Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Meet my friend Saho. Saho is one of the JNRC guests that works with our Artisans group on Wednesdays and Thursdays. He is a multitalented artist who makes a majority of the peace flags that the Artisans group sells. Since I've met him, I don't think that I can remember a time where he hasn't had a smile on his face or a positive attitude. All around good guy. He's been working with the Artisans group since it started last spring.

JNRC Peace Flags

Saho is from Mali and he is here in Italy seeking protection from the war happening there. I don't know the full story of how Saho came to be in Italy, but it is pretty incredible from what I have heard of it. He originally left Mali and fled to Libya, just in time for the turmoil happening there. When Libya became too dangerous, Saho paid a smuggler to take him by boat to Italy. That boat unfortunately didn't make it to Italy. It broke down in the middle of the ocean for several days. The waters between Northern Africa and Europe are pretty well patrolled by various European coast guards, which means that Saho's boat was well within sight of people that could have come to rescue them at any point, but chose not too because of politics and bureaucracy. I don't know the exact number of days Saho and his boat-mates spent adrift at sea, but it was far too long.

Eventually Saho's boat was rescued by the Maltese Coast Guard. You might remember the story from a few months back about a boat of immigrants that was adrift for several days before it caught fire and sank less than a 1/4 mile off the coast of one of Sicilian islands. 150 people died and 250 more are presumed dead. So the fact that Saho's boat was rescued and did not suffer the same fate as the other boat is a huge blessing because it could have easily gone the other way. When a boat is picked up by the Maltese government, the people on that boat are then sent immediately to a mandatory 18 month detention. After detention it isn't clear what will happen to immigrants. Some are deported, some seek asylum, some move on to other countries. I know very little about the detention center in Malta, but from what I can tell it is a hell hole. The next part of Saho's story isn't clear to me, but he somehow escaped detention and fled to Italy.

Italy is sort of a safe haven for refugees because it has a very lax border. Almost anyone can come in, but once they are here there are few options for them. They aren't allowed to legally work, or even legally live here, until they gain actual refugee status from the Italian Government, which involves a long process called commission where they give refugees a "permesso di soggiorno" or Permission of Stay. Saho has been preparing for his commission hearing since he got here and he finally had his commission hearing a few weeks back. Saho was given a permesso di soggiorno of one year, which is the standard amount given to most Malian refugees. Commission hearings take into account many things, like a refugees family ties back in their home country, the state of that country, and the amount of danger involved in a refugee returning to that country. By the Italian Government's standards, the situation in Mali is improving, so they give Malians one year to stay in hopes that they can return afterwords.

The problem with this system is that it generalizes the whole conflict in Mali, and it generalizes every single Malian refugee that is in Italy. To me, it seems like it turns refugees into statistics and forgets the fact that they are human beings. For many, to return to Mali within the year would simply be impossible, which is Saho's case. I went with Saho yesterday to a meeting with a lawyer so that he can begin to appeal his commission decision. It's a long process that will involve somehow proving that Saho would likely be killed if he were to return to Mali. It seems a bit strange to me that refugees are asked to prove that they might be killed so that they can gain some kind of life. Prove your imminent death to live. That seems backwards to me in more ways than one.

I'd love to tell you that Saho's case is unique. I'd love to say that there aren't hundreds, if not thousands, more stories very similar to his. I'd love to tell you all those things, but I can't. There are parts of me that are very grateful to the Italian Government for even allowing people to come into Italy and seek protection, because even that is much more than many countries are willing to do. But there are other parts of me that are completely disillusioned with the system as well. There isn't a single part of the system that is easy for a refugee to navigate. You basically need a law degree to understand the complete in's and out's of the process.

There is a severe lack of humanity in the whole process, which is really what these refugees need when they've come from such terrible trials and tribulations. There is no humanity in letting people sit at sea because of the simple fact that they are refugees. There is no humanity in throwing people into detention simply because they are fleeing persecution by the only means they know how. There is no humanity in turning refugees into statistics in a report. This lack of humanity is why when Saho comes in on Wednesday with his giant, genuine smile, I'll smile back and chat with him as the friend that he is. This lack of humanity is why when a guest comes into the center, the staff and volunteers will smile and try to treat them with the dignity that the world forgot they deserved.

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