We welcome a new guest blog by Elyse Resnick. During the Summer Elyse visited an interesting exhibition in Siracusa, Sicily, dedicated to works of art produced by refugees. The exhibition is the occasion for a thoughtful reflection about the way Italy is dealing with the refugee crisis ad, more generally, with immigration.


Being an ordinary, everyday resident in the mist of the refugee crisis taking place in Italy can leave one feeling nothing short of helpless. This disaster of epic proportion is happening in broad daylight with new, grim episodes making headline news daily: migrants unable to pay human traffickers falling prey to organ harvesters, migrants drowning at sea, migrants subjected to horrific exploitation during their journey, thousands of migrant children arriving unaccompanied, migrants heading north for a better life being detained in Milan, Como and Ventimiglia as Italy’s neighbors close their borders to them.


Migrants camped out near the train station on Como, hoping to eventually make it across the Swiss border
Migrants camped out near the train station on Como, hoping to eventually make it across the Swiss border.

Notwithstanding my own country’s schizophrenic views on immigration, I can say with certainty that once immigrants make it to America and find a way to legalize their status, we consider them American. They learn English, take a citizenship test and pledge allegiance to the American values of “liberty and justice for all.” The United States was founded on the principle of E Pluribus Unum, meaning “from many come one.” We are a nation of immigrants, a melting pot of peoples and cultures.  We may not always treat one another with dignity and respect, and there are certainly enough divisive forces at work to leave us short of a harmonious and pluralistic society, but for those who become naturalized US citizens, they are as American as anyone else.

Migrants sleeping at platform one, San Giovanni train station in Como.
Migrants sleeping at platform one, San Giovanni train station in Como.

Italy, on the other hand, does not have a tradition of immigration; they actually have a tradition of emigration. Consider the tough economic conditions of the 19th and 20th centuries which led to an exodus of Italians in search of better fortune abroad. At the same time, other European countries such as France and England were attracting new colonial subjects from territorial conquests in Asia and Africa.  Germany looked to Turkey for laborers to fuel their industrial growth and even relaxed their laws in the 1990s making non-Germans eligible for citizenship. As a result of this, the social fabric of these societies started to change.  Italy, on the other hand, continued to see itself as patchwork of diverse regions united under the vague umbrella of Italian statehood but without an “Italian” identity. The north-south divide present after Italian unification in 1861 is still alive and well today.

Fast-forward to the 21st century phenomenon of mass immigration to Italy; there was no warm-up, no preparation, no learning curve.  This country is not just receiving waves of immigrants but tidal waves of them. Any country in this situation would feel the economic and logistical strain of processing and caring for such an influx of people, but what is less talked about is the fact that Italy is also struggling with immigration from a cultural standpoint.  Italians don’t have a real frame of reference for multicultural integration. Instead of calling it integration, which means incorporating different groups as equals into a society, they call it “inclusion.” How are they supposed to integrate foreigners into their tightly-knit communities when even their own countrymen from other regions are seen as outsiders?  Migrants who stay in Italy may learn to speak Italian and eventually gain Italian citizenship, but they won’t become Italian the same way naturalized Americans become American. Migrants retain their original identity, language and values, and don’t see themselves as Italians.  They live on the periphery of cities and towns and coexist with locals but integration is not on anyone’s agenda.

The feeling of helplessness about the refugee crisis becomes downright overwhelming when you look at the situation in this light.  On a recent visit to the little island of Ortigia in Siracusa (Syracuse), Sicily, I met an incredible couple working tirelessly to promote cultural understanding and true integration.  Ramzi Harrabi and Elizabeth Atkinson are the creators and curators of the artistic exhibition “Uprooted,” which displays art made by refugees, objects that chronicle their journey, and houses a collection of work by international artists on the theme of migration.  This project was first exhibited at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and then at the Siracusa Anime Migranti festival in 2015, the year when over one million migrants arrived by sea to Europe’s shore.

Strolling through the narrow streets of Ortigia, curious locals and tourists step inside the church of Gesù e Maria to explore the exhibit. For most, it is their first “up close and personal” encounter with the refugee crisis; the haunting images in the quiet church create a powerful space for reflection on one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies of our time.  All of the exhibited artwork is for sale, with the proceeds going to help refugees in Sicily set up and manage their own businesses.

Credit: Dialoghi mediterranei.
Credit: Dialoghi mediterranei.

By displaying one of these works of art at home, in the classroom or in the office, everyday onlookers can transform themselves into advocates through the conversations that will ensue with family, friends, and coworkers. The huddled masses whiling away the hours in town squares, washing themselves in public fountains, and sleeping in train stations can start to become human again. By educating others about the plight of refugees, we spread an awareness.  Awareness is the first step towards understanding and empathy. It won’t solve the problem of refugee crisis or make the dehumanizing journey less traumatic, but it at least gives us an opportunity to influence people’s attitudes and bring them towards a place of compassion.

If you are interested in buying a piece of artwork or make a donation to the project, please contact Ramzi at harrabir@gmail.com.

More about the exhibition here (in Italian).