Inside an old school building in Augusta, Sicily hundreds of unaccompanied minors see out their adolescence in limbo, waiting… for who knows how long.
Inside an old school building in Augusta, Sicily hundreds of unaccompanied minors see out their adolescence in limbo, waiting… for who knows how long. Photographer Claudio Majorana documented their stories.
“Can you at least tell me where we are? I mean on a map!” asks a young Bangladeshi boy who had arrived on a boat from Libya the night before. After being shown Sicily on a map, he seemed even more confused and a frustrated expression developed on his face.
The Verdi school in Augusta, Sicily hosts over a hundred unaccompanied minors, mainly from Egypt, Western Africa and Bangladesh. Most arrive disoriented, unsure where they are after crossing the Mediterranean on flimsy smugglers’ boats from Libya. Many have been pulled from the water by rescue boats – but many others aren’t so lucky.
The school building is guarded by armoured vans and off-road vehicles from the Italian security forces. Upon arrival, the boys, who are all under 18, are divided between the nine classrooms according to their nationality and behaviour. Then they wait, in limbo, until the authorities decide what to do with them. Italian photographer Claudio Majorana spent a week at the Verdi school in September 2014, documenting the lives of young refugees. Here are some of their stories.
“If I looked ahead of me I all I could see was water, if I looked behind me I all I could see was water, if I looked to my left or my right, all I could see was just water. That’s when I started feeling really scared,” remembers C, aged 17 from Nigeria. “We left Libya on a Friday night with 102 people, including the driver and the compass holder. The “organisation” [the smugglers] recruits anyone who claims to know how to navigate and lets them travel for free as long as they agree to drive the boat to the destination. They loaded the 3×5 metre boat with cases of water, but we soon ran out. Some people started drinking the sea water and you could see them throwing up.”
As C is telling his story, K from Ghana shares his own experience. “Only the strongest survive,” he reflects. “I don’t mean strong in terms of your body, it’s all about the strength of your mind. Your mind makes you who you are. Without a strong one you wouldn’t go far. The sea gave me that experience and experience is the best teacher.”
He explains how he felt the inflatable boat flexing beneath the weight of its dangerously overcapacity cargo. “Eventually the boat started collapsing so people would hold onto different parts,” he explains. “Water started getting inside. Our feet were dipped in the sea water. When we saw the rescue boat we started praising God for saving our lives.”
Many of the boys who arrive in Augusta have had to cross the Sahara, work illegally in Libya or avoid the huge risk of kidnapping along the route. But for all of those fortunate enough to survive the crossing, escaping the lives they’ve left behind is worth the huge risks they’ve undertaken.
Y is a 17-year-old from Mali, who came to be know as “Il Calciatore” (The Soccer Player). A few years before he was born, his father, the local Imam, was involved in a disagreement with another Mosque. The village chief tried to make peace but eventually Y’s father and his friend were attacked by a mob and left for dead. “When my brother found them they were in a pool of blood,” Y explains. “My father was in a coma for 30 days while his friend was already dead. After more than a month in hospital, my father came back home but couldn’t walk well anymore and was scared because he knew his family were still in danger.”
The family moved to Mali’s capital, Bamako, where Y’s uncle lived. “Life was not easy,” he explains. “My father had a permanent knee injury and both he and my mother didn’t have an education that would allow them to find a job. But my uncle in Bamako didn’t have a son, so he took care of me, paid for my education and got me into soccer school. He was like a father to me.”
But Y’s uncle was killed by a stray bullet as military forces battled it out following Mali’s 2012 coup d’état. Y moved to Algeria and did all kinds of jobs, then on to Libya. “It was terrible,” he remembers. “Everyone was carrying guns. You would work and they wouldn’t even pay you. Sometimes people would just come to your place and steal your mobile and your money. I knew that by staying in Libya, I was risking my life as much as the trip to Europe. After seven months I got on a boat. I knew it could have killed me, I didn’t even know how to swim, it was the first time I had seen the sea.”
Conditions at the school are basic but the kids are given medical care and volunteers come in to provide Italian lessons and tutoring. The boys are allowed to leave during the day, but with little knowledge of Italian, most can do little more than beg on the streets. Frustrated at the months spent waiting and with no idea what’s going to happen to them, the boys organised a protest on Claudio’s last day at the school. They placed posters on walls around the school like the one below.
The Verdi school was originally closed years ago because of concerns about the building’s safety. It reopened for five months in 2014 as a Centro di Prima Accoglienza or short term accommodation centre, before the boys could be sent to a more well-equipped refugee centre or hosted in the community.
Underage children who arrive in Italy can not be expelled and have the right to a residency permit until age 18 (which can be extended to 21 if they are enrolled in education or may be converted into a work permit). Minors must be assigned a legal guardian and any adult citizen can become a guardian. Some children choose to seek asylum. If successful, they are transferred to SPRAR facilities which host refugees and people with the right of asylum, where they can begin education, such as literacy, Italian and high school classes, depending on their wishes.
A month after Claudio spent time at the Verdi school in September 2014, the centre was closed as it was deemed unsuitable. The kids were sent to other camps or communities in Sicily. Claudio learned some found jobs, a couple are playing soccer and others found ways to cross the French or German border.
During that time, the migration crisis has only intensified. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have joined the flow of humanity seeking sanctuary in Europe – but Europe has yet to come to terms with the number of arrivals. For the thousands of unaccompanied minors, like those in Augusta, there’s a lot more waiting to be done.
During the five months Y spent at the Verdi School, he met a man and a woman who offered to become his tutors. They put him in contact with the manager of a Sicilian soccer team, who after seeing him play, offered him a player’s contract and a room to live. When Claudio left the school, Y was awaiting the conformation to move out, start playing soccer and begin his new life.
But stories of hope like Y’s are rare. For everyone else, it’s waiting, waiting, waiting. Most will turn from boys to men stuck in limbo, unsure of what their futures hold and with little control over their destinies.
Names have been shortened and faces obscured to protect identities.
Find out more about Claudio Majorana’s work.