adults – close to the main station of Catania, which has become a meeting point for those who want to leave Sicily and, then, Italy. They try to survive in this area and to save up enough money to continue their journey to reach their actual destination: Northern Europe.
They neither have food nor drinking water; neither a change of clothes nor shelter. They live off of the help of a variety of organizations and NGOs whose employees come here now and then to hand out sandwiches, clothes, and personal hygiene products. Most of them decided for a life on the streets because they are scared to be forced to stay at a reception center forever if they remain in one for too long. Italy, to them, is only one station on their journey, the actual destinations are called Germany, the Netherlands, or Sweden.
Most of them flee from Eritrea, a country that, according to a recently published report by the United Nations, “systematically violates human rights.” “There is no freedom. It simply does not exist there. I fled because I want to live in freedom,” Kabede (another made-up name), 16 years old, concludes while lying on the lawn of the square. Because of this he boarded a plastic boat crammed with humans and stayed there for hours, a whole night, one of his feet dangling in the Mediterranean. He continued his journey the same way, in the face of suffering, in the face of being shot at in Libya, in the face of the fact that he had seen two of his fellow travelers die, their bodies being left behind in the Sahara. “They died of thirst or starvation.”
Now they need 38 Euros to purchase a ticket to Rome, the first step in this latest phase of their migration. Many of them hope that their families will send the money. “To wire money internationally, as it happens in practice, they need documents and need to be of age. Because of this they often are forced to deal through a third party who usually want money in return for their services. It is difficult to find out whether the sponsor is an actual family member or a human trafficker who becomes the debtor of the migrant,” Andrea Bottazzi claims, a member of Oxfam Italia’s project “Open Europe.” “Others wash cars to earn the money. They earn five Euros per car, so they don’t need a lot of time to save up enough money.”
Ahmed’s pockets are filled with crinkly pieces of paper full of telephone numbers like the ones he jots down nonstop while being on the phone with his sister. “The Eritrean community in Europe is very strong and very well connected. On their journeys, there is a variety of situations in which migrants have contact with human traffickers,” Bottazzi tells us.
Some telephone numbers are from people who can help them on their ways. Other numbers, those with international European area codes, belong to Gyrman, Abdul’s brother, or Fatima, from Sudan, who asks how her brother Sami is doing, or a mother from Eritrea who wants to know where her son lives. And the kid who is on the square the whole day tries to give details on his situation and simply says “I am in Catania.”
Oxfam Intermon and other local associations assume that during 2016 there has been an increase of unaccompanied minors arriving in Italy of approximately 20%. According to UNHCR, almost 17% of the 79,851 people who arrived in Italy this year via the Mediterranean are minors.
They fear having to stay in Italy because they are underage.
When asked how old they are, all of them answer the same thing. “I am 16 years of,” Sami sassily answers on the station forecourt. His small frame, his face, and his narrow back, however, all tell a different story: that he probably is only 12 years old. His eyes give him away, they feature a look of childish innocence but also the suspicion, a result of difficult memories that do not seem to fit with his small size.
He is not the only one. All say that they are between 16 and 17 years old. They say it with confidence and repeat the answer until the question is stopped being asked. “Everyone of us was told that the very small children, the 12 and 13 year-old ones, are put in centers and cannot leave them. The ones who are of age are sent to centers that are completely far off and where there is nothing to do,” one of them who is not as small any more tells us.
“All kids who are younger than 16 have to go to school and because of this they are under control. On the other hand, those who are of age have to register after arrival and to give their fingerprints. Because of the Dublin agreement, they can be sent back to Italy this way if they go to a different European country and are caught by police. Unaccompanied minors, on the other hand, are unaffected by this agreement and can, therefore, stay wherever they went,” Oxfam Italia explains to us.
“We read you your rights so that you can freely decide what you want to do”
Some of them remain on the square and try to leave Italy, but not all of them do it because of this. Some stay here because they do not have any other place to go. To find these people, a mobile unit of Oxfam Italia travels Sicily looking for newly arrived people who fell through the cracks in the first-reception system because of irregularities in the registration centers (hotspots).
“The majority of people whom I have met on the streets do not go to the centers because they want to leave Italy, but we have also met some who want to seek asylum and were left outside before they were able to do so,” he adds. We know of cases where refugees lived on the streets lost and without orientation because they did not know that they have the right to go to a center and apply for shelter.
At the station’s forecourt in Catania, Mechal (a pseudonym) timidly shows us his documents. He is not completely aware of the meaning of these documents which he carefully keeps in an envelope of which he never loses sight. An employee of Borderline Sicilia who works with Oxfam Italia puts his mind at ease and explains to him the documents’ content. He also explains to him the rights he has in Italy. “Although they should have already had their rights explained to them in the reception center, many of them do not know their rights. We give them the necessary information so that they can freely decide what they want to do, whether they want to stay here or would rather go,” the person in charge of Oxfam’s mobile unite adds.
“When I was rescued, I felt bad, I had a headache and I felt unwell”
Mechal wants to reach his brother in France. The young Ethiopian is not like the little ones who do not want to be too small but also not like the older ones who do not want to be too old. He shows us his papers which show him to be 23 years old. First and foremost, he does this because he seems to have an urge to tell people around him that, after having arrived at the port of Catania coming from Egyptian via the Mediterranean, he was hospitalized in a mental-health clinic where he was kept for 8 days. “I was not myself! I do not know what happened to me, I was feeling really bad. My head hurt…” Mechal laments. “I was not myself,” he repeats sitting on a bench in front of the main station.
Sitting on a worn-out couch in the middle of the square, he tells us that it took two weeks to get from Egypt to Sicily. “During those 15 days, there was only the sea, the wide open sea, only the wide open sea.” This is the last memory of many that live in his mind. To explain his journey, to make sure to not forget any detail, he asks for pen and paper.
He draws Ethiopia, the capital serves him as a reference point but his journey began in the south of the country. “From here, where I lived, I reached Addis Abeba by foot,” he describes his journey. He continues his story and draws Sudan and Egypt.
The extreme heat of the Italian island tires the children who lie on the lawn of the forecourt for hours, waiting in hope of a telephone call, a Facebook message, being sent money or handouts by one of the many tourists who go the main station every day. One of the smaller children of the camp walks up to the Proserpina fountain, the basin in the middle of the square. He bows down over the still water, fills up his bottle and drinks. “It is water, it is hot here and that is all we got…,” he says with a smile of resignation.
At nightfall, the square becomes empty. Mechal and two of his friends from Ethiopia stand up and begin to search for a place to sleep in the nearby streets. While doing this, they explain their reasons to flee from Ethiopia. “I couldn’t go to school there, there is no future,” Abdul (another pseudonym) explains. “I want to lead a good life and to study engineering,” Mechal adds. They stop at a traffic light before finally reaching the place where they will sleep this night. Here, they prefer to say goodbye to us. “We will sleep close by, no matter where, we don’t have any money anyway,” they say sheepishly.
Like every evening, they will fall asleep to the same thought tonight, to the same wish: that the idiomatic “see you tomorrow” will become a true “goodbye.”
“We will see each other tomorrow in Rome!”
Translation: Annika Schadewaldt