Radicalizing Tensions: Between Fascism and Solidarity in Italy (Part I)

by Lauren Heidbrink

How do citizens enact solidarity when nations fail to? In this first of a 2-part series, anthropologist Lauren Heidbrink examines forms of solidarity that have emerged in Italy in spite of and in active resistance to the state.

The Diciotti at the port of Catania, Sicily. Credits: Lauren Heidbrink

The Diciotti at the port of Catania, Sicily. Credits: Lauren Heidbrink

“I thought it would only take three or four hours to reach Europe, but the journey was much longer and colder,” described Mohammed of his journey from Libya to Italy. A 16-year-old unaccompanied minor from Nigeria, Mohammed was one of 177 migrants rescued by the Italian coastguard’s Diciotti in August of 2018. Many onboard were fleeing violence in Eritrea, Syria, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Somalia; Mohammed was fleeing eight months of hard labor and violence in Libya, where he sought employment following the death of his parents in a car accident in Lagos. “Libya was no good for us blacks…I didn’t know if I would survive. I don’t know if I will survive here either; it’s not so easy, but I’d rather die than return there,” Mohammed explained several week later from a Sicilian reception facility where I was conducting research on child migration in Europe.  

Rescued near Lamapdeusa, Mohammed thought his journey had ended when he boarded the Diciotti. Instead, he would remain at sea for another four days and in the Sicilian port of Catania for another two before being permitted to disembark. Like so many others, Mohammed fell victim to ongoing debates on solidarity in Europe. Flexing his newly-acquired political might, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini refused the Diciotti to dock, announcing, “The ship may land in Italy, as long as the 177 migrants are distributed, in a spirit of solidarity by the EU (European Union).” Italy’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S), which governs in coalition with Salvini’s far-right League party, assumed power in June of 2018, with aspirations of sealing Italy’s 7,600-kilometer coastline from incoming migrants.

"This is the situation aboard the #Diciotti for 8 days now.” Credit: Deputy of Europe, Riccardo Magi following his visit onboard in August of 2018.

"This is the situation aboard the #Diciotti for 8 days now.” Credit: Deputy of Europe, Riccardo Magi following his visit onboard in August of 2018.

As Mohammed explained, “I came to Italy to be safe and to live free, but there we were, captive on a boat just centimeters from land. I could throw a ball that would reach Europe, but I wasn’t allowed to catch it.” Simultaneously denouncing Maltese authorities for failing to rescue the migrant boat in its waters, Salvini drew a line in the sand—either Europe demonstrates “solidarity” by redistributing migrants from Italy to northern Europe or Salvini would return the migrants onboard the Diciotti to Libya.

With mounting international pressure, Italy’s transport minister Danilo Toninelli allowed the Diciotti to dock in Catania, but Salvini quickly refused migrants onboard to disembark. Akin to a hostage situation, Sicilian authorities and Italian civil society began to negotiate their release enlisting a hierarchy of vulnerability: the Italian Ministry of Health in Sicily secured the immediate release of 13 migrants with pressing health issues, such as pregnancy, tuberculosis, pneumonia, scabies, and urinary infections, who were whisked to local hospitals in Red Cross ambulances. The Italian Ombudsperson for Children and Adolescents (Autorità garante per l'infanzia e l'adolescenza) called for the immediate release of children onboard, citing Italian law and international protections for children enshrined in the UN Convention of Human Rights and the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Two days later, 27 unaccompanied children, including Mohammed, were permitted to disembark. Behind the scenes, the Italian Conference of Catholic Bishops began negotiating the release of migrants, who were threatening a hunger strike as negotiations drug on. Within a few days, prosecutors in neighboring Agrigento opened an investigation into Salvini for kidnapping, abuse of office, and illegal detention of migrants onboard—charges that were later dropped.

'Catania welcomes.' Credits: Silvio Laviano

'Catania welcomes.' Credits: Silvio Laviano

Sicilians took to the street in protest, flooding the port of Catania chanting, “We cannot quietly watch fascism come back. We have to act and resist.” Wielding the Sicilian specialty arancini (rice balls), they yelled, "Welcome to Catania! Here, have an arancino." Standing next to me in the crowd of 300, a protestor explained, "In our homes, you welcome travelers with food; arancino are warm and immediately satisfying after a long journey.”

