Stranded in Calabria

After the European attack on Lybia, the national police rounded up black Africans on the street and sent them on derelict barges to Italy without enough food or water.

Frequently one third of those who leave North Africa do not make it to Europe. Regular ships who see the refugees often steer clear for fear of being criminalized as “human traffickers.” More than 18,000 deaths along Europe’s external borders since 1988 are documented. For people from Central Africa, the Mediterranean is just the second deadly border, after the Sahara.

Omar started working in his eigth year, herding cattle, keeping bees. Although he never went to school, he speaks French and Italian in addition to Mali’s official language Bambara. He fled Mali in 2009, at 14, after igniting a gasoline tank with a cigarette. The fire killed the son of the village mayor, who threatened to murder him.

In Lybia Omar worked as a gardener for a private household until the police arrested him in August 2011 and sent him off on an unseaworthy boat.
A third of the 300 people on the boat died on the way to Lampedusa. Survivors threw the dead into the sea.

Within two weeks, Omar and 14 other boys from Mali were sent to Benestare, a village about 50 kilometers from the provincial capital Reggio Calabria. They lived in a house owned by the municipal authority and were promised work and schooling “if things worked out.”

Most of the 3000 villagers are poor and/or old. There are derelict houses and abandoned construction sites everywhere. A gas pipeline from Lybia was never finished due to the “humanitarian” NATO intervention. Only ruins remain of a small cement plant and other commercial buildings. There are two bars, one grocery shop, an elementary school, a barber, flower shop and three churches.

Most native youngsters do not want to work in the fields and leave once they’re old enough. Although the countryside is rich, agricultural activity in the fenced lots is limited to hobby gardening. There are half a dozen herds of livestock and some shabby pig sties and chicken coops. Except for many half-cultivated olive tree groves, there is no crop farming. Land by itself has no value. It is labor that turns deserts into fields.

A Sikh in a turban watches the cows, an East-European man herds the sheep. Four or five Indian men and a Ukrainian live in the house next to the Malinese boys. They work when they are needed. Sometimes the employers pay in cash, sometimes in kind, sometimes “later.”

The Italian Ministry of Labor tried to counteract rural flight and immigration by settling Omar and 14 other minors from Mali in this withered village. This keeps the young boys from the cities, where they would soon end on the street. The villagers have cheap farm hands in walking distance and government-funded jobs as “supervisors.” At one point, Omar tells me, there were 12 supervisors for 15 refugees.

After less than two years, ten of fifteen boys have left Calabria for France, Spain, Belgium. Omar took a train to Milan in early 2013. Here he heard about a refugee strike in Berlin. Refugees in Italy receive a residence permit fairly easily but no welfare. Those who agree to leave Italy receive 500 euro as travelling allowance. Their Italian papers give them freedom of movement within the Schengen area.

With the government allowance, Omar bought a train ticket to Berlin. He stayed at the Refugee Strike House, former school occupied by local activists during a long-term refugee protest, but the building was overcrowded and unofficial work hard to find.

After three months, Omar had hardly enough money for food. Any extra money he sent to his parents in Mali through a money transfer service. His attempts to find a job were useless without the right papers and qualifications, a reflection of the general condition of so-called “unskilled” workers, who lack the permission not the will or the ability.

Omar had three options: Go back to Italy and work for room and board, stay in Germany without money or housing, or apply for asylum in Germany and endure a lengthy procedure that usually ends in internment and/or deportation.

When one of his Italian acquaintances from Benestare offered him a bricklaying job with a six-month contract and agreed to pay the flight, Omar returned. But after two weeks of keeping the house for his friends between occasional gigs, he remembered why he left.

“It’s been like this from the start. They always tell us how much they love us, but when it comes to finding us a job with a contract, it’s always ‘later.'”

Later he adds: “When I walk the road to town, drivers wave and say hi, but no one ever gives us a ride.”

Omar also tells about a friend working in a nearby village who was seriously ill. Because it wasn’t clear who would pay for his surgery, much time was wasted and he was almost dead by the time he arrived in hospital.

When Omar left for Germany, the supervisors took him out of the project. The project offers a temporary subsidy to employers who hire refugees. The refugees receive EUR 370 per month for a twenty hour workweek. The monthly project subsidy is higher, but the employers pocket the rest.

The boys pay about EUR 50 a month for rent and utilities. Their house is owned by the municipality and features a large kitchen on the ground floor and two three-room apartments. The boys have the house for themselves. Villagers donate most of the staple foods. Whatever money remains, they wire home.

The project is intended only as temporary relief. When the Ministry of Labor stops funding it, the boys depend on odd jobs like cleaning cafe chairs or carrying furniture. More importantly, their work does not count as an official occupation. Their Italian residence permits read “Unemployed.”

