Katri Tapola, translated by Merja Lammi Rechsteiner
The taxi driver talks to me on the way to the airport. He says that he has never been outside Finland’s borders because he sees no reason for it. The friendly driver tells me to be careful — after all, I’m going to a place with “all those migrants”. I don’t know what I should be afraid of and kindly tell him that.
The yellow-red-green propeller plane leaves Palermo for Lampedusa after a day’s trip at nine in the evening. I don’t know what I should be afraid of, nor do I know what to expect. I guess not knowing and being a first-timer are good starting points. Often also the only starting point when it comes to writing, or adventure.
On the plane, it feels like all self-righteous pride is left somewhere behind. A lavish, privileged life has long seemed more and more alien to me. This is in part due to the volunteer work I have done for asylum seekers in Finland. Perhaps travelling to an island/border is also different from staying on the mainland? Lampedusa: an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. It is closer to the African coast than Sicily even though it belongs to Italy. Geologically, it is part of Africa. I have heard that the island is beautiful, sunny, cloudy, windy, a place where migrants from Africa arrive. In my mind, I think of the migrants, children, fishermen, library people, beauty and barrenness that I will encounter.
At Lampedusa Airport, I immediately learn that there are no taxis on the island. Why would there be. I understand and ask the guard for help, and he assists me immediately. There is shuttle transportation to the hotel. I am in good spirits; I get help and I feel welcome.
On the first, sunny morning, I — a child of the dark, performance-focused North — try to settle for my morning coffee with a few cats, a happy dog, a nun and two elderly Italian tourists. The hotel staff speaks lampedusano. It is hot.
The library is around the corner on Via Roma. There it is: Lampedusa Children’s Library. The moment is impressive, as the first moments always are: the little blue house just invites you in. In the library, I meet Debora Soria, the founder of the library.
The library was opened on September 16, 2017 and its opening was preceded by years of work. Debora lives in Rome and owns the Ottimomassimo children’s bookstore and book bus there. IBBY Training Camp “Silent Books: from the world to Lampedusa and back” begins. The invitation letter tells me:
“At the time of uncertainty and change and many migration and integration issues in all our countries the IBBY Library invites all who are interested in using books as tools for change to come together in Lampedusa. We have to understand what new challenges and possibilities can be gained from this experience (…). We will be keeping in mind not only Lampedusa, but also every other place that is a frontier, that has a population of children who need to have opportunities opened up for them for their futures.”
Debora tells us five non-Italians what happens during the week and needs to be done. There is a lot to do, a lot of people, the days are long, all ideas are welcome, just put your name on the list on the yellow sticky-notes, plan workshops, go to school with someone who speaks Italian, make suggestions!
We start brainstorming. In the evening, we all gather together, get to know each other and learn about the library. We are almost 50 participants, most of them university staff from northern Italy: Bergamo, Brescia, Milan, and Bologna. We hear Debora’s and library volunteer Paola la Rosa’s presentations on the island, as well as wise speeches about children’s books and humanity. They also include information about what we would do at the school. The idea is to plan ordinary workshops, not to focus on migrant issues. These children have all seen death and drowning on the island.
It’s nice when people come together and suggest joint school visits. We agree to meet the next day with Paola Gandolfi, Lecturer in Arabic Language and Culture at the University of Bergamo, to plan the workshop. Likewise, workshop plans with students at the University of Bologna are soon underway. I bring with me my books and my own school visit experiences, they know the language, culture and the procedure. It feels good to be involved, to be a part of something, to not be an outsider. Admittedly, it is also good to expose oneself to feelings of alienation, of being an outsider. That is what too many people have to experience during this time. The feeling of strangeness / alienation / being an outsider/ and being from elsewhere can be a fruitful starting point for a school visit.
Stray dogs come to roam on the terrace early in the morning. And then, quite surprisingly, it hits me. An idea for a short story called ‘Welcome!’. The story comes to me whole and clear. No wonder, I had just seen that welcoming little house; a blue fairy tale library on an island in the middle of the ocean. I quickly write the idea into a diary and already dream of Sanna Pelliccioni’s illustrations. I want the book to be multilingual, so the space for text is limited. After a few days of planning, I can’t help but text Sanna, who immediately understands my idea. She answers my question about the length: 15 spreads. I begin to edit the story to fit 15 spreads, and the necessary elements and rhythm begin to take shape. The process of making a picture book is its own dramaturgical, visionary genre.