These negotiations inflamed entrenched political debates in Italy, calling many to critique its slow-moving bureaucracy, high unemployment levels, chronic housing issues, and the increasing license of nativists’ “Italian first” response. International debates centered on issues of solidarity, as Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said, “Italy must take note that the spirit of solidarity is struggling to translate into concrete acts.” Here, Conte specifically referred to the June 2018 EU summit, which failed to establish a scheme for redistributing 160,000 refugees held in overcrowded camps in Italy and Greece. Only after the 10-day standoff were the remaining 140 migrants onboard the Diciotti processed in a nearby Messina hotspot and transferred to placements with the Italian Church (100 migrants), Ireland (20 migrants), and non-EU member Albania (20 migrants) at their own expense. 

Port of Catania.

Port of Catania.

In recent years, Italy rescued nearly 600,000 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea; at its height in 2016, the Italian coast guard and humanitarian organizations rescued 4500 migrants in the Mediterranean in a single day. Since 2017, however, the number of migrants arriving in Italy has dwindled. Unrelenting in his anti-immigrant campaign, however, Salvini has exploited social ills and tragedies across Italy, blaming migrants for outbreaks in illness, rape and murder, the impunity of the mafia, and even the deadly Genoese bridge collapse. Salvini and the League systematically have criminalized any entity attempting to respond to shipwrecked migrants, including humanitarian organizations, commercial vessels, Frontex, fisherman, and in the case of the Diciotti, even the Italian Coast Guard—claiming they all are aiding and abetting smugglers.

With fewer boats arriving since the Diciotti in August, Salvini has turned to eroding social support and legal protections for refugees already residing in Italy. The recent arrest and exile of immigrant-friendly mayor Domenico Lucano, largely heralded for singularly resuscitating the town of Riace by welcoming refugees, served as a high-profile effort to deter local governments from welcoming refugees. Some posit that Lucano’s arrest is in direct response to mayors in southern Italy vowing to disobey Salvini’s orders to block humanitarian rescue boats from all Italian seaports.

Youth playing in Riace. Credits:     Francesco Pistilli     .

Youth playing in Riace. Credits: Francesco Pistilli.

 “It has only deteriorated,” explained an immigration attorney in Rome. “He is a right-wing sheriff who rules by tweet. He does not represent us; we must fight him at every turn and hope he doesn’t destroy the nation in the process.” On September 24, 2018,  Italian Council of Ministers unanimously signed the Decree-Law on Immigration and Security (decree law no. 113/2018), effectively abolishing humanitarian protections in Italy; allowing for the refusal or withdraw of international protections; and establishing a framework to strip Italian citizenship from some refugees. Colloquially termed the Salvini Law, the decree likewise erodes the System of Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR), a decentralized network of small-scale reception centers housing refugees and unaccompanied minors. The decree has cleared the Italian Senate. The Chamber of Deputies must review the proposal within 60 days, without whose intervention, it automatically becomes law.

“The clock is ticking,” Leonardo, the director of a Sicilian-based SPRAR, told me. “We have lost so much [government] funding in recent years, that we are already functioning with so little support. Now, staff are preparing for unemployment. We are scrambling to find places for these children to live.” Livid at what he sees an attack on Sicilian values of hospitality, generosity and inclusion, Leonardo fumed, “Mass mourning on social media is not enough; time for talking has long past. We must conspire. We must act!”

Part II: Radicalizing Tensions


Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach. She is author of Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and contested interests (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). As the recipient of the Fulbright Schuman 70th Anniversary Scholar Award, she is conducting a comparative study on the migration of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Italy, Greece, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Disclaimer: In an effort to ensure confidentiality, all names of individuals and organizations are pseudonyms. All views expressed in this publication are of the author.

From Mogadishu to Istanbul: An auto-ethnography on childhood, migration and education

By Eda Elif Tibet

Prior to a radio broadcast, I asked youth residing in a shelter for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Turkey to draw his dream of an ideal life. Showing them the outline of a world map with no country names and no borders, I asked them to draw their dreams of living any place they wanted. Below is an excerpt from my conversation with Caadil.

