MENTON BECKONS MOHAMMED
“Don’t touch me! Apologize!” Mohammed said, recoiling from the Italian police officer.
The two men were standing on the train platform in Ventimiglia, a sleepy town on the Italian Riviera’s sun-kissed coast, now, also a frontier bottleneck overwhelmed by hundreds of African asylum seekers desperate to reach the Northern European promised land.
The officer shot back in tentative English. “Apologize to you? No. I don’t have to apologize for nothing. You can’t go to France. C’mon, get outta here! You can’t stay here.”
Mohammed resisted the officer’s orders, reaching for his temporary residence card and waiving it in the officer’s face.
“I don’t care what papers you have, you must go now! Go!” he said, grabbing Mohammed’s arm and pushing him toward the station exit. “You don’t belong here. We don’t want you here. Go back to Africa.”
“Don’t push me!” Mohammed said as he jerked his arm away from the officer’s clutches and moved towards the exit. “I’m not going back to Africa!” he yelled, trying to hold back tears.
This was Mohammed’s fourth attempt to enter France, which was only a thirteen-minute train ride away. The first time he had tried, weeks earlier, he boarded the train bound for Menton and took a seat. But at Menton-Garavan, the initial stop on the route, French police, who routinely entered and searched the trains there, escorted him off and put him onto the first train back to Ventimiglia. The second time, later that same week, he locked himself in the train bathroom. But the police knocked on the door incessantly and announced that the train would not leave the station until he emerged. The third time, nearly a week after that, he hid under a row of passenger seats. But the French woman sitting across from him who was returning to Menton with her packages of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and tri-colored pasta, after a day’s grocery shopping at Ventimiglia’s popular open-air market, pointed him out to the officers. The Bastille Day terror attack on the neighboring French town of Nice resulted in heightened security measures. Entry into France seemed hopeless now.
Once outside the Italian station, Mohammed walked in the direction of the reception center set up by the Red Cross that housed, clothed and fed the African migrants awaiting decisions on their asylum applications. “Wait, I should see what Mustafa is doing,” he thought.
Unlike Mohammed, who was staying at the reception center, his compatriot lived at a makeshift encampment beneath the pedestrian bridge which crosses the town’s Roya River. There, a vast multi-colored patchwork of bedraggled blankets shielded tired, hungry and desperate Africans from the river’s encroaching dampness. Sheltered together, the migrants plotted their passage into France and beyond and shared the little food they had.
Together, Mohammed and Mustafa survived marauder attacks in their native South Sudan. Together, they fled their homes, found refuge in a swelled-beyond-capacity displaced persons’ camp, trekked to the grand Sahara and crossed the vast desert hidden inside the tank of an oil truck, evaded arrest and imprisonment in Libya and navigated the Mediterranean Sea. At sea, they were rescued by the Italian coast guard and brought to the island of Lampedusa where they applied for asylum and were held in a detention center. Mohammed would have stayed on in Lampedusa had it not been for Mustafa’s insistence that they head north.
“Mustafa!” Mohammed called out when he saw his compatriot among the huddled migrants. “A policeman just forced me to leave the train station. It looks like we’re stuck here in Italy.” The younger and feistier Mustafa had a different notion. “What? No, we’re not. Menton may be blocked, but not Breil-sur-Roya.” He told Mohammed that he had heard from Eritreans at the camp that trains left for that French town two or three times a day. “If we…”
But Mohammed cut off his young friend when he spotted stale candy wrappers and an empty water bottle in his lap. He asked his friend when he last had a meal.
“Yesterday, I guess. Yesterday morning? I’m not sure.”
“Then let’s go to the canteen. They should be serving lunch now,” Mohammed suggested.
“No, you go ahead.”
“Come on Mustafa!”
“No! I don’t trust those Italians.”
Realizing he wasn’t going to convince him, Mohammed finally gave up. “Okay, do what you want. I’m hungry and I’m going. I’ll try to bring back some food for you if I can.”
