Giovanna Di Benedetto, Save the Children Italy
August 19, 2015
I am a media officer for Save the Children Italy working in Sicily, a region that includes the island of Lampedusa. My role is to give a voice to child migrants who come to our shores. My amazing adventure with Save the Children began last July, at about the same time that there was a surge in the number of migrants making the trip by boat to Sicily. On some days there were two or three landings a day and my team was present for all of these, on hand to give assistance and support.
Over 170,000 migrants came to Italy by sea in 2014, 26,000 of them being underage. When you hear that figure, it’s easy to forget the human dimension to this crisis. But behind the number is a story of bravery and resilience and my job is to help the public understand what drives these children to risk their lives to come alone, to our shores. All children have their own personal slice of suffering but they also have hope and so much ambition for a better future.
I remember a story about two Palestinian brothers who had been living in a refugee camp in Syria. They were 19 and 9 years old. They travelled from Turkey to Sicily with their grandfather. The brothers held each other’s hands very tightly -they were so afraid of being separated. In Syria they had lived through continuous shelling and when the younger brother had been badly hurt he hadn’t been able to see a doctor for 20 days. It was so moving to see how much these brothers loved each other and how close they were. They and their grandfather had an ambition to go to Northern Europe.
One thing that is always shocking to hear is what children have endured in Libya. Libya is a transit point for migrants coming to Italy and almost everyone who has been held here has a horrific story to tell. I met a Gambian boy who was 16 years old. He showed me the scars on his arm. He told me that the scars were all over his body. The wounds were caused by beatings and cigarette burns he had received by Libyan traffickers.
It’s our goal to give children back their childhood, for them to be able to play, be serene, to live with their families and to give them a chance to have a future. Children have an incredible energy. Sometimes I see children who have been on a boat for hours and hours get off the boat and immediately start playing and running around. These children have a right to have a childhood like everyone else. And up to now they have missed out on this.
I love to tell the story of the little Syrian girl called Hayat. She landed in Sicily, last August and is a survivor in every sense of the word! Her parents and her brother who was 10, all died during the boat trip to Sicily. A Syrian man, who was on the same shipwrecked boat, saved Hayat. He found her in the water, hanging on to a piece of debris. She was one year and eight months old. We saw them disembark, the man was a size of a giant and he held little Hayat so protectively. This man, who turned out to be a Syrian doctor had saved this little girl’s life. He absolutely adored her and she him. He wanted to adopt her but this wasn’t possible.
Hayat was placed into the care of child welfare services and Save the Children representatives were able to contact her grandfather and aunt who were living in Sudan. After a lengthy process we were able to bring over the grandfather and uncle from Sudan and reunify them with Hayat. This was a very happy moment for us, that she was able to return home to her own family. She was 1 year 8 months when she arrived and she celebrated her 2nd birthday with us, her foster family and her aunt and grandfather!
We’ve also witnessed mothers who have given birth on the rescue ships of the Italian Coast Guard, almost immediately after they had been helped off the rubber dinghy they had attempted the trip on. There was a Nigerian woman who gave birth on Christmas day, with the assistance of the Italian Red Cross. She was one of 900 migrants who arrived that day.
I’ve learned that people leave their homes because they feel that they have no other alternative. Perhaps they are fleeing the conflicts in Syria or Iraq, from violence in Nigeria or from extreme poverty. Children tell us that their families are too poor to care for them, they have no future prospects, and some do not have the chance to go to school. Now in Italy they will have the chance to get an education. These children want to be doctors or lawyers so they can defend the rights of the most vulnerable. Many also want to become football players- they know the names of all Italian and European football players! One young migrant we assisted was a promising football player in his country and he came here to pursue his dream.
I remember when we received a landing of about 800 people, migrants who came ashore on a cargo boat. An old woman had disembarked, and all of her life was in a little plastic bag. She sat on the dock and started crying inconsolably. A few days later I saw her in the first reception centre. She had been given clothes, food and a place to sleep. She gave me a hug and started to caress my hair. Little gestures like this are small tokens of humanity that keep me going.
These stories teach us so much and they give the Save the Children team and me the motivation to make a difference. These people are so courageous. The cases we see are emotionally very difficult but what keeps us going is the sense of humanity, the strength of human spirit. This might seem like rhetoric but it isn’t – I witness it every day.