Elif:          Caadil, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Caadil:     My name is Caadil, I am from Somalia. I came in 2012 into Turkey. I am living in Istanbul and I am a student. Would this be enough?

Elif:          Sure, thank you. Today, I asked Caadil to draw his dream. Could you tell us something about what you drew?

Caadil:     I draw something like this; far away, there is an island. I have a small boat, a small house, and I have a beautiful tree. I have some vegetables and then there is a flag that will bring peace to my island. The world is truly an annoying place; therefore, this is the picture of someone who wants to stay on his own, someone who wants to be left alone.

Elif:          Caadil, most of the times, I too feel the same way as you do—how much I wish to be away from the maddening crowd. But what about friends? Don’t you have friends that are dear to you at your high school, for instance?

Caadil:     Yes, I have some very good friends. Sometimes they ask me questions like, what kind of animal would you be if you were one? And I tell them that I would have liked to be a butterfly. I could have lived only for a day and then die. They only live for 18 hours. Then they ask me, but why? And I tell them that I want to stay away from the world. I want to get lost but I am joking; it’s not real. I actually don’t want to be anyone or anything, and I also don’t want to die too early.


During the activity, Caadil receives a phone call from his mother. By the time he ends his prolonged conversation with her, Caadil walks towards the world map hung on the wall. Spotting his hometown in Somalia, he begins to recount his migration story with great fluidity.

Al-Shabaab has killed my father during the civil war. My mother took all of us [two sisters and two brothers] and we escaped up north. My mother still lives together with my sisters that are about to finish high school there. It would be very hard for them to continue university, as it is extremely expensive. So, my mother sold her farmlands, and paid to the smugglers to take us out from Somalia. But only for me and my one year elder brother. The girls, she told me, that will stay with her. She told us that we could have built a better future for ourselves if we decide to leave but if we were to stay it was very likely that the murderers of our father would come after us too.

“We followed a group of twenty people that were leaded by a man who knew the roads very well.  We firstly went to the Emirates, we spent some time there close to Dubai and then we crossed to Damascus in Syria in 2012, which we found ourselves once again in the middle of the war. We were locked in a house in a single room with nearly thirty people and we did not see the sun light nearly for six months. I was nearly suffocating at some point, and not wanting to wait for more, a few of us separated from the bigger group and continued. We walked during the night and hid during the days. We luckily managed to find all our way to Istanbul, in which we have spent a month staying in a room in Aksaray. 

“As our money finished and the smuggler did not hold his promise to take us to Norway. We found ourselves stuck in Istanbul and not able to pay for the rent. While we were in great destitution a friendly old black man came, and informed us about UNHCR. He told us about our rights to apply for asylum. We had no other option but to try. He took us to the police, and the police took us to UNHCR, they firstly took us to a hotel, they listened to our story and then sent us to the shelter Istanbul. Can you imagine? We were only 13 and 14 years old when we were crossing these roads. We had to go through a lot; we had to endure all of it.”

Conducting a radio programme with youth enabled young refugees to narrate their own stories by participating as researchers, ethnographers, presenters, scriptwriters, performers, artists, interviewers, producers, sound engineers, and content makers; the roles depended on their choices and at spaces also outside the radio room in the streets of Istanbul.[1] For example, Caadil leveraged his interest in cameras and visual and sociological studies, creativity contributing to the project while also honing professional skills he saw as important to accessing higher education later in life. Other young people were also attracted to expressing their experiences through their own lenses becoming ethnographers of their own lives (Oester & Brunner, 2015). I secured four second hand digital SLR cameras that youth utilized—both alone and collaboratively—discovering their own worlds at any time they wished.

In the vein of Paulo Freire’s ‘hinged themes’, the stories youth produced illustrated the relations between the general programme content of the radio show and their own worldviews (Freire, 1972: 92). According to Freire, such participatory learning processes address oppression, as the oppressed themselves advance and actualize a pedagogy of their own liberation (Freire, 1972).  The researcher becomes the learner who must cast off assumptions and expectations and remain open to new approaches and possibilities that emerge. Through this collaborative approach, notions of authority are flattened, creating space for youth to develop their own narratives on their own terms.

Caadil’s photographs revealed the deep sadness resulting from forced migration. His keen interest in discussing his photographs animated our radio sessions. As Harper (2002: 23) describes: “Photographs appear to capture the impossible: a person gone; an event past. That extraordinary sense of seeming to retrieve something that has disappeared belongs alone to the photograph, and it leads to deep and interesting talk.” For Caadil, he unconsciously produced photographs that were inspired by his past memories. As he explored his surroundings, he produced aesthetically provocative photographs while simultaneously discovering his inner-world marked by existential questions about life, childhood, and belonging. His photographs were phenomenologically experienced, insightful and also self-reflective.

Below are some examples of Caadil’s photographs and the meanings he assigns to them.


Uprooted. Photo credits: Caadil.

Uprooted. Photo credits: Caadil.

“Can a tree ever give up on his roots? If it does, it can’t drink water anymore; it will die. I wonder sometimes: Why did my mother send us away? Why did not all of us live in another village? I could have built a hut from wood for all of us, next to the sea. I could have made a boat and fish for all my family; we could even open a restaurant. Maybe we wouldn't earn that much but we wouldn't go hungry; I am sure about that. But perhaps the rebels would have found us there too, and we would have had to leave everything behind once again, and we would have to live running away all the time, like a fugitive, so I suppose my mother must have known something that we did not understand at that time. Otherwise why would she send us so far away? I ask this question all the time to myself, and sometimes I just cannot sleep, thinking all about the ifs: What if we stayed? What if we never migrated? How would have life been, back there?”


These trains go nowhere. Photo credits: Caadil.

These trains go nowhere. Photo credits: Caadil.

“While we are dying, people are only watching. And we are watching for these trains leaving, but we are never the real passengers, as when it comes to us, these trains go nowhere.”

For Caadil, staying in Turkey is a temporary phase. He mentions that it is impossible for him to see a future where he will not have the same rights and opportunities as the citizens of Turkey. He says he will lose his mind. Without the right to work, it would be virtually impossible to earn a living on his own. He also described that not being able to travel is particularly terrible; when he dreams, he recounts, his dreams are about exploring and discovering different cultures and tastes, particularly visiting Iran of which Ali has a great interest in its people and culture. Without travel, he would suffer.


Catastrophe on the sea. Photo credits: Caadil.

Catastrophe on the sea. Photo credits: Caadil.

“There is no such thing as preferring to stay in Turkey. Everyone wants to go, because we have no rights and opportunities here. We, the ones who stay here, are either still waiting to leave or actually have failed many times going to Europe. Some of my friends were nearly drowned in the Mediterranean. It is a true catastrophe in the sea.”


“When every day is the same”. Photo credits: Caadil.

“When every day is the same”. Photo credits: Caadil.

After becoming more self-aware of who he is, where he is now, and where he is leading to, this time he turns his lens to his friends and tries understanding the other minors that share similar contexts with him. The photograph “When every day is the same” is of his best friend from Afghanistan. “Unfortunately he is depressed most of the times. He sleeps a lot, and I try to cheer him up,” Caadil explains. “You know, we are like brothers, he is much closer to me then a brother in fact.”

“When I was 14, in my earliest days in [the shelter], there was an Iranian boy. He was small and had a pretty face. Afghans in the dorm, bullied him all the time. They were so mean to him. I always tried protecting and saving him from their hands.  Later on, as I started to speak their language, I made a really good friend among the Afghans. He was not treating anyone badly; he told me that he too was bullied during his entire life. But not by the Afghans, by Iranians back in Tehran. He told me that at school he was like an invisible. No one talked to him; no one wanted to be friends with him. Even if he studied till the last grade, he was not able to receive a diploma because of his status (he was an undocumented Afghan born and raised in Iran). But, Afghans and Iranians never had a war. The Hazaras even speak the same language. How is it possible that in schools Iranians and Afghans never talk to each other, they do not build relationships, as if Afghans do not exist? How is this possible and why? Since 95% of the Afghans I met here come from Iran, they all tell me how awful their lives were in Iran how they did not have the opportunity to study and those schooled were simply invisible in their classes. I want to understand why. For instance, in Ethiopia there are many Somalis living by and they are able to live like locals, but why is life simply not possible for the Afghans in Iran?”

