August 23, 2018

Twenty-seven migrant children were finally allowed to disembark from the Italian coastguard ship Diciotti yesterday, after being refused permission to leave for almost a week by Interior Minister of Italy Matteo Salvini. A Terre des Hommes employee at the scene describes what she experienced watching them leave the ship.

In the last four years of my life, I have spent just under 1,000 days in reception centres for foreign children. I love my job because it allows me to share experiences with others, to build relationships, to create a caring space for children and other migrants and to discover things about myself and the people I work with.

But yesterday at 6pm, my job did not fill me with joy. I saw the video announcing the disembarkation of the 27 migrant children previously trapped aboard the Diciotti by Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, alerted my colleagues and put on my Terre des Hommes white t-shirt.

I was saddened by what I saw. We welcomed 27 young bags of bones off the ship – the skinniest being a little shorter than me and weighing about 30kg. The diameter of his legs were the same as my wrists.

Twenty-seven young bags of bones – one hidden behind a pair of big ears. Twenty-seven young bags of bones – one who could not walk because he was in excruciating pain. Twenty-seven young bags of bones – three of them with filthy bandages on their wrists and feet and one with bullet wounds on his arm. Twenty-seven young bags of bones – including two beautiful girls.

As I watched them seated on the ground and surrounded by barricades like animals, I felt like a rich, white European woman going to a human zoo on a Sunday afternoon.

My work is based on communication. We had great difficulty with the language differences trying to talk to these children because the translator could not be present. All the children were Eritrean besides one Somali girl. We could only use our eyes to communicate with them, trying to ask each other “How are you? How are you feeling?”. They would respond with their eyes – “Who are you? Why are you looking at me? What are you trying to tell me?”.

While we exchanged these looks I thought to myself – despite them being extremely underweight, having scabies, big ears, hair ruffled with salt, dirty bandages, a wounded arm – I thought they were beautiful. I kept repeating to myself, “you are all so beautiful”, and I could only imagine how ridiculous my vacant stare was, compared to their resilience and ability to still have trust in others.

And in those moments, I wondered why so many people are angry about migration and what they are afraid of. Are they afraid of two eyes that smile at you? Of two huge flapping ears? Of four ruffled curls? Perhaps, those who are angry and afraid lost the ability to trust one another. Perhaps they were never able to trust to begin with.

The migrant children were transferred during the night. While I was on the streets going home, the boy with big ears recognised me from the bus and waved at me smiling. I waved back at him.

I think their smiling eyes, the way they greeted us, the way the boy recognised me, are a positive story about not being afraid. It’s a beautiful story, a story of endless possibilities for these children. A story made of moments where what will happen has not happened yet, and you are ready to open yourself up to uncertainty.

In these moments where anything can still happen if you leave the right space for it. The days where you are not caught up in fear and are open to new possibilities. These are my moments of happiness in my work.

The author of this blog is an employee of Terre des Hommes working with migrant children in Italy. They wish to remain anonymous.

Picture: The Diciotti Italian coastguard ship. ©Gaetano56/Wikimedia