Testimony of a summer in Milan spent with refugees that reach the city every day.
In these long and extremely hot summer months of 2015, Barbara and I remained in Milan. Like so many Italians these days, we didn’t have money to go away, let alone think about holidays, so we looked for work and tried to get paid for the work we did. Unfortunately, in Italy, it’s already common practice for people to get you to do some work and then not pay you for it.
The city, in contrast to other years, is never empty. And even in the midst of the torrid months of July and August, the streets and squares are full of people. Not the people that would be expected by the Trade Associations or the largest hotel chains: tourists and visitors to the Milan EXPO! No, they’re empty!
The many, many new faces are those of men, women, young people and children arriving at the Central Station, coming from Eritrea, Syria, Iraq and Somalia, destroyed by exhaustion.
Refugees. Those who came by foot, by sea, hidden in trains or in lorries, confronting violence and thefts by human traffickers or the border police. Escapees avoiding death from ISIS, war, hunger.
Refugees. To start with dozens, then hundreds, and now thousands of people who don’t know where to go, where to escape to or even, when they reach a European city, beyond the welcome of the “centres”, they don’t know where they can eat or sleep; many don’t know where to meet. They only know that they want to leave, that they want to continue their long journey towards hope and freedom, towards a land of solidarity and welcome that in this reality, in this Europe, doesn’t exist and perhaps never existed. Hungary with its walls, its border police and its “concentration camps”, is only the most tragic and crazy page of a region as rich as it is stupid and deaf. (Note: Many years ago Humanists were saying: this is not a passing wave of migration, it’s an exodus of millennial dimensions. It was back in 1999 that we fought our battle against the detention centres and the Bossi/Fini law…)
Now, beyond this Europe, independently of States, of administrations, of institutions, of the same pressure of the racist media that spews insults every day towards those in need and those who help them, to find these people abandoned even by destiny, to see their lost looks, made us immediately pose two questions: What to do? How to break the fence that is stronger that any wall created by violence, indifference, impotence?
The idea came to us that the Universal Human Nation is being born and is established in every one of us in the very moment when one doesn’t turn one’s head and decides to put one’s body and energy into helping others, independently of their origin, religion, culture, gender or age.
It is born in the moment when two people, until now “strangers”, decide to break the pre-established scheme, recognising themselves as brothers and sisters, embracing one another and applying the principle of “treating others as you would like to be treated.”
So we start by applying the golden rule.
What do you need? Firstly, shoes! Yes, many walked dozens of kilometres bare foot, with injured feet. That’s why on Friday 11th of September we did the “Bare foot march”, that happened in so many cities of Italy and Europe.
Then water to wash and drink, then a shirt and a pair of trousers or a skirt to change into. A bit of fruit and bread…
We organised ourselves with our old Fiat Doblo van (which has more than 300,000 km of solidarity on the clock), we called some old friends who, like us, remained in the city and we did the first collection, then others.
The important things was: to collect and distribute immediately. To make a flow. The opposite of accumulation.
And from this point on, fantasy and simplicity unfolded: Barbara went to visit two baker friends: “Come by later this afternoon. I can give you the bread we don’t sell.” That evening we had 20kg of bread and 10kg of pizza and focaccia. (How much gets thrown away and discarded in a city like Milan!?!)
After that… we would need to call home, to tell our loved ones that we’re alive. A woman of a certain age, dressed with dignity but clearly not rich, approached us: I can’t do what you people are doing, I don’t have everything I need, but every week I can give 10-20-30 euros to buy a phone card. Would it help?
What else could you need? We want to leave here and go to Germany, In Norway part of our family is waiting for us, but we don’t have the €110 for the ticket… And among all the volunteers we made a collection with a mini-target within a micro-project: adopt a seat on a train for a refugee.
We’ve already saved 10! Impeccably dressed, with our t-shirts and trousers, maybe a bit big for them, they boarded the train. And they’ve already sent us an SMS: I’m safe! Thank you! One from Frankfurt, another from Oslo…
We aren’t many, the time is pressing, and winter is coming. Now we are gathering woollen sweaters, windcheaters, winter boots and shoes. There, in the north, the cold is colder. And we don’t want that what the sea couldn’t do, what the traffickers couldn’t do, what the Hungarian government couldn’t, now comes to pass in the European winter, with its icy winds and silent snow.
We are putting together a volunteer network capable of giving clear references and not creating new prisoners or new dependencies. We have seen, in fact, forms of speculation by Italians and even their fellow countrymen who, with the pretext of helping them, or simply because they speak the same language, try to take advantage of them and steal their train tickets or the few coins gathered from the collections.
From below is also emerging the need to know what is happening within the “centres” (very often detention centres more than reception centres…). News arrives of absurd things: food that is allowed to go off, damage in the distribution of food, clothes and accessories that are accumulated and not distributed, promiscuity and hygiene on the limits of what is tolerable, young men with untreated injuries, attempts to escape repressed with violence.
We start to share lunches, dinners, we discover their ways of how to wait in the queue, with patience while they tell us their stories, what they study, what work they do, their talents.
In one corner someone starts to play an instrument, a survivor of the journey or given as a present by someone else and we discover that dancing and singing brings joy and laughter.
And now what do they need? A ball. And Barbara goes to a sports shop and comes back with an inflated leather ball. And something starts that has always united the people. The World Cup: Italy vs Syria, Eritrea vs Iraq.
And now what do they need? We can help! Give me the chance to help you. I can be a mechanic. I’m a carpenter. I can go shopping for an old man. And so it happens that a young Syrian, a law student from Damascus and now fleeing towards Germany, manages to help in a house move that allows him to earn €30. With this money he decides to go shopping for the person who gave him the clothes and the phone card.
Reciprocity! This is called reciprocity between human beings.
We have discovered that the many or few volunteers “need help”, not material objects or things, but rather psychological/existential support to overcome the continual vertigo of impotence generated by the abyss between what must be done and what can really be achieved.
The point is therefore to avoid continually looking at the devastated human landscape, but rather to grasp once more the meaning of saving, even if it’s just one person. Yes, as it says in the Koran or Talmud: whoever saves a single person, saves the whole of humanity.
This has been our activity in this summer in Milan and we think that as much as our strength allows, it will continue to be our main activity as “humanists in the world”: one hour a day or even less, multiplied by all of us who went to the demonstration last Friday. We could offer a power of unequalled strength and an absolutely irreverent respect for laws, decrees and police rules.