“As-salamu alaykum – Peace be upon you,” Mustafa said.
“Wa‘alaykumu as-salam – And upon you, peace. We can talk about Breil-sur Roya when I come back.”
When Mohammed entered the canteen he was greeted by Maria, the Red Cross volunteer who had befriended him when he first registered at the center. He liked her best of all. She was young, seemed smart, but mostly, she was the only one there who spoke English well.
“Ciao Mohammed, how are you? You are just in time for lunch!”
Still upset from the earlier incident with the police officer, all he could muster was a dispirited monosyllabic “Ciao.”
“The food is not so bad here in Ventimiglia, is it?” she said, ignoring his gloomy tone. “If nothing else, we Italians are good cooks, no?” she joked with a smile. But his sullen expression remained fixed. “Why don’t you sit here with me while you eat,” she said, sliding the bread basket towards him, determined to get him out of his funk.
As soon as he sat down, his frustration spilled out. “I’m not very welcome in this city, am I?”
“Who is?” she said, with a wink still trying to keep things light. Maria, had come up north to escape her poverty-stricken, mafia-infested town in Italy’s southern province of Calabria, to study law at the University of Genoa. Covered in tatoos and piercings, she didn’t exactly fit in with the town’s predominantly conservative social environment either.
Maria again tried to engage Mohammed in small talk, but his dark mood persisted as he sat silently. She finally asked him what was wrong.
“I need to work…I need to feel productive,” he replied.
“Why don’t you speak to Ettore,” she suggested. “He hires Africans to work on farmland he owns here in Ventimiglia. He grows all kinds of organic vegetables. I can introduce you to him,” she offered. “See those tasty tomatoes,” she said, pointing to his plate, “they come from his gardens.”
“What are you talking about, Maria? I’m not a farmer!” he retorted, irritated by her flippancy. She knew that in his country he worked as a civil engineer in a prestigious firm. How could she think he would be amenable to manual labor.
“I’m sorry. I just thought that in the meanwhile…” she tried to explain.
“Maria, I know you mean well, but that’s not for me, okay?”
“I’m sure you will eventually find the job you want,” she said, trying to make amends. “I understand this is a difficult time for you,”
“Do you? I’m not sure you do,” he complained.
Trying to convince him that she did, she told him she believed that the European Union and the United Nations could have done more to help stop the ethnic violence in his country and probably could do more even today. But Mohammed wasn’t interested in her political views or what should have been. He was a realist worried about the here and now.
“Maria, there aren’t enough professional jobs in Italy even for Italians, let alone for asylum seekers like me who have black skin and barely speak Italian,” he said.
Maria did not answer.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” he lamented.
“And go where, to France?” she ventured.
“For starters,” he said.
“That can be dangerous,” she warned.
The local newspapers regularly reported on the migrants’ disastrous attempts to enter France. Five died in the last three months either walking along the highway or railway bridge that connect Italy to France. Another African died when he fell into the sea from one of the mountain footpaths. And just that morning, the police found three bodies trapped in the underground sewer system which leads to Menton.
“At least give it a try here,” she proposed.
Mohammed thought it best not to repeat what he learned about safe passage to Breil-sur-Roya.
“Anyway, what work do you think you will find in France?” she continued. “The French government is doing everything to keep you out. Doesn’t that tell you something?”
“I’ll go to England if I have to,” he rejoined.
But Maria persisted. “You may not want to hear this, but it is almost impossible to cross into France illegally now. The French filed a letter of protest with the Italian government and petitioned the European Union to change its open borders regulations,” she said. “True, some Africans made it across. A French guy was meeting them at the train station in Breil-sur-Roya. He fed them and then took them to Nice. But he was arrested and now the French patrol that station too.”
“When did this happen?” he wanted to know.
“Just a day or so ago, I think.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, with heightened anxiety.
“Of course I’m sure!” Now it was her turn to be annoyed.
“What happens to the Africans who get picked up?” he persisted.