Life in the village is not as repressive as in a German internment camp. Paternalistic supervisors are not as bad as private security guards and nosy neighbors are not as bad as isolation and “Residenzpflicht” (travel restriction).

The local police know the boys and leave them alone; German cops love to harass immigrants with random ID checks, and the Residenzpflicht law gives them a legal basis to impose heavy fines just for travel without a permit. The Italian patrol cops I meet during my trip are less eager to harass and humiliate than their German colleagues; either they shun the paperwork, or my Geman nationality makes them back off.

One day I go with the boys to visit an old lady. Her husband is sick and they want to show their respect. When Omar parted north, the entire village gathered to say goodbye. Neighbors stop by every day to bring food or just to chat. The boys are a part of the community, but they have their place.

There seems to be less baldhead Nazism among the natives of Southern Italy than among those of Eastern Germany. On one of Benestare’s most wealthy houses, plaques propagate fraternity of nations and denounce fascim. The government pays Italians to “be nice” to immigrants and fresh laborers are needed, as veterans desert South Italy’s plantation economy.

While in East Germany, social envy and status insecurity feed a collectivist pogrom mentality among the Germans, the racism in Calabria is fueled by the landlords’ unveiled drive to keep workers cheap and dependent. Germany has a tradition of ethnic isolationism and national socialism, whereas Calabria is feudal-religious, somewhat anti-authoritarian and, like most Mediterranean regions, has received immigrants for milennia, sometimes as invaders, sometimes as slaves.

Three years ago, the nearby town of Rosarno saw a riots between migrant laborers, many of them homeless, locals and the police. Migrants had been exploited for years at day wages of about EUR 15 and locals had attacked them with firearms.

The “immigrant rampage” started after a resident fired shots from his balcony at a peaceful demonstration by 2,000 migrants and police “intervened.” After witnessing one such “intervention” by German riot cops on the night before my trip to Italy, I am not surprised the demo escalated. The police had come to protect us and ended up beating and arresting us.

The Western reports I read, in their usually “black-painting,” denounced the desperate struggle of the exploited against their legal exploiters as “race riots” and isolated the exploiters as members of the local mafia, never mentioning the system that bound laborers, “producers” and consumers, caused crime, poverty and racism. Such propaganda repaints class struggles as a traditional conflict between inherently different groups of people, while the only inheritable differences between people are the privileges that arise from controlling private property.

Dumbo Capitalism dominates Southern Italy. Many houses are abandoned; iron bars and heavy doors secure the ones still inhabited. EU-funded projects stand half-finished. Fences around the aridest sandlots deter scavengers. Unlike Germany, it isn’t “beneath” people to rummage garbage piles on the street, although it is beyond the government’s capacity to remove the piles. After roaming the streets from Naples, Calabria and Rome for a week, I can guarantee nothing of value will survive even one hour in a public space.

Homeless immigrants sleeping at Rome central station.

Homeless immigrants sleeping at Rome central station.

In Bovalino, the town nearest Benestare, many small shops in town are run by Chinese or Indians. Some Arab men sell cheap household items at an open-air stall near the train station. Brick shanties inhabited by Rroma immigrants stand a stone’s throw from the town’s wealthiest houses. That stones don’t fly proves there’s violence at work.

Contrary to popular prejudice, migration does not end when foot touches ground. Keeping your feet on the ground is a legal battle that lasts years and isolates individuals in their struggles. Even serious lawyers advise matrimony as the only immigration route that really works.

But at hardly twenty years, the boys may draw attention from the few local girls their age, but no tangible support.  “They’re just like Arabs,” says one about the native Italians, “the adult children still live with their parents and they won’t let them marry Africans.” The boys often joke about wanting to marry  German women; I used to make similar jokes, but for me marriage was never an existential necessity.

As wage laborers from an early age, none of the boys went to school long, neither in Mali, nor in Italy. Our bureaucratized labor market values the “work” of qualified, i.e., licensed, workers – even the incompetent ones – more highly than labor skilled by experience.

Not just does Omar know how to survive deserts and seas, he also knows how to grow crops, herd cattle, keep bees. He has the ability, the village has the work, but the little money he could make would not allow him to even maintain his own household. The locals prefer to keep him a day laborer; in almost two years, he hasn’t had the opportunity to go to school or learn a licensed profession.

One of his friends says: “If I wanted to stay a farmhand, I could have stayed in Mali.” They will move north, sooner or later. They will be bullied, chased, exploited. Some may “make it,” some will not. After four days, I buy a ticket and go back to where I make my money.

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