In the past two years since the European Union reached a settlement with Turkey reordering migration across the Aegean Sea into Greece, the position of Italy has become the most accessible port to Europe from North African countries via the Mediterranean Sea.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, over 82,000 people have migrated to Italy this year, a 20% increase over the same period last year. During the crossing of the Mediterranean alone, more than 2,000 people have died.
But what is life like once they’ve arrived and settled?
Of the many West African migrants who have arrived in Italy within the last two years, just under ten of them reside two train stops away from the ancient Italian city of Orvieto, in a small town called Alviano, where they make a living by begging or selling winter gloves.
Here is the personality and story of one Nigerian refugee named Kingsley.
The original intention of this interview was to bridge the gap between the people of Orvieto and Kingsley in order that they might know him for his personality rather than the assumptions and judgments that come with walking past him each day as he begs under the Torre del Moro, red baseball cap in hand. The addition of his personal playlist and the nature of the introduction question build upon this intention.
Interviewee: Kingsley is a 25-year-old Nigerian Refugee living in Orvieto, Italy, from Ukwu-Abwa, Delta, Nigeria. He speaks Igbo, Pidgin English, and English. He left Nigeria on August 1st, 2015 and he arrived in Italy on October 20th, 2015.
Interviewer: A 24-year-old English teacher from California, living and teaching in Orvieto, Italy.
These interviews took place on November 20th, 2017, November 21st, 2017, and December 1st, 2017 around various public spaces of Orvieto, Italy. The interviews have been merged together and edited with Kingsley’s permission. All photos were taken by Kingsley. The photo of Kingsley has been taken by the interviewer with his permission.
Have you ever been in love?
No, because I don’t think of that now.
I’m only thinking of how to make life easier for me and my mom and my younger sister who are in Nigeria. So if I should include anybody now, maybe it would make me forget my mom and sister, and I can’t forget them because they are the only family I have.
The most important thing is that I think of my mother and my younger sister. For them to stop suffering. For them to be able to pay their house rent, school fees for my sister, these are the problems. This is why I am asking people for help.
I see, because you have to pay for your own life along with theirs.
Yes, and it is not easy. I am always thinking about them. Since we lost part of our family, things cannot be the same. Even before I left the country of Nigeria to come here I suffered so much. I can quickly show you some pictures.
So this (shows photo on his phone) is the desert. We spent about one week in this desert so we could be able to go to Libya.
All these ones are dead.
You see, we travelled by our heels, barefoot. And all these ones died. You know, even in Libya, on your way out, they will pack up to 100 people in one room, there is no place for you to sit or lie down and sleep. These are all people trying to escape suffering, but then they just suffer more.
How many would you say make it?
So this one, this one is the sea (shows photo). We travelled by this boat. They will load up about 200 people. At times, because of the overload, the boat will capsize. Even this one here. And people will die. Up to 150-200 people will die instantaneously. Most lose their life in the sea the same day that they cross.
And how many hours were you on this boat?
Four days. In our own case, we spent two days in the Mediterranean Sea before we found a rescuer. Two days in the sea and then after they found us, two days waiting for the Italian rescue ship. While waiting, we lost seven of our passengers; six girls and one boy died.
And your mom and sister, they are safe where they are?
Yes, I think they are safe where they are. Maybe they are okay, but the most important thing is for them to make a living. If I raise some amount of money, I can open a shop for my mom where she will be able to do business or trading so she can earn a little income. Then she can be supported and send my sister to a good school.
What is your sister like?
She is still a baby. You know, she is 10 years old. So she normally likes baby things. Maybe a little teddy bear, or a bicycle, a little bicycle. She has been asking me to buy her a bicycle, but I told her to have patience with me because I don’t have money.
Things that she likes, she keeps on telling me, buy this, buy this, but I tell her to please just have patience with me. Because it’s not easy for me here. You can see it is not easy for me here, but I have to tell her to have patience because I cannot tell her it isn’t easy. I need to give her hope.
And what does your mom say?
My mom will tell me, “Don’t mind her,” because she just asks for things she thinks she needs. She will tell me to just keep on going, and that I am making them proud. What my mom wants is just for me to make it in life.
Would you say your dream is to live somewhere else?
Yes. Sure, a place like America or Canada or the U.K. I wish I could go to a place where people could be able to understand my feelings in English, just as we are just talking to each other now, you understand me, I understand you, you know?
You haven’t really talked about your dad.
I lost my dad during the crisis in Nigeria along with my two brothers. My dad had three boys and one girl. I am the first boy, and my two other brothers died. It is only the last girl, my mom, and me left.
So. (Pause.) It’s so painful. I don’t like to keep on remembering the past. Because if I remember those things, with my two brothers and my dad, the way we normally used to play in the house, talk about what I’m going to be in the future. You know. It costs me so much pain.
I remember the day they went to church on Sunday in the morning. My dad and my two younger brothers, they were the first ones to leave for church, so me and my mom and my younger sister, we were back at the house about to leave.
You were late?
Yes, and when we heard that they just attacked the church, we knew that my dad and two brothers were already inside, so they got them. Me and my mom, we had to runaway with my younger sister. So fortunately, it got to the point where we left each other when my mom and sister found a safe place.
And from there, I started this journey. I don’t even know how I started going. You know, it’s a very long story. I don’t know what to say. It’s not easy.
After I came and I tried to tell my story to the Italian Immigration Services, even those who spoke a little English, they said they couldn’t understand me. So it’s very complicated. They can’t understand us very well and that’s why they are unable to offer us these documents we are looking for. They were forcing us to speak and listen to a language we don’t know, and it’s unfair. Even when we try to say, look what happened, they are saying that it’s another thing that happened. When you say A another person will say that you said C or D, not even B, you understand? It is a problem.
