Photographing African Migration to Sicily

Refugees of the neoliberal global economy, unaccompanied African minors are leaving for Europe in search of a brighter future.

This series of photographs—both bleak and hopeful—sheds light on the lived experiences of unaccompanied African youth finding refuge in Sicily amidst a global migratory crisis.
In 2016, more than one million refugees crossed the Mediterranean from Africa and reached European soil. Of those migrants, approximately 180,000 took the route across the central Mediterranean that connects Tripoli, Libya to southern Italy. Migrants who take this route pay Libyan smugglers for passage on rickety wooden boats hoping to be rescued by the Italian Coast Guard when they reach international waters. While the dramatic rescues and tragic loss of life at sea make for compelling news coverage, the experiences of migrants are largely overlooked as they make their way in a new land amidst an unfamiliar language, culture and societal framework.

Unaccompanied youth migrants constitute a growing share of the 10,000-plus Africans who land on Italy’s southern shores each month. After the 300-mile journey across the Mediterranean, they are placed in government- or church-funded shelters until they turn 18 and are granted—or denied—immigration status.  Unaccompanied youth make up around 20 percent of the 176,000 asylum-seekers living in Italian shelters.

I: Nigerian Youth Migrants at Camp. 
A group of young migrants from Nigeria spend a weekday in the bedroom of their camp, a six-bedroom apartment that houses 15 unaccompanied West African youth. There are around 20 small-scale youth migrant camps in Syracuse, Sicily which house migrants of similar geographical and linguistic backgrounds. The migrants pictured speak English, and the other rooms in the camp are inhabited by either French- or English-speaking West Africans. Residents of this camp spend the vast majority of their days in the camp surfing the internet and listening to music, or in the common room socializing, playing games, cooking and eating. Alex Polydoroff

This year, the Italian government predicts spending $3 billion on managing these asylum-seekers: providing them with shelter and food, expanding the legal system to hear their cases, rescuing new migrants at sea, and strengthening border security measures. Despite intensifying anti-immigrant rhetoric in Italian political discourse, newly arrived African youth migrants continue to find spaces of refuge: from classrooms at NGOs to kitchens in Sicilian homes.

This series of photographs—both bleak and hopeful—sheds light on the lived experiences of unaccompanied African youth finding refuge in Sicily amidst a global migratory crisis. I captured these images during my two-month internship with the Intercultural Studies Center (Director: Ramzi Harrabi, [email protected]), a field school in Syracuse, Sicily that provides educational, cultural and social support services to newly arrived migrants.

II: Umberto Primo Refugee Camp.
One of the largest adult refugee camps in Syracuse, Umberto Primo houses 60 migrants from diverse cultural backgrounds. Pictured are asylum seekers from Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and The Gambia. Joshua, the Nigerian youth in the foreground who is at the camp for an acting class, will move into Umberto Primo when he turns 18. 
Alex Polydoroff
III: Movement at “Freedom” Camp.
I shot this image at “Freedom” Camp in Syracuse, a camp for migrants who are under 18 years old and arrive to Italy alone. When these migrants turn 18, they are moved to adult camps, so there is always discernible movement in and out of this camp. The Nigerian migrant in motion turned 18 soon after I took this photo and was moved to an adult migrant camp a few miles away. While “Freedom” Camp is a space that sees continuous movement of African migrant youth, there is also a sense of existential waiting there. Eighteen is the minimum working age in Syracuse, so these youth wait in “Freedom” Camp until they can move, work and feel like they can more fully participate in society.
Alex Polydoroff
IV: Sicilian Psychiatrist and Gambian Youth Migrants Luigi, an child psychiatrist from Catania, Sicily, visits a youth camp in Syracuse and counsels two Gambian migrants about gaining sustainable employment, immersing themselves into Italian culture and maintaining a positive attitude in their new home. Alex Polydoroff
V: Portrait of a Young Man.
David was only 17 years old when I shot this photo. He told me Libya was the worst place on Earth, and that Libyan police officers told him, “You will die if you step on that boat.” David lived for nine months in “Freedom” Camp before moving to an adult camp in downtown Syracuse. 
Alex Polydoroff
VI: Moroccan Boy at Workers’ Rights March.
Amine, a 17-year-old migrant from Rabat, Morocco, attends a demonstration in Palermo organized by the Sicilian branch of the Italian NGO Confederazione Italiana Sindicati Lavoratori, which advocates for the equitable integration of migrant workers into the Italian workforce. More than 200,000 African migrants participate in the documented Sicilian workforce, and many more work as undocumented laborers.
 Alex Polydoroff
VII: West African Migrants at Italian Class.
Men from Senegal, Nigeria and The Gambia take an introductory Italian language course at the Confederazione Italiana Sindicati Lavoratori, a non-governmental organization (NGO) and labor union in Syracuse that assists local workers. The bi-weekly Italian language courses are offered by the NGO staff to facilitate migrants’ entrance into the workforce. Men make up the vast majority of the NGO’s students, given their representation in the larger population of migrants arriving from Africa. 
Alex Polydoroff
VIII: Portrait of Ramzi in Migrant Boat.
Tunisian artist, intercultural mediator and leader of the Syracuse Council for Immigrants, Ramzi Harrabi, who is also the director of the Intercultural Studies Center, smiles for a portrait in the hull of a Libyan fishing boat that successfully crossed the Mediterranean with around 50 migrants. Ramzi visits abandoned migrant boats sites like this one in Avola, Sicily to collect possessions that migrants leave behind as they are rescued. He displays the items alongside his own paintings and other migrant artwork for an ongoing art exhibition Uprooted: Raising Migrant Voices, housed in a 14th-century church in the historic center of Syracuse. 
Alex Polydoroff
IX: Youth Volunteers.
Three West African boys paint benches on the terrace of the Intercultural Studies Center. At the ISC, these youth migrants take language and classes, participate in field trips and get to know visiting students of the field school. 
Alex Polydoroff
X: “Freedom” Camp Balcony.
Two young Nigerian migrants pass the day on the balcony of their room at “Freedom” Camp, in a sense envisioning their futures in their new homeland. 
Alex Polydoroff

Alex Polydoroff is a sociocultural anthropology/Spanish/jazz studies major at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He will continue his research on African youth migration/integration in Sicily this summer in preparation for his honors thesis in anthropology.

 

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