CATANIA, SICILY—The recording encourages tour bus passengers to look at the fountain next to the Stazione di Catania Centrale, one of Sicily’s main train stations.
It depicts the abduction of the nymph Proserpina by Pluto, intent on taking her to the underworld. She is simultaneously struggling against and succumbing to his overpowering strength. In mythology, she will eventually — but only temporarily — be restored to the world above.
Draped on the bushes surrounding the fountain are wet clothes, likely washed in the fountain. Sitting on benches nearby are teenage boys, who look out of place.
Each travelled, alone, from Eritrea (though on other days you might find boys from Somalia, Egypt, Syria).
These boys are fleeing forced conscription. But teens from elsewhere come to escape war, persecution, poverty, abuse. Some are sent by parents for a better life — or simply to earn money to send home.
All of those at the station today have made harrowing crossings of both the Sahara and the Mediterranean — jammed into smugglers’ vehicles and unseaworthy boats. For that privilege, they have paid as much as $3,500 (U.S.).
And now they are here, a waypoint until they can gather enough money to continue their voyage.
Anyone aged 11 to 17, travelling alone, is designated an “unaccompanied minor.” As of the end of September, more than 12,000 young people (94 of every 100 are male) had arrived alone in Italy this year. Each is entitled to special rights.
“Minors, under Italian law, are protected,” explains Giovanna Di Benedetto, spokesperson for Save the Children Sicily. “They cannot be deported to their countries.”
They are supposed to remain in Italy. But more than one in four, such as the boys at the train station, want to work (which is against the law), or reach other countries. So they run from a system that doesn’t have the resources to chase them.
You can find them on the sidewalks of Rome and Milan, hawking glow-in-the-dark necklaces, cheap pashminas, trinkets. You can spot them hauling crates of produce through narrow streets or picking vegetables in fields. The underground economy has an endless appetite for these youngsters, thousands of whom are scattered across Italy and beyond.
At this moment, on a Monday afternoon, four are sitting on the bench. Tomas, 15, is wearing a Dolce & Gabbana parody T-shirt. The words, using the borrowed D&G logo and font, read: Dammela e Goddo, which loosely translates as “Give it to me.”
Tomas is from Eritrea, where his father is in prison. For what, he does not say. But Tomas knows that if he had remained, he would be conscripted into mandatory military service. The minimum commitment is 1.5 years, but the actual time served can stretch far longer.
Tomas walked 12 hours from his town across the border into Ethiopia. There, smugglers took him overland to Sudan. And that is where, unquestionably, the hardest part began: nine days through Sudan and Libya via the Sahara by bus. Depending on the route, the overland portion could have been as long as 4,300 kilometres — through one of the harshest environments on the planet.
“We didn’t have enough water or food, and the bus was not built to cross the desert,” Tomas says. “It was made for 10 people, not 28.”
His trip cost $3,500 — money that has plunged his parents into debt.
“Seven people died on that trip,” says Mohammoud, one of the other teens by the fountain. “I was scared to have the same end.”
Another boy says they stopped during the nine-day Sahara ordeal to bury the dead. One of those they covered with sand, he believes, was still alive but unconscious. He tells the story flatly, void of emotion.
“Every single person has a terrible story to tell,” says Di Benedetto. “They are wounded — inside and outside.”
The Sahara was not the only ordeal. Libyan smugglers jammed the boys into a packed boat, vessels so overburdened they frequently capsize. A few days ago, the boys were rescued at sea by the Italian Coast Guard and officially “landed” at a more southerly port. They were given food, water, clothes and sandals then bused to Catania. Here, they were supposed to remain in a temporary facility until permanent accommodation could be found.
Instead, they ran. It happens all the time, especially with teens from Egypt, Eritrea and Somalia.
“We speak to them to explain the danger,” says Di Benedetto. “But most of them want to go alone to north Europe countries or Germany. . . . They know that the quality of life is better, it’s easier to find a job.”
That is the goal: find money, keep moving.
“I just want to get out of Italy,” says Tomas. “But I don’t have much money, so I’m not sure when.”
“I want to go to Sweden,” says Mohammoud. “My mission is not done yet.”
Those whose parents are indebted to smugglers are desperate to earn money they can send home. Some will wind up doing hard labour for low wages. Those eager to earn faster money, especially in Rome, may wind up selling drugs or sex.
After all they have endured, one might think that Italy’s welcome — though disorganized and fractured — would be a godsend. They could have regular meals, a bed and a little spending money. Instead, they grab food every morning at a Catholic charity and sleep on cardboard at the bus station a few blocks away.
