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What the Real Life Heroes of Lampedusa Want You to Know


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In the heart of the Mediterranean, floating on Europe’s most eventful waters, is a tiny island called Lampedusa, Italy. Although a local legend suggests the island suddenly emerged when a lightning strike hit the surface of the sea, electricity, as we know it, was not introduced on Lampedusa until the 1950s.

To this day, the island is home to old-fashioned fishing communities and pristine beaches. Wooden boats painted in faded pastels and smooth rocks sprinkled with grainy sea salt line the harbour. It might seem frozen in time, if only its residents were not caught in the midst of one of the most current international news stories.

Refugee boats, abandoned on Lampedusa 

Around a hundred miles away from mainland Italy, Lampedusa found itself under the spotlight after playing a central role in the migration crisis as a refugee hotspot. In recent years, thousands of migrants and refugees have landed on its shores – or have tragically failed to get there – on their perilous escape route to Europe.

The situation on the island has only recently changed for the better. However, despite its residents' efforts, Lampedusa is yet to shed its image as "Italy's island of migrants"

“Ever since this started, nobody ever stood back. Nobody refused to give help. As far as I know, there were no tensions or altercations, just acceptance,” says Dr Pietro Bartolo, 60, Lampedusa’s only resident doctor. According to Dr Bartolo, Lampedusa’s locals proved themselves ready to take care of anyone that was brought in by the tide. 

One of the most critical moments in Lampedusa’s past is permanently ingrained in the population’s collective memory. In 2011, refugees – mainly from Tunisia – crowded into the island and outnumbered Lampedusa’s population of around six thousand. The immigrant reception centre, with a capacity of 800, was hosting almost fifteen hundred people. Lampedusa’s families opened their houses to the refugees, offering them shelter, food and blankets.

Dr Bartolo says: “Everyone contributed in their own way. A bakery would make big batches of bread for them. We let them shower in the football team’s locker room. My boat can barely fit five passengers, but there were twenty people sleeping in it.”

The doctor is the protagonist of Fire at Sea, Gianfranco Rosi’s latest documentary about Lampedusa’s involvement in the migrant crisis, which received a Golden Bear at the 66th Berlin Film Festival. Bartolo has personally witnessed every refugee landing in Lampedusa for the past 25 years.

Providing medical assistance can be hard on an island that has no hospital – only a small practice with no more than three doctors. “I must have examined more than 250,000 migrants,” says Dr Bartolo. “They get here in desperate conditions. They are fleeing wars, torture, persecution, rape. I have no idea how anyone could send them back. How can people talk about building fences or walls?”

Now that five years have passed, the situation in Lampedusa is considerably less chaotic. Consequently, residents wish the world knew that life on the island has returned to normal. “Every time I travel, people ask me how we deal with all the immigrants,” says homemaker Mariarosa Billeci. “The truth is we don’t even see them now. It’s not like they are sleeping on street corners. Sometimes they go for a walk around the town square, but they are very respectful.”

Although the influx of refugees to the island has not stopped, the situation is under control now. “People are wrong to think we’re still in the middle of a crisis,” says Antonino Taranto, founder of the cultural association Lampedusa’s Historical Archive. The Italian coastguard rescues the majority of migrants while they are still at sea and takes them directly to mainland Italy. The once overcrowded reception centre now offers shelter to a few hundred refugees who are quickly transferred to other regions.

Some of the locals, including Billeci, blame Lampedusa’s media coverage for blowing recent events out of proportion. She says: “Some journalists did not portray us in a positive light. They would constantly show footage from 2011 on the news but fail to mention that the situation was handled efficiently and, soon after, everything was all right.”

“Dozens of journalists came here to report on the arrival of refugees as if it were a spectacle,” Taranto confirms. “Lampedusa has been heavily exploited by the media.” Taranto is among those locals who are making an effort to debunk misconceptions about the island. He and his friends founded Lampedusa’s Historical Archive to provide some truthful insight into the island’s history and its repercussion on current events.

Taranto says: “There hasn’t been much research so far. There is still a lot to discover about Lampedusa’s history. Students from all over Europe come here to learn about the island’s fascinating past, which inevitably says a lot about its present as well.” For years, the cultural association has been collaborating with the island’s residents to collect photographs, documents, videos and stories. In light of the overwhelming media attention, Taranto felt that Lampedusa needed a space where locals and tourists could learn about the island away from the media’s manipulation.

Artist, musician and political activist Giacomo Sferlazzo, 36, also belongs to the group of Lampedusa citizens who decided to take the matter of misinformation into their own hands. He is a member of Askavusa (‘barefoot’ in Sicilian dialect) a politically active collective founded in 2008 in Lampedusa, with collaborators all over Europe. Their aim is to give visibility to some of the complex issues affecting the island, including immigration, public administration and the environment.

They express their views through articles, open letters to politicians, petitions, public protests and Facebook posts. Sferlazzo explains: “One of Askavusa’s goals is to expose common misrepresentations and hypocrisy surrounding immigration and militarism. We analyse our complex and concrete reality from a historical, non-dramatic perspective.”

Overall, Lampedusa is experiencing a transition, a collective reassessment of its role. The coverage of the 2011 emergency dealt a blow to Lampedusa’s economy, causing tourism to drop 40%, according to the province of Agrigento. However, since 2014, tourists have slowly started to populate the island again.

Although, after consistent efforts, Lampedusa’s citizens are managing to establish their image outside of immigration, they do not wish to erase their island’s past. Many locals are still regularly involved in the reception and assistance of refugees. In 2016, the Italian Red Cross opened a local committee in Lampedusa to guarantee a more stable presence on the island.

Angelo Vita, president of the Agrigento Red Cross committee, is one of about a hundred volunteers who collaborate with the coastguard whenever a refugee landing occurs on the island. He says: “Being able to help these people make it safely to the shore is an absolutely wonderful feeling. Once they step onto the ground, they give you the most grateful smile you will ever receive.” 

Some families on the island even chose to make a permanent commitment by welcoming refugee orphans into their homes. The spokesperson for Ai.Bi, Italy’s main non-profit foster care organisation, says: “We have a network of families on Lampedusa ready to temporarily look after the children when they arrive. Some of the families even managed to adopt them later on.”

According to Taranto, historically, the island served as bridge between Africa and Europe, between Muslims and Christians. A place where people who would have fought a few miles away used to coexist in peace. He says: “To stay true to our roots, we should continue to find a balance between rescuing migrants and attracting tourists.”

As Taranto explains, solidarity is part of Lampedusa’s identity. He says: “Lampedusa’s locals are people of the sea. They will always give help to those who need it. However, we should avoid perpetrating myths or hyperbolic representations. Our locals do what most people would do.”

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