2166. Two thousand one hundred and sixty-six. No, don’t panic, it is not the year of apocalypse. The number indicates the kilometres which separate our city, Brescia, from a small Greek island called Lesbos, hugged by the waves of the northeastern Aegean Sea.
What could have been a wondrous desirable destination for summer holidays was turned into a hellish magnet as a result of the harsh 2016 EU-Turkey deal which was aimed at curbing irregular migration across the European borders by, among all the measures, sending back to Turkey all new irregular migrants arrived at the Greek islands or intercepted in Turkish waters and by resettling to the EU another Syrian for every Syrian being returned to Turkey. Moreover, according to the deal, once irregular crossings between Turkey and the EU would be reduced, a Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme would be set up.
Even before the announcement, the island attracted herds of hopeful people fleeing wars and poverty and craving liberty, justice, health and ultimately peace but after the political agreements the situation got out of hand.
Treated like anonymous cattle in intensive farming, more than 20,000 men, women and children are today squeezed in the Moria refugee camp which was meant to host no more than 3,100 people. Lesbos represents the stepping stone towards Europe, the idyllic place thousands of asylum seekers yearn for to start from scratch and begin a life worthy of that name. However, the price to pay for freedom is too high and too painful. Hundreds and hundreds of tents cram in the camp and just outside of it. If you looked at Moria from the sky, you could mistake it for a maze with blue shelters and impersonal warehouses. But from the sky, you would not be able to imagine nor fathom the hell its inhabitants are going through.
Filth and stench are the daily companions of those poor human beings who are treated as anything but. Rubbish surrounds the muddy and tiny paths of the camp and hungry rats creep next to these desperate people who fiercely defend the tiny ration of their daily meal.
Since the opening of the camp, frequent small fires meant to heat food have accidentally assailed the tents causing the death of some of its inhabitants and the victims are sometimes small children unaware of the damages the flames may cause if they are grasped. In such conditions, despair has made way for aggression, sexual violence and abuse which result in high levels of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The look of many adults is blank, devoid of the hope with which they left Syria, Afghanistan and other war-stricken and poor countries in Western Asia and Africa. Even many adolescents and children have begun considering suicide and self-harm as the only solution to ending their relentless suffering. The job of Doctors Without Borders and other humanitarian organizations is precious and fundamental but they lack the capacity to cope with all the hardships which mushroom in Moria every day. Despite the atrocious conditions in which refugees are struggling to exist, other rubber boats bulging with desperate migrants have been attempting to reach the island in recent months. However, after a long and tiring journey, the welcome they receive is not at all warm. The Greek government has decided to seal the borders to Europe and since March 3rd has suspended asylum applications in response to the provocations by the Turkish authorities and their decision to open borders to refugees. These severe measures are apparently legitimizing the Greek police and the Hellenic Coast Guard’s strategies to discourage refugees from approaching the island by using any means of coercion possible. The former launch tear gas and use hydrants against those who have already reached land and the latter try to ram and punch the dinghies and even beat their passengers with sticks to make their arrival on land hard if not impossible.
Expulsions of refugees unable to claim asylum or speak to a lawyer have already begun before indifferent European countries who seem to turn a blind eye to the situation and sporadically dedicate columns to this emergency in their newspapers.
It is sad and appalling to realize that there are people, lucky to be born in civilized and war-untouched countries, who barely feel for and empathize with less fortunate human beings who seek help and support. The aloof “it’s them, not us” approach is old and frequent and allows “heart-disconnected” people to shake off responsibilities towards those who are far and in need. It is as if our commodities and comforts immunize adults from putting themselves in others’ shoes. Even for us teenagers it is difficult to imagine and therefore really comprehend what these people are going through because we have always been lucky and have taken our fortune for granted. Our teachers keep instilling in us crucial pillars such as humanity, tolerance and empathy, and keep insisting on the importance of learning from the past and from the mistakes our predecessors made. Until a few weeks ago, we listened to them and nodded, read articles together, watched the news and had class conversations and exchanged points of view with sorrow but, at the same time, with the unconscious relief that “tragedies happen to them, not us” because 2166 kilometres (and even more) prevent our luck, wealth, “high” civilization and welfare from being infected. This deceptive certainty apparently authorized some adults and even teenagers to overreact and ignore the request of help from refugees and fiercely and proudly defend their untouchable borders. It was not uncommon to hear comments in the streets, read messages full of hatred on the Internet and on social networks in particular and even at school you could hear comments of somebody who looked down on those human beings who beg for help. It was not uncommon, although not human, but “socially acceptable” for some people to boast that mindset. But nobody envisaged that our flow of welfare and luck may be interrupted. Everything was under control until something extremely tiny, invisible but with highly visible repercussions on all of us assailed our borders and turned our lives upside down in a wink, reminding us that, no matter what, we are all interconnected. These days we are nostalgically reflecting on what we used to consider not only common, everyday, and sometimes even dull routines and we regret not having relished every single moment of our lives. We blithely went to school, hugged our friends, went out for a pizza, kissed our relatives with the same instincts as breathing air until a long way off virus (again, underestimated because of the distance) began plaguing our country. This has brought Italy to its knees. We are currently living in the so-called “protected zone” from and into which it is not possible to move as the contagion is getting worse and worse. Schools are closed, we can’t see our friends nor leave our houses in the hope that the containment will slow the disease down. We listen to frantic journalists who interview exhausted doctors and nurses and we look at our parents’ tense faces and we suddenly and Hamletically realize “ay, there’s the rub” and consciously come to grips with the fact that this time it is not “them”, it is not “far away”, it is “us” and it is “here”. It is “us” who recklessly rush to supermarkets for fear of running out of food, it is “us” who are being looked at askance by other countries for being pestiferous, it is “us” who irresponsibly crowd on public transport to escape from the virus as soon as we get to know that our region, Lombardy, will be shut down in a few hours and it is “us” who ultimately fear death.
And we suddenly realize how natural, strong and ancient the instinct is in every human being to struggle to survive and hope for the better. And we suddenly realize that there are no borders, no matter how fiercely we defend them. And we suddenly realize that we human beings all feel the same feelings and all react in the same way to adversities. And we suddenly realize that our friends’, our relatives’, our neighbours’ suffering is ours too. And we come to know that we are all one family living on a fragile speck of dust in the Universe. And we realize that “tutto andrà bene” only if we help and respect each other. And all of a sudden, we understand that no matter how far we are, no matter how many kilometres divide us from them, it is always “us”, never “them”. Us.
by Silvia Mazzetti, Elisa Cedoni, Morgana Mastruzzo, Ana Shtjefni, IC Marcheno, 3B