Caadil asks important questions about discrimination and the challenges of integration; moreover, he offers insight into ethnic segregation towards Afghans in Iranian schools. He is prompted to find answers and solutions to his friend’s case, a friend who was struggling with the mundane and impermanent state of the everyday life and therefore was depressed. Despite sharing similar anxieties about the uncertainties they experience, Caadil mentions how learning is the most important thing for him: “Although I want to be spared from the world, I still need to know what is going on, not only to survive, but I need to be able to understand why things are the way they are. I need to remain awaken. I need to understand the world.”


“No education, no safety”. Photo credits: Caadil.

“No education, no safety”. Photo credits: Caadil.

“Many of my Afghan brothers are working in the construction sites here in Istanbul. They did the same back in Iran or also in Pakistan I heard. For me it is obvious, if you don’t get education this is the only option for you. And as you can see in this image, this man works without a helmet. He is on the top floor and the wooden structure that he stands on looks very fragile. It is also interesting, you see it looks as if there is a cross on him, it is as if giving us a message: don't work this way, you are not safe.”

Here, Caadil links education to safety. If one can access education, there are more possibilities for a safer future. Caadil is only one of the few who managed to access education, in part, due to his aptitude in photography. For many unaccompanied youth in Turkey, there are considerable barriers to accessing and remaining in college, barriers that many unaccompanied youth asylum seekers cannot overcome.

Postscript: Given his talents, Caadil applied to the photograph and video department at a private prominent university in Istanbul with his photography project “Childhood and Migration” that he developed our workshops together. Caadil’s was awarded a full college scholarship; however, following a failed coup attempt in Turkey in July of 2016, the education system entered a crisis, with cuts to foreign student scholarships, including Caadil’s. With considerable advocacy on his behalf, Caadil was offered a 50% scholarship with ongoing efforts to fundraise the remaining fees and tuition. Given that less then 1% of the world’s refugee population have access to higher education, Caadil’s success is remarkable. If you would like to support his education, please see our crowdfunding campaign. For further enquiries, please contact eliftibetto@gmail.com.

About the Author: Eda Elif Tibet is a doctoral candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Bern and a Research Assistant at Pädagogische Hochschule PHBern. This paper is part of an ongoing doctoral dissertation, a joint collaboration between the University of Bern’s Social Anthropology department and the University of Teacher Education, PHBern, entitled “Transnational Biographies of Education: Young Unaccompanied Asylum Seekers and their Navigation through Shifting Social Realities in Switzerland and Turkey” funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.  The study is supervised by Prof. Dr. Sabine Strasser and Prof. Dr. Kathrin Oester, realized by Dr. Annika Lems in Switzerland, and Eda Elif Tibet in Turkey.

To learn more about this project, visit www.transeduscapes.com and read: E.E.Tibet. (forthcoming, 2017) “Learning as Agency: Strategies of Survival among the Somali Unaccompanied Minor Asylum Seekers in Turkey” in Handbook on Migration and Childhood. Edited by Jacqueline Bhabha, Daniel Senovilla Hernandez, Jyothi Kanics). UK: Elgar Publishing.


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Escueta, M. and S. Butterwick (2012). The power of popular education and visual arts for trauma survivors’ critical consciousness and collective action. International Journal of Lifelong Education 31(3): 325-340.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin Books.

Harper, D. (2002) Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies 17(1): 13-26.

Oester, K. and Brunner, B. (2015) Jean Rouch Back in School Teaching and Research as a Parallel Process through Media Projects with Adolescents in Switzerland. Visual Ethnography 4(1): 5-23

UNICEF (2011) “How to make your own radio shows: Youth Radio Toolkit” in collaboration with Children Radio Foundation.

[1] How to make your own radio shows: Youth Radio Toolkit (UNICEF 2011)