That charity, the Caritas Diocesana Di Catania, is down a flight of stairs less than a block from the train station. The lineup starts well before 8:30 a.m., when breakfast is served. Most of those in line are migrants.
“They ask for three things,” says manager Valentina Cali. “The first is food, the second is clothes — and the third is for money to go to Rome. Minors always want to run away.”
And they do. Of the 12,164 who arrived in Italy in the first nine months of 2014, 3,163 are now off the radar. Gone.
When unaccompanied minors are rescued and brought to port, Italian authorities immediately place them in tents separate from adults. They are identified based on their apparent age, documentation they're willing to provide (many are unwilling or have none), or what they say. Rarely, an X-ray of the wrist (which can fairly accurately determine age) can be ordered.
They are then transferred to a short-term reception centre followed, as quickly as possible, by a move to community-based housing. These comunita house eight to 10 minors each and are intended to provide a homelike experience, with adult supervision and integration into Italian education and culture. On paper, the aim is a continuum of care that starts the moment they land and doesn’t end until they turn 18.
It doesn’t always work out.
The Italian system has sprung up in patchwork response to a crisis that vastly outpaces capacity. Space is at such a premium that in early October an abandoned discotheque was converted to house migrants. Many churches are filled with cots and mattresses.
“There is not a national system,” says Save the Children’s Di Benedetto. “There is no social assistance, no medical support, no activities. Only a place where the migrants sleep and eat.”
The Scuola Verde, or Green School, in the port city of Augusta on Sicily’s eastern coast, is a two-storey former school converted in April 2013 to temporarily house minors. This means the desks were taken out and cots were brought in. In some rooms, students’ art still hangs on the walls.
SCOTT SIMMIE/TORONTO STAR
Young African men bide their time in an old classroom in the Green School, a converted temporary facility housing unaccompanied minors in Augusta, Sicily. Because of the flood of migrants, these men will wait months before more permanent accommodations can be found.
Vincenzo Amato — the boys call him Enzo — runs the school with good-humoured but undeniable authority. The teens like him, even if they’re not crazy about Italian food.
Amato, 49, used to work a bureaucratic desk job in the local municipality. He had limited contact with people from other countries.
But when the school converted, he leaped at the chance to help — as did many Sicilians who fill volunteer shifts with the local civil protection agency. They are kept busy.
“This municipality has 40,000 people,” he says. “In the last two years, there have been more than 130 landings (here) and more than 45,000 migrants. There have been more migrants than citizens.
“The other centres are also full,” continues Amato, who hosted as many as 247 minors at once — the teens sleeping on cots in the hallway and taking turns for toilets and showers. “We must keep them (the minors) three months, even four.”
“It’s now seven months,” says a 17-year-old from Bangladesh nicknamed “MD.” He is sharing a classroom/dormitory with seven others from his country, in a room where colourful interpretations of An American in Paris drawn by former students adorn the walls. The classrooms are split by country or region of origin.
MD left home due to family problems he doesn’t detail. In Libya, he worked 12- to 14-hour days for nine months in construction, sending money to his parents and seven younger siblings. He feels pressure to do the same here, but can’t work until he is 18.
“Unless I can get a job, I can’t transfer money to Bangladesh.”
He is weary of life at the Green School. Because it was intended as a stopgap, there are few formal programs.
An Italian tutor visits, as does a psychologist and aid workers. But the most regular activity seems to be Muslim minors gathering on a crumbling concrete tennis court to pray. Their communal prayer mat is a large grey piece of industrial indoor-outdoor carpeting held in place by stones.
Minors are free to mingle in the town, which has been accepting, but they have little money and no common language or culture. So the teens eat, sleep, play listlessly on their phones (those who have them), and wait. Some shuffle down the hall aimlessly, a few bide their time with games or reading — and some simply lie on their cots, blankets pulled over heads, waiting for another day to be over.
For younger minors eager to start building a new life, the wait is excruciating.
“Every time, they tell us we will leave the day after tomorrow,” says Mohammed, a 13-year-old Egyptian who had been here 20 days. “It’s (already) been a long time. I want to go to school.”
SCOTT SIMMIE/TORONTO STAR
Mohammed Walid, 13.
Mohammed says he has worked since age 10, as a tuk-tuk driver and an apprentice mechanic. He is a short boy who looks younger than his stated age. Yet his eyes have a streetwise look incongruous with his height. He is disappointed with where his voyage has taken him.
“I always wanted to come here, but didn’t know it would be this difficult. I will wait until 18 and go back (to Egypt).”