“They bring them back to Ventimiglia. But I heard they transferred some of them down south to Taranto,” she continued. “And believe me, you don’t want to wind up in that city. No one does,” she said rolling her eyes.
“Ugh!” he grimaced.
“I think I heard enough. Can we please not talk about this anymore,” he said as his fork twirled the linguini and pesto in the dish she had placed in front of him.
All he could do was think about warning Mustafa. They sat in silence while he quickly finished his meal.
“Maria, can you give me some food to take away. A friend is camped out by the river and hasn’t eaten in days.” “You have a friend there?” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Sure. Here. Take this,” she said, as she stuffed a bag with bread and cheese. “Just don’t say I gave it to you if anyone asks.”
“He thinks he’ll be sent back home if he comes here,” Mohammed explained.
“They all think that over there. But they’re wrong. Returning refugees to a country where they can be persecuted is illegal under European Union law,” she said, trying to impress upon him that she knew something about the right of asylum. “If he’s afraid to come here, tell him he can go to one of the church-run shelters in the city.”
“Okay.” He thanked her for the food and pushed himself away from the table.
“Ciao Mohammed. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
He exited the canteen feeling full. In front of him was the spectacular view of medieval Ventimiglia perched high above the Roya River and the massive Ligurian Alps directly behind it. The nourishing meal, the breathtaking vista and the warm Mediterranean sun on his face soothed his despair. In that instant, he almost remembered what it was like to feel comfort and he contemplated whether to stay in Italy after all. Perhaps Maria’s warnings were having their effect as well.
As he neared the river, he saw a large group of Africans from the encampment standing by the bank arguing.
“What happened?” he asked when he reached them.
“We think someone fell in the river,” a few answered.
Mohammed began pushing his way into the crowd. He asked one man, Ameen, if he knew what happened.
“Mohammed, we told Mustafa not to walk too close to the river’s edge. We told him the rocks there were slimy and slippery,” Ameen said. “But he ignored us and he slid.”
Mohammed, who knew how impetuous Mustafa could be, began to feel uneasy. “Did he fall?” he asked.
“His sneaker came off and it was swept away by the river,” Ameen continued. “We told him to forget about his shoe. But you know Mustafa. He said he was planning to go to Breil-sur-Roya later and he plunged in after it,” Ameen kept on. “The undertow was strong, Mohammed, and he couldn’t keep his balance. We saw him hit his head against the rocks and we pulled him out as fast as we could. But…but…” Ameen dropped his head into his hands and stepped aside.
Mustafa lay lifeless by the river’s edge. The sky-blue nylon gym suit he’d been wearing since they left the rescue center in Lampedusa was soaked through and torn. His remaining red Nike trainer was still firmly on his left foot. The gold star and crescent medallion his father gave him when he turned eighteen lay immobile on his breathless chest.
The sight was too much for Mohammed to bear. He fell to his knees crying “Allah vufiquna – God help us!”
Together they had cheated death in the most dangerous circumstances. Now, in the most unlikely setting, in the land of divine art, rich culture, and summer holiday vacations, desperation brought tragedy. Kneeling by his friend’s dead body, Mohammed remained rooted in that spot and slowly began to rock back and forth. And he rocked, and he rocked. When he couldn’t rock any more, he sat, motionless and silent, overcome by pain and plagued by questions he couldn’t answer.
“Why has God abandoned us? When will our suffering end? When will we ever finally find peace?”
Louise Belulovich practices law in New York City. She is the daughter of an Italian refugee, one of the so-called the “profughi Giuliani” or “esuli Istriani”, who was born in Pola, Italy, now, Pula, Croatia. Pursuant to the Paris Treaty of 1947 the family was compelled to choose whether to remain Italian, which meant leaving Pola as refugees, or to remain in Pola/Pula and become Yugoslavs. Her family joined the mass exodus from the entire region of Istria and they left for Turin. With her writing, she explores issues of cultural identity, immigration and exile.