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 LampedusaAround 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.”
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