Last night, our last night in Palermo, after everything, the whole day of intense concentration, from the recording of Yusuph to the interview at Youth Human Rights Organization, we hang out in Balaro and dance with some of the Africans there dancing and drumming in the street. I’m exhausted but I decide still to call one of the young men we met in the first days. Just to see if there is still a chance to see the place he’s been transferred to—a center for men who have “aged out” of status as minors and are still waiting for papers.
He comes to meet us, a huge welcoming smile on his face and leads us to his place. The guy at the front says we can only enter one at a time. We protest, and then he says, okay, but only maximum five minutes inside. This guy, this person who seems to be a “native” Sicilian, working probably minimum wage labor as night watchman and janitor—stills feels pressure to tow the line. To carry out whatever bizarre set of rules he’s been told to enforce.
We walked down the wide institutional hallway, perhaps the place was an old asylum, or a hospital, or a school. Each room with maybe two guys in it, each with his own cot, like so many of the squats we’ve stayed at. All men. Most of the guys that I could see, from Africa. We spoke to a guy from Ghana, he was the most outspoken, just giving his anger and rage in sarcasm and quick wit. The UN takes all the money. They should place us in jobs, should give us a job. But they don’t.
He tells us that he left Ghana because the president is a very bad man, that the country has resources that are constantly exploited, that people like him work for low, unlivable wages, extracting his country’s resources, and see nothing for it. He wants to return to see his family and he will when he gets his papers—some day. But for now he can’t while he waits. He says, as soon as he gets his papers, he is getting the hell out of there. The others tell me that if it were easier to come to the United States or to Australia, they would, because tis so much better than Europe. I consider it. The idea of being institutionalized, terrible. But more work? “just a job”, and job? Elsewhere? Better work? Hard for me to completely relate to. I really believe that men should just be placed into jobs, that bodies should just be placed into meaningless labor? Its hard for me to completely sign on to that idea, and I wonder how both to advocate for him and to support him as a migrant, as a worker, and still make a larger capitalist critique.
I do believe that bodies should be allowed to move as they want to. I do believe that bodies should be allowed to pursue questions that interest them, passions that drive them. The guy is vey expressive about being poor, tells us that he is one of the poor ones, a laborer, a furniture maker. He doesn’t mince words. He says, “I don’t play cricket, I’m not rich. That’s for the rich guys. I play football.” He’s smart as he tosses me lightly stereotypes in one moment and then tosses at me sarcastically an anti-stereotype with an ironic smile.
We stay much longer than five minutes, listening to a group of guys downstairs in the hallway. There is an area of antique furniture, roped off. Cant sit there. As though a museum piece. The most outspoken guy says the UN is taking all the money, making money off these guys, churning a business. He says they deliver food every day and all they get is pasta. They hate it, they don’t want to eat that every day. Its not the diet they are used to. We tell them a little about our migration situation in Germany. Ours and the people on our block. We tell them about the strict regulation of drug dealers in the park, how many are asylum seekers, he tells me, never do that. Never ever do that. You sell and you get money you sell and you get money but that is stupid because one day you gonna get caught and if you really want to stay in Europe for a long time, they will catch you and send you back. Really really bad, he keeps repeating. It makes me think a lot about different cultural ideas of choice and self policing. What is choice, what is desperation, what drives a person to climb a dangerous boat or cross a wall or a desert. What drives someone to take a job with legal risks, health risks or emotional risks. “Desperation” does not explain every choice, every aspect; I speak for myself. This is about something less dramatic, more naturally human, more subtle and yet more complex.
When I was growing up in Australia, there was a lot of talk in the right wing media about the so-called ‘Aboriginal Industry’, that people were enriching themselves on the back of demands for more rights, better health care, social services, education, and so on for Aboriginal communities. As my lecturer in indigenous studies – black power activist Gary Foley – pointed out, it was true, but that very few if any of those benefiting were Aboriginal. Instead, generations of white bureaucrats, consultants, administrators, health care and social workers came and went, absorbing hundreds of millions of dollars of government funding without delivering much to the communities they were supposedly working for.
The same thing is happening with irregular migration into Europe. “The Italians are making money off us” said one of the guys we spoke to, who wants to work as a football player in Europe. “Every migrant knows this.” And not only the Italians. On every step of his journey from Gambia, he encountered an auxiliary industry making money from migrants. In Libya he was kidnapped both by the police and by criminals. The kidnappers demanded their families wire money. “If you don’t have money they shoot you in the leg” he said, and he began to rub his thigh. With his jailers it was more complicated and in the end he and a group of detainees made a prison break during Ramadan.
