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.