I met Fola, Joyce, Hope, Precious and Izogie on a July morning at the townhouse in Dogana. The five young women were between eighteen and twenty-three years old, and had been transferred to the refugee home in the small Tuscan hilltop town after a short stay at the emergency reception center in Sicily. The home was managed by a charity that was already in charge of a women’s shelter in the Tuscan countryside. The townhouse in Dogana had originally been opened up as a second shelter for women and children who were escaping domestic violence, but in the meantime, two rooms had been prepared for asylum seekers. In spring, the prefecture had informed the municipalities of the Tuscan province it was governing that because of civil war in Syria and unrest in Libya, the number of people in need of assistance and housing was expected to grow enormously during the summer of 2014. From early June, families fleeing Syria were expected to take up the beds, but they never arrived. We learned later that the Syrians left Italy’s emergency reception centers quickly and independently to avoid having to stay in the country. They boarded northbound trains instead, hoping to reach family or friends who had already managed to make their way up to Germany and Sweden, and to other central and northern European countries.
Fola was wearing my mother’s silk nightdress when I met her for the first time. I had sorted out a lot of clothes for donation in spring, and Sergio had insisted that the lace-trimmed mother-daughter hand-me-down had to join the Red Cross bag. The moment I saw Fola wearing it, I was pleased I had agreed to let it go; the coral-red silk looked much better on her than it ever had on any member of my family. She descended the stairs looking like a darker and heavier version of Beyoncé on Grammy night, albeit a very detached and unapproachable one.
I had arrived at the house early on Sunday morning, and Anna was the only one up. She and her three teenage children had been living in the townhouse since Anna had left her violent husband a year before. I was supposed to help Nina, one of Anna’s daughters, prepare for an English exam, but Anna couldn’t wait to tell me that the Nigerian girls were a handful. I spent half the lesson listening to Anna and then Nina reporting the offensive behavior of the new houseguests. Only two nights after their arrival, the young Nigerian women already seemed to be at loggerheads with Anna and her children. I imagined the problem to be one of language and cultural differences. Anna’s family had been living in the house for nearly a year, and they had had the space to themselves for most of that time. Having to suddenly share kitchen and common spaces with five more people must have felt like an invasion to them, especially since they were hardly able to communicate with the new inhabitants. I was sure I could help sort this out. I knew little about Africa, let alone Nigeria, but I had traveled widely in my twenties and as a Swiss living abroad, I had seen my share of cultural misinterpretations and translations gone awry. For a start, the two parties sharing the house needed to establish some common ground. Once they knew a bit more about each other, and the house rules and cleaning schedules were known and respected by everybody, living together would prove less of a conflict.
Fola walked through the living room, where I was teaching Nina. I got up and walked around the table to introduce myself. I knew it would be important for the young women to receive a warm welcome so that they could feel at home. I told her my name and asked for hers.
“Fola,” she said, and walked on into the kitchen.
I stood in the middle of the room and watched my mother’s nightdress disappear around the corner before I remembered to sit back down again.
“See what I mean?” my student asked.
I got up four more times during the lesson to greet the other Nigerian girls as they came downstairs in short intervals to get their breakfast in the kitchen. Just like Fola, each of them walked across the living room without saying hello. The girls seemed oblivious to the new presence in the house or, in any case, not in the least interested in who I was and what I was doing there on a Sunday morning. Their disinterest struck me as strange, but I took their reserve and indifference as a consequence of recent shock and trauma. Teresa, the manager of the charity, had told me the evening before that the Italian navy had saved the girls from one of the overcrowded boats we kept seeing on the news. I expected them to be distressed from a harrowing trip and their time in war-torn Libya, and from just about everything that might have happened to them since they had left Nigeria.
I finished the lesson a bit early and joined the young women in the kitchen to try again. I introduced myself properly and explained that I would be at the house a couple of times a week to assist Nina in her exam preparation. “Should you have any questions, just shoot away whenever I’m here and I’ll be happy to help, okay?”
They didn’t have any questions.
“And if there is anything I can do for you right now—just let me know.”
There was nothing.
“Also, if there is anything you don’t understand in the house, like the washing machine, or let’s see... the coffeemaker?”
Izogie picked at her painted fingernails. Hope made a face I couldn’t read.
The idea behind my little speech had been to make these five young women feel safe and welcome; the result was that I stood in front of them feeling uncomfortable and fake. I had expected to meet a group of worn-out survivors relieved to have found a temporary home and grateful to every person who offered a friendly word. But reality proved itself much more complex than my naïve assumptions. I scoured my brain for something nice and useful to say; I wanted to keep this conversation going, even if it didn’t feel like one in the first place.