Then there were the people smugglers, who take around 1000€ to cram you on board a boat, choosing as captain the passenger with the most sea faring experience. When they arrive in Italy there are the sailors paid to perform sea rescues, the prison operators and then if you are released the operators of the migrant home where you live, those working in the tribunals to hear your asylum case, or whatever grounds you use to attempt to remain in Italy… It is endless.
Corruption runs deep in the provision of services to migrants. I hesitate to talk about the role of organised crime because it sets up a false dichotomy between organised crime and ‘legitimate’ official migration authorities. Nevertheless there are crime syndicates involved, with one senior figure in Rome recorded on a wiretap saying he makes more money running detention centers and migrant homes than they do from drugs.
Last night one man from Ghana said that the UN gives Italy money to take care of the migrants, but the Italians are keeping it for themselves. I haven’t verified this yet. However, from both a large number of migrants and from a meeting with the advocacy group Borderline Europe, we learned that many facilities do not even provide the €1.50 per day allowance that they are legally obliged to pay to those living in migration facilities.
Attitudes among those we spoke to ranges from anger to resignation to a quiet defiance from those who just plan to wait out this inane moment in their lives, to get their papers and leave Italy for good.
There is no uniformity to why people decide to shift from their home countries, though there are some patterns and recurring motifs.
For instance, for most people the final port before Europe – Libya – is the most dangerous part of the journey. I spoke to one young man in Palermo, who is still not eighteen, who told me had been arrested in Libya multiple times, that he had spent six months in prison, that he had been beaten, that the Libyans treat the blacks very badly. Another told us that his best friend was assassinated at random in Libya. And yet this same person spoke kindly of the man who had employed him in carpentry, who paid him on time and, when he couldn’t, secured his passage on a boat to Lampedusa with a people smuggler.
Many of those we spoke to were orphaned or neglected in some way. Sometimes their stories describe immense suffering, but not all are facing certain death, the boys from Egypt and a couple from Gambia describe the desire to travel, to see other countries when asking why they come to Europe. The same reason why I left Australia for Berlin via London.
It reminds me not to develop a cliche about irregular migrants, asylum seekers, refugees in which they are all facing death, rape, starvation and so on because it sets up eligibility criteria for which we will allow black and brown people to freely move outside of their own countries, to come to Europe, to take a train to Paris or Berlin or Stockholm or wherever, to settle, or not settle, to work a little, or to avoid work with the utmost care, to party, or raise a family or all of these things.
The point is not that there is a humanitarian crisis (though of course there is), a crisis for whose victims Western countries should open their gates very briefly before shutting them again very tightly, but that there should be no gate in the first place – certainly not one which locks out people from certain countries while being curiously open to those from others.
I am passionate about free movement, no borders, a collapsing of binaries between a body which is worthy of entry and a body which is not. It is not only a very queer concept, it even rescues queer from its own assimilation into a capitalist discourse where it is perhaps only a genre, a market segment – queer night at the white, hetero-capitalist discotheque. Rights and tolerance enclosed in a circle of white privilege and military frontiers – this is not the same as freedom.
We experienced a SONIC CONDUIT from critical magic to foreign bodies. It was a ballet performed by a man who was investigating us within hours of arriving in Sicily, in Trapani. He saw us from across the street, with a long pole he was tapping the ground. He crossed the street to sit at a bench adjacent from us. Still tapping this long pole. We looked at him periodically and said hello. He did not respond, but kept tapping. Then he moved again, this time to the bench directly in front of us, looking head on, still tapping this long wooden pole. We looked at him, but he refused to make eye contact when we did. I knew this was a our entry point and our beginning, tying us from one project to the next. Eventually he wandered on.
I think a lot about circles of accessibility, especially as it relates to privilege. We are traveling by hitch hiking and bus, sometimes staying in people’s homes, sometimes, on the ground. The other night, we wandered until 2 or 3 in the morning, searching for a suitable place, to put out sleeping bags. We passed a lot of sex workers working in one area of the city near the train station. I feel sameness and difference. I feel identification and disassociation related to skin color, choice, circumstance. If I could work side by side with them I would; I don’t feel like that’s an invisible line I can cross, not exactly. I waffle between: I should see more clients when I get home to fund this project and: I should apply for more grants when I get home to fund this project. Now we found a cheap hostel for some nights, but it makes me deeply uncomfortable, and I struggle with this feeling. Even though it offers us a good nights rest and a place to work, it separates me from a sense of instability that migrants are dealing with on a daily basis. I too am a migrant, but with different circumstance. And yet—the boys we met—they do have a home, at least for now. Why should I not. Still, I wrestle uncomfortably with this feeling. I feel that when I sit on the ground, when I travel by foot, when I sleep on the ground, and when I continue to live with very little, picking up food where I can and scavenging what resources I can, that I am closer to a circle of accessibility that feels right. When I, on the contrary, make choices to take advantage of privileged safety nets, I feel deeply uncomfortable and feel pulled away from the focus of what I am really here to do.