So your lawyers and everyone in immigration services mainly speak in Italian?
Yes, they only speak Italian. Maybe when you are trying to communicate with them and they don’t understand, they say I must go and hire a translator, but I have to pay them with my money, 50 euro, to interpret. It is difficult, I have no job, but I also have to pay them. But I am not blaming them, because it’s their country, whatever they like they can do to us.
I would have assumed they had translators who worked for immigration services, so you could be understood without a fee.
No, no. You know, I think they are trying to use the immigrants to create more job opportunities for themselves. They want their people to also benefit from it. By rejecting you, by not allowing you the proper documents. So when they give you a rejection, you have to appeal, you have to look for a lawyer. Then the European Union or their government will pay the lawyers and their side can have more money. So they like to give their people the opportunity to benefit from us.
For example, according to my family, they told me that Immigration Services are supposed to be paying each immigrant 1,000 euro per month (Verified Via EuroNews) for us to take care of ourselves, but they are giving us 75 euro per month and they keep the rest of the money.
They say they are going to feed us, buy us clothes, but they rarely if ever give us any of these things. Even when they do give us some clothes, they are used, they are old with holes. They don’t take care of us. You may see shoes that have tears like this (shows me his shoes) or not very good trousers, not warm jackets. They bring these things for us to share. But if they gave us the money they told us they would give us, we could save it and also buy these things on our own. We could go to the market to look for good clothes.
But with the 75 euros they are giving us, the meaning of the 75 euros maybe gives us enough to buy a telephone recharge card so we can call our people back in Africa and tell them we are still alive, try to communicate with them. They call it pocket money, but it’s not as if they are really paying us. Pocket money is when you see something you like and you are able to buy it.
People like me, who were forced to leave the immigration center with no job, what can I do? Should I go and steal from people or do all sorts of illegal business for me to earn money? No, I can’t. I don’t want to make any problems here. So I only come to ask people for help. But most just ignore me.
I know one of your main problems here is the language barrier. But, if you knew you could be heard by everybody, what would you tell them?
I would start by thanking them for rescuing us in the Mediterranean Sea because we lost hope. We thought maybe we couldn’t be able to make it again, but the E.U. rescued us.
But at the immigration center when they changed directors, it seemed that they began looking for things that they could use against us.
Once I traveled to visit my friend who was in Sicily while I was in Napoli, and he told me that he had nothing: no clothes no shoes, no jacket, and it was a cold day. So I took this information to the center’s director, I told him that I wanted to visit my friend for three days, he approved and told me I could only go for three days and then I must come back.
When I came back, he cut my money. At the end of the month, the Italian government normally gives us 75 euros, each refugee individually, but when it came time for me to get paid they didn’t pay me in full. So I asked him, I said, “Boss, my money is not complete. What happened?”And he said it was because I travelled and I took three days from the Cap. And I said, “but you agreed with me that I could travel, so why would you cut my money? It’s unfair. I need it in complete.” So then he called the police because he said I was making trouble with him, they said I’m usually the type that makes trouble, and I had to leave, but I didn’t make any trouble.
The police came, and they said that after my appeal I had to leave the immigration center. I thought it was a joke. Then the police came with another man and said I should sign a paper. Then I was forced. So I had no option. I had to sign it and leave because I didn’t want to make trouble with them. Then, really early in morning, I was sleeping when they came, they woke me up and made me leave by fire and by force. And you know, I don’t have anybody.
So they took me in their car, they dropped me off at the Roma Termini and abandoned me there. I suffered for about 4-5 months before we met another Nigerian who helped me. He took me to a house where we could share a room, and he said that at the end of every month we must pay him 200 euros including utilities. Now we are struggling to meet his demands, to be able to pay the bills and also to feed ourselves.
I have been asking people for help, to help me get a job, but they said they can’t help us because we don’t have the main Italian documents. The only permit we have is a temporary permit for 6 months, and we can’t work with this permit. They told us that maybe in 2-5 years we can get the right documents to be able to work. So we’ve been praying to God to help us get the documents. But it’s not easy, especially when they are giving us rejection upon rejection instead of giving us the documents that we were told would be given to us when we arrived.
But we are not blaming them. Because it’s not easy for them to rescue us, maybe about 20,000 people that need accommodation. So we are just praying that there will be a very good day and He will touch their hearts, especially the judges and the ones who are in charge of our case. That maybe they can offer us the correct document.
So I want to tell the people that this is why we stand the street to ask people for help. Maybe with 10 cents, 1 cent, one euro, people have been contributing and trying to help us, but we are not forcing people. Anybody that we greet, we try to explain that we need help.
But that is how we’ve been living for over a year now, asking people for help and waiting, still, for our documents. So that is all I know, for now. But I am not blaming them for not giving us documents or offering a job. Because I know they are also saying that Italians also need jobs. There are no more job opportunities in this country.
There is a famous preserved piece of writing in the city of Orvieto from the Etruscan period that shows the possibility of ethnic relations in ancient Italy being peaceful. It is the inscription on a tomb in the Orvieto Cannicella necropolis, with the name “mi aviles katacinas,” translated, "I am of Avile Katacina", with an Etruscan-Latin first name (Aulus) and a family name that is believed to be of Celtic ("Catacos") origin. This has been suggested to be one of the first signs of a multiracial family in the area.
This cliff-top town was built upon multiracial togetherness, not Us vs. Them. So let us allow this history of inclusion to live on, subversively.
When asked to make a short personal playlist of his “soul songs,” here is the music he listed: