Bilal, a story of modern-day heroism

Every once in a while a book can have a profound impact on the way you see the world.

For me, this has been the case with ‘Bilal. Viaggiare, lavorare, morire da clandestini’ (BUR Rizzoli, 2007) by L’Espresso journalist Fabrizio Gatti, one of the most powerful eye-openers I have read in recent years.

In it, the prizewinning undercover reporter chronicles the long and hazardous journey made by tens of thousands of African migrants each year in search of work and a better life in Europe, and what awaits them in Italy if and when they eventually arrive.

Sadly, we have become all too familiar with the images of boatloads of desperate and exhausted migrants being brought ashore in southern Italian ports.

But how much do we really know about the journey that got them there in the first place? About the perilous crossing of the Sahara in unforgiving temperatures and at the mercy of ruthless people smugglers and unscrupulous soldiers who extract payment at every roadblock, leaving their victims stranded? Or about the conditions in the migrant detention centre on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, the first – and often the only – port of call in Italy for those who make the sea crossing alive? Or about the slavery-like conditions reserved for migrant farm labourers in the tomato plantations around Foggia in the southern Puglia region?

In his book Gatti sets out to find out, and he does so by pretending to be one of them.

“Only by sharing the same spaces and the same hardship is it possible to break down the barriers of skin and enter into confidence,” Gatti explains to his Nigerian travelling companions as they await departure from Agadez in central Niger for Libya via the Dirkou oasis on the traditional slave route.

His mission involves crossing the impervious Téneré desert region in north eastern Niger by crammed lorry or pick-up truck no less than four times, secretly jumping off cliffs on Lampedusa and then posing as a migrant from Iraqi Kurdistan – the Bilal of the book’s title – when rescued in order to gain access to the local migrant detention centre and spend a week there, and getting himself hired by a caporale, or gang master, to pick tomatoes in Puglia’s lawless ‘triangle of slavery’ between Orta Nova, Stornara and Stornarella.

The result is a page-turner that is a great lesson in both journalism and humanity, as with perspicacity and skill Gatti treads the fine line between personal conviction, objective observation and profound compassion.

The book also has the important merit of blurring the ‘moral’ distinction between so-called economic migrants and refugees. Most of the migrants Gatti encounters and befriends on his journey are travelling in order to secure a better future for themselves and their families – parents, wife, children – back home. They are, in his opinion, undertaking an act of heroism and, given the huge risks they run and hardship they bear along the way, who can say he’s wrong?

The tragedy is that all too many of these modern-day heroes do not make it to journey’s end, and those that do often feel so betrayed by the reception they are given that they end up wanting to go home.

 

Becoming an Italian citizen / 6

Today has been by far the most disheartening day so far on my road to Italian citizenship.

Shortly after filing my on-line application in February I received a summons (see photo) from the interior ministry to present the original copy of my birth certificate and sworn translation for verification at the Rome prefecture between 9 am and 11.30 am this morning.

I breezed in at 9.20 am assuming it would take only a few minutes, only to leave over two and a half hours later with an appointment to return next week to present ‘missing’ documentation.

The trouble started before I had even reached the citizenship office on the first floor of the labyrinthine building on Via Ostiense.

I stepped out of the lift to find myself in a long, low-ceilinged and untidy corridor containing two lines of people, one for the citizenship office and the other for immigration.

The queues were being ‘policed’ by a badly dressed and extremely unpleasant man in his late 30s who I later discovered to be a plainclothes policeman. He was wearing trousers that were too tight and too short, sneakers and no socks (it was Fabrizio Gatti in his journalistic masterpiece Bilal who alerted me to the importance of checking for socks) and he was treating the citizenship applicants – particularly the non-European ones – with shameful disrespect.

He handed me a number and directed me to a packed, windowless room at the end of the corridor, where I sat down to wait; there was not the usual digital display unit showing the turn being called, but rather the clerks came out of the office in person to bark out the numbers above the din.

An hour and a half and about 15 numbers into the wait I learned that I would be required to present a print copy of the completed on-line application form for signing before the clerk.

There had been no mention of this in the summons, which said the only document I needed to present was my birth certificate. Looking around, however, I noticed that the walls of the waiting room were plastered with hand-written notices informing applicants of this additional requirement – a bit late for those of us who had already arrived.

I quickly learned that there is a place just down the road that does a roaring trade in last-minute print-outs for €5 a shot. However, I failed to register the directions and ended up in the nearby drama faculty of Roma Tre university, where I asked a friendly-looking student if I could have access to a computer and printer. Mercifully, he said yes. At that point I was able to log on to the interior ministry website and print out the required form…. Half an hour later I was back in the queue with still three numbers to go.

When I eventually took my seat before a standoffish young clerk another problem arose: my ID. I was carrying my British passport, which I have just had renewed and which consequently did not match the copy of the passport I submitted with my application. Signora, lei ha una fotocopia del nuovo documento? No, I didn’t. Thankfully the clerk took pity on me and made a copy himself.

He then asked to see all the supporting documentation – not just my birth certificate, but also my police certificate, €16 tax stamp and receipt of payment of the €200 application fee. This I didn’t have, since I made the payment on line and converted the receipt directly into a pdf file for upload without also printing a copy.

Moral of the story: make sure you take a copy of everything to the prefecture, over and above what you think you need to present.

This ‘oversight’ cost me an entire morning as I now have to go back to the prefecture next Tuesday to present the ‘missing’ documentation. The clerk made a point of telling me he was meeting me halfway by giving me this ‘chance’.

However, it is not so much the time wasted as the total lack of respect for applicants that so upset me; lack of respect shown by the failure to provide correct and complete information on what documentation would be required, in the full knowledge that many applicants travel from outside Rome and so that to make a return journey would be both time-consuming and costly; but also by the scornful arrogance of the prefecture staff who clearly see what applicants consider to be a right as little more than a bureaucratic concession, to be issued on a whim. It was frustrating and humiliating to be treated in that way and it was even more frustrating and angering to see other future Italian citizens from non-European countries being treated even worse simply – dare I say it – because of the colour of their skin.

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