“Do you know where exactly you are in Italy? We could look at a map together.”
“Are we in prison?” Izogie said.
“In prison?” It seemed I wasn’t the only one making wrong assumptions. “Why in the world would you be in prison?”
Four of the young women had been locked up for months in a filthy and overcrowded house in Tripoli before being allowed on one of the boats. I would only learn this later.
“We’ve been in here for two days.” Izogie’s voice filled the whole kitchen. “We don’t know whether we can go out. The Italian people don’t talk to us.”
“Of course you can go out!” I said, and realized that I wasn’t a hundred percent sure. Was it okay for them to leave the house? Why did they think it wasn’t?
I called Teresa. “Yes,” she said, “obviously, they can go out.”
“Everything’s fine.” I was happy to be the bearer of good news. “You can go out.”
“How do we get back in?” Hope asked.
“With the key,” I said. The girls looked at me with raised eyebrows. “Don’t you have a key?”
“No,” the girls said simultaneously, and Izogie made a clicking noise with her tongue I had never heard before but would come to know well in the following months.
I was surprised to learn that the charity’s staff had not left a key for the girls or taken the time to inform them about their exact whereabouts. I knew, however, that the social workers were having a challenging time at the main women’s shelter in the countryside, which was full to the last bed with mothers and children who had all escaped extremely difficult situations. And to make things more complicated, Teresa had just been elected as a member of a Tuscan town council. While I was trying to chat up the five young Nigerian women residing at the refugee home, Teresa was spending Sunday morning repainting the local elementary school with a group of volunteers. Because of the country’s stalling economy, the Italian education department and local town councils no longer had the money to pay for work like this. Also, the girls had not been left alone but with Anna and her family, who were supposed to give them a hand; it was just that they didn’t know how to.
“So, now that you’ve discovered that I’m not a prison guard... is there anything you’d like to ask? Anything I can help with?”
“We need onions,” Hope said.
“And pepper,” Precious added. “There is no pepper.”
“Okay, let me write that down so I remember to tell Teresa or somebody from the charity.” I was relieved that at last there was a scrap of conversation underway. “And I will also make sure that you get a key.”
“And where can we go? Do we have to stay in the village?”
I called Teresa again. “Where do they want to go?” she asked.
“I don’t know. But I guess they’d like to know what they can and can’t do.” I knew they were not allowed to cross the border, but could asylum seekers move freely in Italy? I didn’t have a clue whether they were allowed to travel from region to region, or even from province to province.
Teresa wasn’t sure either. She had years of experience as the manager of the women’s shelter, but she had never worked with refugees before. She promised to find out once they were finished with the painting.
Five minutes later, the house phone rang.
“You’re looking for Izogie? Okay, hold on.” I turned around to tell Izogie that there was a man on the phone asking for her. She took the receiver, started to talk in pidgin and disappeared into her bedroom on the upper floor. The other girls followed her before I could start a new conversation.
I spent some time going through the Red Cross bags scattered in the living room, wondering whether to stay or leave. Our kids were spending part of their summer holiday at my mother’s in Switzerland, and Sergio was one of the volunteers who had grouchily sacrificed their Sunday to help Teresa repaint the school. I had promised to join them once I’d finished with Nina’s English lesson but decided to hang out for a bit. I had always been better at sorting out social and relational mix-ups than at painting walls. Or was I? The rocky morning made me doubt the accuracy of my self-assessment.
I folded a few T-shirts and put them back in the bags. Nina had mentioned that the girls had hastily looked through everything, pulling out bits and pieces while complaining that they needed new clothes, not dresses and trousers that had already been worn by middle-aged European women. Perhaps clothes were a lot cheaper in Africa. Or were they just expecting Europeans to be so rich that they wouldn’t ever bother with secondhand clothes? I folded an old jacket of mine and pulled out a black cardigan that had “Cashmere” written on its tag—something to take home if nobody else wanted it. I put it back in the bag for the moment and scribbled “shoes” on my pepper and onion note. Fola wore size 41. Finding nice used shoes in that size wasn’t going to be an easy task among Italy’s rather small-footed inhabitants.
“Did you talk to your family?” I asked Izogie, who had walked into the living room to put the portable phone back into the charger.
“No? Who was it on the phone, then?”
“Just a friend.”
“A friend who lives in Italy?”
“Good for you! You already have friends here. And what about your family? Have you been able to tell them that you’ve arrived safely?”
“I don’t have family.”
“You mean here or in Nigeria?”
“I don’t have family.”
“You don’t have parents or siblings you’d like to call?”
Izogie clicked her tongue again.
“A cousin, an aunt?”
“Vivid characters and dry humour, extremely poignant and thought-provoking - a timely work.”