The idea was also influenced by Paola la Rosa, a former lawyer, current activist of the library and Forum Lampedusa Solidale. Paola spoke in the library on the first night about how to face migrants that cross the sea. She spoke of dignity and value: you treat others so that their dignity is preserved, and you preserve your own dignity. According to Paola, this is a normal act of humanity. You welcome them, look into their eyes, even once. We do it for our own dignity. There is nothing miraculous or strange about that. After Paola’s speech, I went to thank her and ask if I could interview her. She said to me gently yet firmly: “but it’s not about me, I’m not important and I don’t care to be in the spotlight”.
Paola also said that when the Open Arms Rescue Vessel did not get permission to land in August 2019, the people from Forum Lampedusa Solidale gathered in the church (as they always do in these kinds of situations). They lit lanterns. They slept outside in front of the church. And when they were asked what they were doing, against whom they were protesting or on whose side they were, they replied that they are not against anyone, or on anyone’s side — they are together. ”Not against or for. Just be as they are.” The migrants had been on board for a long time. The people of Forum Lampedusa Solidale now laid in front of the church in a similar way and communicated: you are not alone.
I walk through the little town centre, devouring everything I see. I ask Debora what the text in the painting on the outside wall of the church means, and Debora translates it into English: ”modern Idol steals you life and gives you solitude.” We talk about the power of money. It’s easy to just be and breathe when you’re in the company of such insightful human rights defenders. This is also how the children’s book lives in time. The children’s book conveys eternal human values and feelings common to all of us, helping to identify and name them, and, simultaneously, plays an important role as a tool for the polyphony and richness of imagery that is badly needed right now. I firmly believe in the children’s book, as an inhibitor of racism and an enabler of equality. That’s my tool and reason to continue.
In the following days, we make school visits and hold workshops. The kids are lovely and open – and the same as in everywhere else. It is our job to learn from them. There is no common language, but my co-workers take on the language responsibility and I get to enjoy how my own picture books (thank you illustrators!) can be useful and interesting even if (and especially because!) they are in Finnish. Both sides feel like “an outsider”: children don’t understand the Finnish in my books, and I don’t know Italian. I learn to trust that the most important thing with children is the encounter and being present.
One day, youth from the Girasoli di Mazzarino, migrants in the second stage of their integration process, arrive at the camp. Thanks to the organization they can go to school and learn the language and develop civic skills. They enjoy it. Every day, the square between the library and the school is full of joyful togetherness and play. They play with all the games and gadgets the organization’s van has to offer.
We make excursions on the island, learn, hear and see more. I walk on old African soil. Wind in my hair, I see the past, and the horizon of the future, my mind is cleansed. There are so many programs, lessons, workshops and events that sometimes I have to retreat to the incomprehensible beauty and peace of the island.
During the tour of the local cemetery, Paola talks about the graves of those who drowned at sea. Most of the deceased resting in the graves are unidentified. Paola talks about things that they have had to encounter on the island. Funeral practices and how to honour the deceased on their final journey. Artist Armin Greder, who has done the murals for the library, has also painted the images for the graves. There is also a Mediterranean Hope organization on the island, which aims to ensure safe routes. This, so that no one has to die in the Mediterranean Sea.
In the cafe, I meet people with the professional name ‘cultural mediator’. One of them is Essam Eldabbah, who works on a Coast Guard (Guardia Costiera) rescue ship. There is a total of three vessels in the port of Lampedusa. In addition to the crew, the rescue ships have two doctors, four nurses and five cultural mediators. They have their own patrol schedules as well as on-call duties. When the sea is stormy, there are (hopefully) no newcomers.
