As one of the 40 volunteers who took part in the project ‘Hosting Opportunities for Migrants in Europe’ (H.O.M.E) in Italy last March, I joined other young adults from Southern Europe to challenge my teenage understanding of migration. The project,organised by SEYF (South Europe Youth Forum) and supported by the European Commission as part of the Erasmus + programme, took volunteers from Malta, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria and Italy on a mission to promote intercultural dialogue through the creation of artistic bridges. Our efforts culminated by creating a mural on the walls of a local school, in collaboration with ‘Flab Arts’, an artistic organisation based in Lecce, Le Salento and the young migrants, hosted in the CAS Montesano centre.
According to a 2013 study, ‘Uncertainty, Threat, and the Role of the Media in Promoting the Dehumanization of Immigrants and Refugees’, carried out by a team of Canadian Social Psychologists, the media portrays a negative, one-sided view of immigrants, which contributes to an increasing intolerance of ‘otherness’. The study states that the prevalent themes in Western media are that refugees are ‘bogus’ and have made a high risk journey to take advantage of the receiving country’s tax system and economy, that ‘lax’ refugee policies allow ‘terrorists’ to obtain asylum, and that refugees are not screened at borders, thus bringing in health threatening diseases. The authors, Victoria Esses, Stelian Medianu and Andrea Lawson claim that “Crises sell news … whereas positive stories are less newsworthy, so that negative media portrayals of immigrants and refugees both reduce uncertainty and take advantage of the public’s preference for negative news content to sell stories’’.
To find out if these attitudes prevail, we divided into teams and went to the town of Specchia, South Italy, to gauge the local population’s attitude and opinion regarding migrants. Many of them didn’t know where migrants came from; who they were. In the town square, we interviewed three groups of men gathered around benches, to find that they shared in the critical view of migration often portrayed by the media.
One of the men, who had migrated to Switzerland during his twenties, commented: ‘‘I advise you to watch the news and see that migrants bring drugs to Italy’’. Interviewing locals revealed that there was clearly a certain fear in their perception of migration. However, in a nearby town, migrants appeared to be more integrated in the local community, as they spent their Sunday in Belloluogo Park amidst locals, whose views seemed to differ from those of previous interviewees’. Asked if she fears migrants, a stay-at- home mother replied, ‘‘No, they are human!’’.
The division within society could therefore be a contributing factor to the perception of migrants as a dangerous ‘other’. With the integration of migrants in society, this distinction is diminished. Our differences can be seen as a positive, rather than negative factor, which can help us move towards a society decorated by cultural diversity. I was given a glimpse of the complexity of migrants as human beings, not just as a shadow community, or a term seen on news headlines, many of which have become increasingly dehumanizing and disconnected.
In preparation for our meeting with the migrants, we engaged in empathic activities which gave us an understanding of the problems faced in their home country, during their journey, and in their receiving country. These ranged from economic difficulties, to persecution based on religious beliefs, sexual orientation or political affiliations.
We watched videos of migrants speaking about their journeys and turned their words into pictures, illustrating the feelings we imagine they have experienced along their ongoing journey. We spent hours acting out role plays; trying to imagine what choices we would make, given their situation. Each participant shed light on another aspect which contributed to their ultimate decision - to leave or to stay. Some of us reasoned that we would stay in our war-torn country without any source of income to care for a sick relative, whilst some of us said we would leave home to find work and support the children. What you would do, if your home became a threat?
Jumping into the deep end one afternoon, we sat down in a circle and wrote down three words on paper; someone you love, a safe place, and an object which you carry everywhere. With our eyes shut, we listened as the project leaders narrated the civil war which was destroying our home town- militants patrolled the streets following an uprising, jobs had been lost and resources were becoming scarce. We opened our eyes to find that one of our papers had been claimed during an air raid. I was left in tears as I listened to friends share their feelings upon realising what they lost, and learning that my safe place had been reduced to rubble and the person I love the most was now gone.
Upon meeting the migrants at the Montesano centre, the pieces of the project all fell into place. I was positively overwhelmed by the young men’s uplifting energy as they welcomed us into their home, played games and taught us a native Nigerian dance. The young refugees constantly expressed their gratitude for things which many of us, including myself, may often take for granted. They were grateful for the workers at the centre, for their safe home, their food, the old piano in the corner on which they could make music and share a part of their culture, and towards the collective effort being made to integrate them into society.
When asked about the biggest challenges he faces in Italy, a young, homosexual Nigerian, who fled his home due to fear of persecution, leaving behind his family and career in journalism, noted it was social Integration. He said, ‘‘the people of Montesano are great people. I want to show that migrants from Africa are also good people. We are not from the backside of the world.’’ After spending a morning together, the migrants and participants met with the Mayor of Montesano to sign a protocol for the inclusion of these young migrants from the centre in their society.
As the project came to a close, with the mural laid out, the artist representing ‘Flab Arts’ said: ‘‘We have decided to give a new meaning to this wall, to overcome division and create a dialogue between the wall and the people.’’ The mural, pictured, depicted a mountainous landscape under a multi-coloured sky. Like a canvas the mountains encompassed words in different languages, promoting integration, solidarity and cultural diversity. Each participant wrote a word of their own that carried personal meaning to them in relation to the project. Gathered spectators also joined with their own contribution, strengthening our project by integrating locals and getting them involved.
One of the Nigerian migrants, painted on the wall read: ‘Readers are Leaders’. His view of the project was that ‘‘It’s beautiful. I think that it’s making the world a better place, it’s a way to know more people, to know people’s feelings. I am thankful for the people who organised this event and it’s a privilege to be standing here, thanking you all for being here.’’ When I had made that spontaneous decision to book my flight and join the SEYF team, I could not have imagined the impact which it would leave on me. It sparked my creativity, it enabled me to interact with people from different countries, and to see humanity from its most beautiful aspect: diversity.