We face questions about recording, how best to use our equipment and when to pull out the “good” recording equipment and when simply to use the zoom. We have met someone who is a singer, who comes from a whole family of musicians in Gambia. He even has a DVD of his family singing and playing the Kora. Because he could not bring a Kora with him by boat, we want to unite in a recording him singing with another person playing Kora. His cousin in Milan has one. We want to visit him and sew the familial musical pieces together. Adrienne and I agree that we must pay close attention to how we use the music that we gather in this project. We want to be mindful of how we ask people to collaborate. That they feel respected as collaborators; not used and discarded. We want to make sure that they remain a through line from now until the very end of this process. I think a lot about how the recording process changes (or in the case thus far?) does not change the interview. The young men we have spoken with so far seem very comfortable being recorded, both their photograph and their story. I wonder if this is because of their age. They all have Facebook, public profiles. This is fascinating to me. 10, 15 years ago, when I was working at EBSC in California, there were young men from Guatemala, family members long separated that were united in our office. I remember these moments and they still bring chills to my arms. They did not have means of communication. Many had never used computers before, let alone small hand held computers. Now these migrants we meet today speak of being able to communicate with loved ones via Facebook and Skype. They do not seem to flinch at the presence of “technological recording devices”. Why should they? This is 2015. They are generation Z. This in fact is a different situation now and I am the one who remembers time before the digital age. My question is merely, does presenting them publicly, as I would any friend I meet in this day, threaten their security in any way. I have a responsibility in the way we share their stories.
I travel a lot. In many capacities, meet many people. I have one disappointment that exhausts me. I hear from people all over the place the language of Othering and the language of Hating. I see borders being drawn between people all the time. I am not even talking about the big levels like flagrant racism, flagrant nationalism. I’m talking about Othering on small levels. I mean saying that all those people are like that. I’m talking about a person’s sense of their own regional, communal, or individual exceptionalism. I hear it all the time in every common language; othering someone else even in their own community. Hating on other women, on other queers, hating on other artists, on non artists, hating on the mainstream. Hating on, judging on …
It exhausts me actually. I think, at the end of the day, we are all just more the same than different. I think that every act of violence that we see, from a hate crime to a school shooting to a beheading is a reflection of the structural violence of our society of which we ourselves play a role. I believe that we have to concentrate on our similarities, as a body of humans, rather than a our differences. I believe that we have to begin this process on the smallest levels. The most microcosmic.
Sometimes I like to sit. I like simply to sit. Like we did. Stop moving. See what will happen. Sleep outside on cardboard. Hitch a ride. Wait for what will and can happen. Sometimes we wait and see. Then to talk and speak based on what comes to us. Sometimes when we sit next to each other on the ground we understand better we are all the same.
I astounds me our level of disjuncture from people. From each other. We might say we are not judgmental against certain people. We might say we are not afraid of certain people. But what do we do to expand our sense of community to each other? What do we do to actually know people? I will speak for myself. What do I do. What can I do better.
We waited the other day outside the detention center at Milo, Trapani, Sicily. We both thought, we will not meet anyone this way. How could it happen? How will our project begin like this. But we were wrong. Our project began simply by coming. Sitting, being there.
We—Adrienne and I—through our music/performance group HYENAZ began our next project this week in Sicily. It is called “Foreign Bodies” and is about migration.
We took a city bus from central Trapani to a place called Milo where we thought the detention center might be. An old airport. We found it. I think we both thought—What will come of this, how will we get inside, how will we make connections? Our project, we thought, it cant simply just happen like this. But we were wrong. Not five minutes went by and some guys came out of the center who were filing papers, since they have to file papers at the jail. Imagine that. You have to file your papers at the jail as though you are already trying to prove you are not a criminal.
They were friendly and eager to talk to us, it wasn’t hard to make a connection. We told them about our project and already they invited us to speak to them in their homes—centers which are like group homes for migrants. One of them said to us, It warms my heart that you are here.
Here in Palermo there are plenty of homes for migrant young men living together. Receiving 2,50 a day. That is just pocket money so they can get around. They are expected to eat at home, the food given to them. They have “what they need” there. This pocket money and the roof over their head is meant to be enough. But how to integrate into a society that is obsessed with consumerism? That might be the real question of integration. How can you integrate when you cant go out to a movie, buy an icecream. When you cant go to university as an 18 year old young man or take a job.