Another cultural mediator I meet is Tarek El Meslmani. Tarek acts as a cultural and linguistic interpreter between different authorities and migrants. There are twenty representatives of the profession in Lampedusa in total, from different countries: Eritrea, Gambia, Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria…
Essam and Tarek take me to the cemetery of boats. Another moving first time. Boats from Africa are incredibly small in size when you think how many people are crammed into them. Essam explains how things are handled at sea and what his job is on the rescue ship. The Guardia Costiera’s ship slowly approaches the migrants’ boat. Essam’s job is to speak to the people on the boat: to reassure them, to look into their eyes, to urge them to stay still. One single wrong movement can overturn a crowded boat. Then the evacuation begins — when things are going well. “Do you know what the law of the sea is?”, Essam asks. “When a SOS alert comes, every ship helps. All political positions and differences of opinion on migrants are forgotten.”
I also get to ride to Porta d’Europa with Essam and Tarek. The monument, designed by Mimmo Paladino, stands on a barren, rocky beach in memory of those who died at sea. I later learn that there are other monuments on the island. People traveling to Europe, who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, are present in the life of the island. Trees have been planted in the stunted park for everyone who died in a shipwreck on 3 October 2013. The square has a statue with all the names on it, on the wall are photos of people whose goal was (new) life. When talking about migrants, it is essential to talk about individuals, without depersonalization and dehumanization. Migrants are not faceless “others”.
I explain how young asylum seekers in Finland are allowed to complete primary school and learn the Finnish language but are still at worst forced to be deported for example to Afghanistan. Or how some people who came in 2015 are still waiting for a decision, after five years. This is partly due to the mistakes made by the Finnish Immigration Service. My friends are absolutely amazed at what I tell them: why does Finland want to send decent people away?
In the last morning, the hotel owner Ornella takes me to Lampedusa Airport, which is within a walking distance, runway between the sea and the city. There is a crowd of people at the airport, people returning from a congress that was held on the island at the same time. It was a migrant congress. The participants are researchers, lawyers and judges. I get on the plane to Palermo and see Pietro Bartolo in front of me. I cannot even greet him, I feel so distracted (yes, the place enchanted me, I cannot remember experiencing anything similar). The ‘doctor of Lampedusa’, current MEP and a great humanist, is in the middle of a conversation and I do not dare to disturb him. Later, of course, I regret that I did not even give him a smile or a thank you. I also forgot to ask for an autograph for his book that I had with me in my bag.
In my mind I say: thank you. I see the sea and the mountains from the plane window — the sea also stays inside me, like my little story that I take with me. I have received so much. Maybe, someday I can give something back.
End of November — 2019 February 2020
Shortly after the trip, we hold workshops at the closing seminars of the Lukiloki project of the University of Jyväskylä. I hold the workshop with the young Seyed Nader Hoseini, who has come to Finland as an asylum seeker. Teachers are interested in Nader’s story and poems. Life in Finland settles down; activism, writing, school visits. I try to follow the Italian news as closely as possible. There is a shipwreck on 23.11.2019 near the Isola dei Conigli, the beach where I enjoyed a day with my friends in mid-November. Five people die, all women. 149 are saved, among them are women and children.
In January, our bilingual picture book ”Siinä sinä olet” (There You Are) is published by Teos. The book is illustrated by Muhaned Durubi and translated into Arabic by Aya Chalabee. The book tells about longing. Every now and then I receive a message from Lampedusa. 10.1.2020 “We made a rescue operation and all the 98 persons are safe and warm now.” Once, I receive a message bearing sad news. The Coast Guard had to go search for those who drowned at sea. 14.2.2020 ”76 migrants saved thank God.”
To our delight, Karisto accepts our book “Welcome!” for their publishing program. I can continue the work I believe in. At the same time, I am already preparing for a new journey. The island attracts: peace of mind, simple life, dreams, perhaps.
I arrive to Lampedusa a second time. I come to write, to be, to rest, to enjoy the outdoors, to do library and school collaborations. Or so I think. My eyes get used to the place quickly, it feels familiar. The cemetery of boats no longer shocks me. That is everyday life, in language as well as in practices. It’s frightening when bad things become normal.
People live in their imagination. My suitcase is full of light summer clothes and I immediately need to borrow a thick padded jacket. My landlady Piera offers different kinds of fish and homemade ravioli on the night of my arrival. All five sons of Piera and Salvatore are fishermen like their father.
