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Lampedusa: shattered childhood or regained hope?

Source: Terre des hommes (Tdh) - Switzerland - Wed, 4 Dec 2013 02:18 PM
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© Noborder Network / Sara Prestianni
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They arrive in the hundreds, crammed tightly into small fishing boats. These migrants come from afar, most of them families and little children with exhaustion written on their pallid faces. They left their home countries to flee destitution, war or persecution. Two months after the terrible shipwreck in the Mediterranean that cost 366 people their lives – amongst them 20 or more children – what has become of the survivors in Lampedusa? Terre des hommes (Tdh) Italy has passed on the sad narratives of these children who, far too early in their young lives, have encountered violence, the fear of death, separation, humiliation and dehumanization.

In view of the difficulties of the journey, on both physical and emotional levels, it is hard for us in the West to comprehend what these people ventured to undertake. Obviously, the motives to come to Europe are multiple: to find work, to benefit from better living conditions, to study, to earn money to help the family that stayed behind. But the price to be paid is extremely high. The road to migration is perilous and sometimes taken at the risk of one’s life.

The high price of the journey

Among the refugees taken into the first aid centres, numerous families and unaccompanied children are being looked after. Lilian Pizzi, the psychologist of Terre des hommes Italy, in the framework of the ‘Faro’ project for protection, has met the survivors. “They are exhausted, and can find no words to describe what happened”, Lilian says. They come from far away and their stories send chills up one’s spine. Before landing on Lampedusa, the families and unaccompanied minors had to pay human smugglers. They had all crossed the Sahara desert; many of them had been imprisoned, detained and tortured until their families paid a ransom to free them. Others had to work even harder to earn enough money to attempt the dangerous crossing.

Women often become the victims of physical and sexual abuse. Added to this is a feeling of guilt about putting their children in danger and making them suffer that awful journey. Many children fall ill, suffer from malnutrition and are terribly afraid. The journey, so traumatic for these little ones, causes sleeping problems, nightmares or even aggressive behaviour. The psychologist of Terre des hommes Italy supports and reassures the mothers by helping them to identify, understand and handle these post-traumatic symptoms.

The path towards recovery

At the first aid centre, the staff of Tdh Italy organizes activities for the psychological and psychosocial support of children and unaccompanied minors. Games encourage them to express their feelings, fears and anger: this can be by drawing and painting, reading or by telling stories. Putting words to pictures and making pictures of the evils experienced enables them to symbolize the trauma they suffered, and is a starting point on the way to resilience.

Older youngsters of 12 to 17 had never imagined such a violent journey so full of suffering. Come to Europe with the goal of studying or working, they have gone through the worst. On arrival at the first aid centre in Lampedusa, they go through the difficulties of submitting to the formalization of the Italian system of reception. To be a minor has a different meaning in Europe from in their own countries; the idea of protection may be wrongly understood, and once again they feel oppressed. Tdh Italy adapts to each of them and works on the interior reconstruction of the youngsters through psychosocial activities. Together they analyse the things that have happened, the present situation, and projects for their future lives. The young people also have the chance to find out about the school system and they are given loans to buy school materials.

In the past two months, hundreds of migrants and refugees, including Syrians and Palestinians, have been rescued from the Mediterranean. Earlier this month, the High Commissioner for Refugees expressed his concern about the influx of migrants who cross the seas in smugglers’ boats in search of a better life.

“The deaths at sea of these migrants in the Caribbean, and others in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, as well as in the deserts of Mexico and the Sahara, are a wake-up call for the international community to act. We must take urgent measures to ensure that these tragedies become a thing of the past”, says IOM Director General William Lacy Swing.

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