Yesterday we were invited into a group home for young men under 21; basically what Germans call a WG where 11 young men live, many of whom are have no papers with them but tell us they are from Egypt, Gambia, Mali, Senegal. A person comes in three times a day, 8 hour shifts, she works 36 hours a week, as do the other educators. She says she gets paid 700 euros a month for this 36 hour shift, which includes sleeping at the group home. She hasn’t been paid in six months. Neither have the other carers, the educators.
The young men invite us to sit with them over their dineer. They each take turns cooking every day. I am eager to learn personal stories and to understand differences. I talk mostly to one person from Gambia, who tells me his story of being an orphan and leaving home where his uncle was abusing him. He left to go travel and work, but ended up in Libya. He said he got kidnapped in Libya, they try to get money out of the families. Jf they want to go back to Gambia, they get killed. It was hard to follow al the details, and I didn’t want to press him, so there were things that he said that I didn’t fully understand, things that remain unclear.
I want to stay with this idea of UNCLEAR and in face I want to be okay with it. I understood that he was kidnapped, that he escaped. I understood that he was forced onto a boat to Italy, that he didn’t want to come and that the boat in front of him, everyone died except one person. He was on the second boat. I understood that he was applying for political asylum and that the other boy with whom we spoke, who works as a translator, has a different status, called “humanitarian” asylum status. I understood that after these boys turn 18, the police can decide whether or not they can stay until they are 21. And then they are either turned onto the street or, if they have received a positive approval for asylum, they may have papers. In which case they might be able to legally work. But if they have received a negative, and they age out, they are stateless persons because they have thrown away their passports. I understand that at this moment it is okay that stories do not all make sense and fit together in perfectly logical order.
There is an obsession in our humanity to find the truth of measurements, where and when, how and which. To be able to document and record, often to quantify or put into numerical data, each and ever fact. If this were consistently applied and adjudicated over all swaths of society, there might be less to say on this, but it is clear that the scrutiny of detail is a thing we choose to use “hin und her” to our liking. Many people when asked might agree that one should have a legitimate “story”, a “right to asylum”. But how scared do you have to be to return to your country? Is it a question of statistics; that if you were actually to return, there must be 100% certainty that indeed you would be killed? Or is it enough to say “reasonable fear of persecution”? What about economic need, structural violence; is this so very different than direct violence? Is it important that all the facts are correct to a 100% certainty, to no degree of doubt?
I see that the discrepancy of facts does not matter all that much to me. I see that the OPACITY of a story is not that important. Nor do I think it should, to a larger public. Almost every immigrant I know has bent their story in order to get the outcome that they want. Whether it is a forged temporary health insurance, or a forged letter promising some “work as an artist” or a letter fabricated from parents saying that they would be able to financially sustain them, or a temporary bank transfer putting lots of money in her account so that it looks as though she has savings—these are all perfectly natural tactics of the first world’s brand of migrants. But to be orphaned and kidnapped, beaten and neglected, survived a boat ride with 150 people aboard a tiny dingy, the Italian and European governments must scrutinize the relative “danger” of this person in fact staying in their country of origin. In so far as the truth of this migration be “adventure” “fear” “searching” “persecution” or a mix of all of it, it does not concern me. I too came to Germany looking for adventure, for sexual freedom, for new identity. It is an adventure worth having as people.
What have we as nation states to lose?
To let down a loss of borders is like deciding to let go of ego itself. This is not different from how polyamory, multiple homes, multiple familial constellations and nonmonogamous sexual relations are so difficult. And this is why I see that we can work on our borders both personally and globally.
The idea that Africans coming to Italy is not different from Italians coming to the United States, or Australians coming to Europe or Brits coming to India, the idea that this is more similar than different symbolizes a loss of ego, the scary and subversive idea that we are a unified humanity with similar wishes and goals. That we have commonality in our differences.
To speak of cocks and cunts as more similar than different is loss of personal identity and ego, not so very different than saying that culturally Mexico and the United States are more similar than different. To let down the national borders, ethnic borders, is the same challenge to our ego and to our fundamental identities.
This is not different from refusing to OTHER—each other—even other the difference, the foreign we see inside our selves. The foreign body we find ourselves in fact occupying. This body I have with breasts and cunt. It is not so very different from any other. And yet I occupy this one. I could manipulate it, but still it would be then THAT body. Not so very different from any other.
Here is my question now for myself and others: seeing ourselves as more similar to the persons we see ourselves as most different from, rather than more different.