January 12, 2015
Italy has long been an entrance point into Europe for asylum seekers traveling across the Mediterranean Sea. In October 2014, the UN said that 200,000 refugees and migrants had arrived in Europe via boat that year, compared to 60,000 in 2013.
Of those who arrived to Europe in 2014, 160,000 landed in Italy. More than 36,000 of them were Syrians.
Their voyage across the sea is perilous, with smugglers believed to using a new tactic to transport the Syrians: abandoning ship.
Smugglers will lock the migrants in the ship’s hold, sail the boat in the direction of Italy before exiting on the lifeboats in the hopes that the Italian Coast Guard will save the abandoned Syrians.
For most of the Syrians who arrive, Italy is not their final destination, but rather Sweden, Denmark or Germany. “I advise them against staying because Italy is a poor country and it is hard to live here,” Mohammed al-Rebat, a Damascene who left Syria 27 years ago and now owns a pizza shop in Milan, tells Syria Direct’s Moutasem al-Jamal.
Q: Why do you help illegal Syrian immigrants who arrive to Italy?
I help them because I consider them my family and my brothers: I am Syrian first. I feel their long suffering that they have lived through during the war and during their journey over the ocean here. How could I not help them seeing as I am one of them, especially when the Italians are helping them?
I don’t benefit materially from helping them. I only help from a human perspective and I don’t accept money.
Q: Is there any coordination with refugees before they arrive in Italy?
I know a number of smugglers that transport Syrians from Arab countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Egypt. The smugglers give the Syrians my telephone number and when they arrive, they call me for help. Sometimes I receive information about the time and place of the boats and I go there before the ships arrive.
Q: Has the Italian government threatened you for assisting Syrian immigrants?
In the beginning yes, I had some issues because of my unofficial support of refugees. I was arrested several times at the train station under the charge of illegally smuggling Syrians into Sweden.
After that, I began to coordinate with the government. I would receive the coordinates of the immigrants’ boats approaching the coast of Milan, so I started alerting the Coast Guard and Red Cross, who would then go and rescue them.
Q: Where do the immigrants go after they arrive in Italy?
I take them to [immigrant] shelters, such as the Via Aldini, and hotels. Sometimes a number of my Italian friends and I pay for these places, and help cover their basic needs. They stay for a short time, two days, sometimes more, in order to settle themselves.
Q: What happens after that?
Some stay in Italy. I advise them against staying because Italy is a poor country and it is hard for them to live here. The living situation here is not good for them, especially compared with other European countries.
They want to go to Sweden, or Denmark or Germany, so I take them to the central train station where I have friends who work there. They help the Syrians choose their destination, and afterwards my work is done.
Q: How much does it cost to come to Italy and resettle? Who pays for it?
It costs between $5,000 to $7,000, and the immigrants cover the cost themselves. Here we pay for their residence until they leave.
Q: When did you begin helping Syrian immigrants and how many have you helped?
I have been helping for about two years now, and I have probably aided 600 people or so.
Q: What do you feel towards the Syrian immigrants, especially since you have heard so many of their stories at this point?
My friend, my heart goes out to them when I see them disembark from their boats. I call those ships ‘death boats’.
The story I remember the most is when a 75-year-old woman was saved by the Italian Coast Guard after the boat she was on sank, killing her son, his wife and her grandchildren. She was crying and grieving for them. “What good is my living here in this strange country now that I’ve lost everything? I was dead in my country and now I am dead without my family.”
Q: Do you think that illegal immigration to Europe is the only solution for the Syrians’ problems?
Personally, yes, but only in the short term. It depends on the ability of European countries to host Syrians. I blame Arab countries for that: They should welcome the Syrians and give them decent living conditions.
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