Disillusionment is contagious — and already spreading to some of the 17 Egyptian teens who arrived the previous night.
Two of the newcomers are Mustafa and Taha, twin 16-year-olds who managed to plan and pay for their trip without informing their parents. They phoned them when they were already on the boat. Their father was angry, and wanted his sons to return.
If they had known what the boat trip would be like — 10 tortuous days that included rough weather, dicey boats (they transferred twice) and a near constant fear of death — they would never have come.
“From what I’ve heard from people talking, it’s not very good here,” says Taha. “If I get a chance to go back, I will.”
ANNE MARIE JACKSON
Amato has seen and heard it all: Backgrounds and circumstances so dire that risking death crossing the Sahara or the Mediterranean is a reasonable option. Once, there was an 8-year-old boy whose father had been shot in front of him before the child boarded the boat.
“They all have different stories,” Amato sums up. “But in the end, they’re all the same.”
But there is a life beyond the Green School. Those who get to a comunita will attend classes, integrate, start building their lives. It has worked out for young men like Mamadou Kebe from Senegal, and a 17-year-old from Egypt also named Mustafa.
SCOTT SIMMIE/TORONTO STAR
Mustafa Nagi, 17.
Mustafa arrived in the middle of the night on Aug. 10, 2013. His boat hit a sandbar 20 metres off a popular Catania beach. When the boat stopped, many — including Mustafa — jumped into the thigh-high water.
“When we got off the boat, we were able to stand,” he recalls. “And then when we started walking, the bottom dropped off.” Immediately. After surviving a Mediterranean voyage where they thought they might die, six people who could not swim drowned with land just beyond reach.
ANNE MARIE JACKSON
Mustafa swam to shore, called his brother to let him know he was safe, and then the police. They brought him back to the beach — the bodies still there — to ask him questions. He was transferred, soon, to a comunita. He has learned Italian, made close friends and is part of a theatre group.
This year, the group has been performing a play called Life is Beautiful. It is about the journey migrants make — and about those who die trying. The idea was sparked by the Lampedusa tragedy — a 2013 boat catastrophe where more than 360 migrants died.
Mustafa wears a chain around his neck with an Egyptian coin — a reminder of home. He has given a similar necklace to the Italian director of the play, who has become a close friend. A devout Muslim, he looks forward to having enough money to send his parents to Mecca.
“It’s very nice here,” he says. “But I’m missing my family.”
Mamadou Kebe, an 18-year-old from Senegal, has aged out of the system. He has been in Sicily for three years. He is also part of the theatre group. And his compass is set, firmly, toward the future.
SCOTT SIMMIE/TORONTO STAR
Mamadou Kebem, 18.
“My hope is to find work in a place like Catania,” he says. “Find a home, form a family.”
The woman who runs the group, well-known in Rome’s theatre world, is actress and director Emanuela Pistone. She treats the minors in her troupe as members of an extended family. They, separated from parents and siblings, do likewise with her and each other.
WATCH: Emanuela Pistone
ANNE MARIE JACKSON
Pistone and her husband have become so close with one boy that they obtained permission for him to occasionally stay with them. It is not quite an adoption, but he is clearly like a son to them.
Her life, she says, has become immeasurably richer as a result of these boys, their stories, their cultures.
“They are simply human beings,” she says, emotionally. “Not numbers, as we are used to reading about. Each one of them is a person, is a human being, with a story.”
Kebe directs a message at those whose ancestors once planted roots in distant lands.
“The world turns,” he says, then repeats the phrase.
“The world turns. Immigration did not start with us. The past was you, the present is us. We are all equals. There is no difference between us.”
WATCH: Mamadou Kebe
ANNE MARIE JACKSON
On Friday, the Eritrean teens are no longer at the train station. A woman had given them five euros each, and they managed to pool a little more. With a collective fortune of 46 euros, they persuaded someone to drive them to Rome.
If lucky, they are en route to a relative or friend in another country. If not, they could be picking vegetables, selling sidewalk trinkets, or in a much darker trade. There are traffickers who look for lost boys — and leverage their desperation in troubling ways.
On the roundabout near the Stazione di Catania Centrale, the tour buses pass on the hour. With every trip, the recorded narration points out the magnificent statue in the fountain, the one where Proserpina is dragged by Pluto’s irresistible force to another world; one that will ultimately consume her.
As this bus passes, there are no boys loitering on the benches.
There exhausted teenagers rest, the day after being rescued at sea from a smuggler's boat. The young men were in the Green School - a former school that has been converted to house unaccompanied minors in Augusta, Sicily. If they remain, they will likely wait months before more permanent accommodation can be found.