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Lampedusa: Opening our eyes to the migration crisis

Emma Jane Kirby on how an optician from Lampedusa brought the migration crisis into sharp focus

In the first 11 months of 2016, at least 4,715 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean as they tried to reach Europe’s shores.

That’s your headline. Stark, bald fact. But be honest, did it actually make you feel anything as you read it? Those numbers may be true and we certainly need to report them but the figures are so huge and impersonal that many of us struggle to imagine the faces and names behind them.

Today, with the migration crisis, we are bombarded with images of overcrowded rubber boats in the Mediterranean, saturated with horrific pictures of body bags piled up at ports and heartbreaking photographs of desperate people staring through the bars of refugee reception centres. Occasionally a single image will startle us from our numbed state: Aylan Kurdi’s tiny body, for example, washed up on a Turkish beach. Yet somehow, many of the horror stories of this crisis get drowned out under the weight of their own numbers.

And it’s our job as journalists and writers to keep telling those stories and to keep telling them in new ways that will cut through the compassion fatigue and keep our audience and readers focused.

He did not see them as his problem. After all, he was just an optician. What could he do?

Carmine Menna runs the only optician’s shop on the little island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Sicily; an island which, thanks to its close proximity to Libya and Tunisia, is a hotspot for migrant landings. Carmine saw the migrants around him every day and felt pity for them but perhaps just like us he did not see them as his problem. After all, he was just an optician. What could he do?

One day in early October 2013, however, he took a boating holiday with his wife and six friends. He remembers it was a beautiful day and he woke in his bunk on the boat Galata to hear what he thought was the first of the seagulls squabbling and screaming over a lucky catch. But when the noise became more persistent and piercing, he and his crew upped anchor to investigate.

They did not find seagulls. Instead they found hundreds of drowning people in the water, begging them for help. The optician was on a boat that had a maximum capacity of 10 and that already had eight people on board. They had just one rubber ring.

The book began its life as a BBC Radio 4 news report, as part of a series for the PM programme about ordinary Italians affected by the migration crisis. In the five reports I made, I did not interview a single migrant, yet somehow, rather than being cut out of their own story, the migrants moved centre stage as others told their tales for them.

Listeners to the programme wrote in their droves, saying that for the very first time the migration crisis had become real for them; that they found they were weeping rather than switching off their radios. But it was the Optician’s story that haunted them – and me – the most. All I knew was that while I was recounting the Optician’s story, I felt I was also telling yours and mine because somehow we are all part of this tale.

“It was me in the boat that day,” Carmine said when I first interviewed him. “But tomorrow?” he added, staring me hard in the eyes. “What if I’m not there tomorrow?”

So in the book I never name Carmine – he is just the Optician of Lampedusa – a universal everyman figure who is no better, no worse than us. Perhaps he’s also a visionary; a seer or a prophet shouting his message over the roar of the waves in the hope we will catch it on the wind. An optician’s job after all is to make us see clearly.

When I felt the flesh and bone of that first stranger’s hand in mine as I pulled him from the water. That’s when I understood.

So while the book is about a dramatic rescue at sea – the Optician managed to save 47 people – it’s equally about the awakening of one man’s humanitarian, political and moral conscience.

“When I felt the flesh and bone of that first stranger’s hand in mine as I pulled him from the water,” he said. “That’s when I understood. That’s when I began to see.”

Are you ready to see the ugly reality or would you rather sail past with your eyes shut? Reach out your hand or keep it firmly on the wheel? You’re at the helm now, you decide.

A total of 368 people died in the Lampedusa tragedy on October 3, 2013; 368 hands that slipped away from the Optician’s grasp.

“I see them still,” he told me, gazing at the floor. “Because it’s still happening.”

Carmine Menna allowed me to tell his tale simply because he knows how important it is that we do not get hardened to this horror of our age. It does not matter, he seems to be saying, whether you are pro- or anti-immigration or whether you vote left or right. But it does matter – it has to matter – that thousands of human beings are drowning every year on Europe’s doorstep.

Because they are names. Not numbers, names.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby (Allen Lane, £9.99) is out now

Photo: Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016
Credit: Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe

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