The wind is strong, but some days are enough warm for sunbathing on the beach. The island’s reception center is empty again. Life in Lampedusa is a peaceful, normal life of a small fishing community. There is plastic waste everywhere. Reportedly, the island only gets cleaned once before the tourist season. I wonder what life is like then?
Every time I walk past the wall where the annual visitors from Amnesty have painted pictures of people stepping out of seashells, I think of openness. Some of the people in the painting just peek, looking cautious. At the same time, I think about the work of an author. Writing always requires openness, reaching out to oneself, others, the world. You must put yourself out there, you have to be vulnerable. Like the monuments, the murals in Lampedusa are reminiscent of what is happening in the world and at sea. On the ways of another walking route, happy faces smile at me from the wall. It is the place where the Guardia Costiera leaves the migrants it rescues.
For a week, life stays more or less open. Then the corona situation worsens. The Italian government tightens restrictions. Schools are closed also in Lampedusa, even though there is no virus on the island. The library closes, and the dreams about working with the school fall apart. Cafes and restaurants are closed. Only the little supermarkets and pharmacy are allowed to stay open.
This time, it’s my turn to feel like an unwanted stranger. The experience is interesting for a white middle-class European like me. Fear makes people withdraw and disappear behind their masks. The local couple that runs the store is still friendly towards me. Piera and Salvatore still invite me to eat; they treat me with a meal of ten dishes, including dried fish. I will never forget this meal. My friend Angela and me sometimes make an extra trip to the store.
Before I need to leave due to the corona restrictions, it’s time to write a children’s novel and watch the sea on Porta d’Europa, an empty rocky beach where I can half-secretly escape from police patrol interrogations. I can’t get any closer to Africa. I email Debora in Rome while arranging a journey back home after a two-week quarantine on the island.
In the email conversations, I learn more about how long the library’s path from the idea to the opening was. Debora first came to Lampedusa in 2012. Her goal was to understand how to help the community to set up the library and she immediately got to know Paola. The island of Lampedusa had been neglected and forgotten. Fear, ignorance, and resistance to change were great. The island, due to its location, was tested in many ways after the 2011 Arab Spring migrant flood. On the other hand, the island has always had a built-in ability to help and receive migrants. The founders of the library held their ground and saw the horizon of the future. They understood the children’s love of life, openness and readiness for change. Today, the library is the cultural centre of the whole island with its various encounters and book events. The library works closely with the school and the children love their library. Children who stay at the reception centre for a few weeks before their transfer are not able to leave the centre. They can, however, have access to the books if they wish. The Silent Books reading instructions describe how the moment of reading nonverbal picture books can be thought of as a bridge. What would it be like to meet people without a common language, to build a bridge to the future?
Now, in times of the corona virus, the words of the taxi driver on my first trip look different than in November. My northern Italian friends have experienced hardships. They have finally moved on to the second stage after two months of quarantine. Take away cafes are opening in Lampedusa. The library arranges a delivery service for books. Other than that, the library remains closed.
A lot has happened at sea. I don’t understand everything, but I do know that corona virus treats people unequally. Landing permits for ships cause discussions. The Lampedusa reception centre is full and newcomers, including children, have to sleep on the dock. The parish has provided emergency assistance and accommodation. Priest Carmelo la Magra, a human rights defender, has started to raise funds.
I will go back as soon as the situation allows. I already know that the third time’s a charm. It is like Debora said: “Just below the Porta d’Europa is Africa, the dangerous place, and you are very close to that Invisible line made by us. But your feet are on a part of Africa that has broken of. It’s the land in between. It can put a spell on you.” In addition to my enthusiasm, I take with me my travel documents, a passport, and freedom. I’m not a migrant, I am a migrant bird. Next time, I have Welcome! with me. The book is in five languages and it has already found avid Darin, Kurdish and Somali translators. The book is a gift to the little fairy-tale library in which stories unfold, inside a person, and out into the world.
(Update: On June 5, 2020, the cemetery of boats was burned down by an unknown perpetrator.)