Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Men's Camp

They come mostly from East and West Africa, fleeing war and/or poverty.  From the frying pan into the fire of the Sahara Desert, which they most cross to get to the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.  Many die in the crossing. 

On entering one of these countries, they may get stuck working for years, or in prison without proper paperwork.  Those who survive to this point eventually get on a boat, or something resembling a boat, and hope for Italy.  (It is easier to enter Europe through Italy than Malta.)  Many die in the crossing.

In the sea, they are picked up by the police and herded into detention centers--prison--where they must be identified and issued paperwork, given refugee status or deported.  This can take days, weeks, months or years. 

I talked to the main security guard at the Marsa Men’s Camp—how did he come to work in such a place?  What was it like for him?  How did he keep morale?

“I was career military, patrolling the waters, working at the detention center.  This is nothing.” 

“You were one of the ones fishing people out of the water?”

Yes, then we’d have to process them through the detention center—hundreds at a time.  Locked up—that’s what we were told to do—just lock them all up.  Once they had papers they could be released to the refugee centers, after a month, a year, five years…”

Refugee centers aren’t known for their amenities.  The staff works in bare, overheated rooms, although our contact, the manager, had an air conditioner. There is a tiny café, with a pool table, a tiny shop, with next to nothing in it, a mosque, a barber shop and a room for Christians to meet in.  (As in many European countries, the church here is small and well-divided.)  The mosque dominates, followed by the Education Center, equipped with a few computers and desks.  It’s clear where the priorities are.

“We can’t let them get comfortable here, or they won’t integrate.”

But integration seems almost a fantasy, with prejudice running high.  Moving on for many means the Continent or the States.  Until word comes back via text and Facebook, from those who resettle elsewhere: America is violent, Europe too expensive.  Some return to the camp.

We offer them a few minutes of diversion perhaps, inviting them to a drawing or music lesson.  Some bite, many pass.  For those who stop to chat, draw, play music or learn a few English words, we offer a listening ear, a few tips and insights for those emigrating soon to the States, and often talk of the differences between our two faiths.  Our questions become routine: "What is your name?  Where are you from?  How long have you been here?  Are you Christian or Muslim?"

They come from Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, or Nigeria, Burkino Faso.  They ask us where we are from, and what we know of their country—“War?”

“Yes,” we answer, “What is your story?”

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