We Are the Pigeons: Frontlines of the Italian Refugee Crisis
“My brothers and sisters here, we are the pigeons,” Stefan, an African refugee, said to me one evening in Florence, Italy. This allusion he drew between displaced people and vermin birds was something that stuck with me, and I spent the rest of my year abroad in Italy getting to know this community of refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers. I attempted to capture their experiences through my lens and pen, crafting photographs and written narratives of profound interactions I had with these beautiful people.
We live in very polarizing times, and I think it is important now more than ever to approach differences with respect and dignity. May this series allow you a glimpse into another life, and may you see yourself reflected back.
In the end, we are all the pigeons.
“We are the pigeons. My brothers and sisters here, we are the pigeons. They are in the same family as doves, but they are hated vermin. We try and try to get by, but in the end, no one will give us a chance. We are hated.” (Ponte Santa Trinita, Florence, Italy)
“People look at us in one of two ways: with utter pity or disgust. I don’t know which is better, to be a leper or a criminal?” (Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, Florence, Italy)
“You think I want to be doing this? You think when I was a little boy, I dreamed of selling leather bags to rich people who try to haggle the price so low that I lose money? Sure, I have my little shop, I am very lucky. But I am so alone here, not taken seriously or treated with respect. My family is a world away and no one knows me here. No one wants to know me here.” (San Lorenzo Leather Market, Florence, Italy)
“They want you to think everything in this city is pretty and nice, but it’s dark and gritty. Every place has its problems, and Florence is no exception. It’s an old city, people live in it. But we make the best of it. It’s the only home we’ve got, now.” (Sant’Apollonia, Florence, Italy)
“There’s the shiny side of the Duomo, that’s where all the tourists go, that’s where all the pictures you see are from. But there’s the dark side, too. They don’t bother cleaning it. No one likes to be around it. We walk past it quickly, ignore it. It’s my favorite side.” (Northeast side of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy)
“I don’t have a face. I am invisible here. I have become part of the city. It has absorbed me. It is like we have been stripped of our homeland but instead of being given a new identity, we are left with a gaping hole.” (Near Martim Moniz, Lisbon, Portugal)
“My husband died after our youngest son was born. After that, we couldn’t stay in Senegal, so I came to Florence to stay with my brother. We have been here nine years. My sons are doing so well in Florence: they go to the international school. They can speak four languages. They are at the tops of their classes. They have many friends. I sell these bracelets to pretty people like you so that they can have a future.” (Ava on Ponte Santa Trinita, Florence, Italy)
“It is beautiful here. Everyday, I walk under archways Michelangelo must have walked 500 years ago while he thought about painting and sculpting. I sit on steps Leonardo da Vinci surely sat on while sketching ideas way ahead of his time. I pass the house Dante Alighieri was born in 700 years ago. Dante invented the modern Italian language! I love Florentine history! But it makes me sad because I will never achieve those things. I will always sell sunglasses, or maybe if I am good enough, I can buy my own cart and sell leather bags. But I will never leave behind a legacy.” (Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, Florence, Italy)
“I’m afraid that I’m not going to wake up one morning and no one will notice that I died.” (Csirkefogó-szobor by Kiss György, Budapest, Hungary)
“This is my favorite time and my favorite view of the city. The light shines just right on all the buildings and everything is golden. It feels hopeful. It reminds me of my family back home in Sierra Leone. They see the same sun setting on the horizon that I do. I feel closer to them whenever I watch the sunset.” (Cityscape from Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence, Italy)
“It seems cutthroat with all of us selling the same things and shouting at the tourists to get their selfie sticks from us, but we are all here for the same reasons, really. We do this to support our mothers, our sisters, our wives, our daughters. It is hard to justify taking away business from one of my friends because we are all fighting the same fight.” (Piazza San Marco, Florence, Italy)
“The kids notice us. They aren’t afraid. They like our colorful dashiki tops and the fun toys we sell. They are too young to hate. That gives me hope. Maybe the future will be okay, one day.” (Rynek Główny, Kraków, Poland)
“There are so many people constantly moving through Florence: tourists, students, immigrants. You can never build a constant support system because we’re all moving around so much. One day your friends stop showing up at the local coffee bar and you never see them again. It happens a lot. One day I’ll leave, too. That’s how it works.” (Within Campanile di Giotto, looking down on Piazza del Duomo, Florence, Italy)
“Coming to Florence, I think I have lost a piece of myself. I do the same things every day. There are not many people I talk to regularly. I get swallowed up in the mundaneness of everyday and I forget to appreciate this life I have been blessed with.” (Near Piazza Della Libertà, Florence, Italy)
“The hardest thing I ever did was leave The Gambia. It was terrifying. I didn’t know what I would find once I entered Europe, if I would be okay. I just trusted that things would be brighter on the other side.” (Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy)
“We have to support one another. And no, I’m not talking about the African community supporting its members and the Indian community supporting its members and the Florentine community supporting its members, I’m talking about every human being supporting every other human being. We are all interconnected and to ignore that is a death sentence.” (Pre-fall into the canals, Venice, Italy)
“I will do this until the day I leave this cruel Earth if it means my boys can live better lives. Even if I have to walk this bridge ten thousand more times, if it means my boys don’t have to live in fear, I will do it. What mother wouldn’t?” (Ava cutting bracelets on Ponte Santa Trinita, Florence, Italy)
“I don’t know what it’s like to feel normal anymore.” (Ponte Vecchio along the Arno River, Florence, Italy)
“People show me a bracelet on their wrist and say, ‘I already bought from you!’ But I don’t sell bracelets, I sell books! But they don’t care. They think we all look alike, that we are one collective unit. We are all so different, we are from so many different places. No one else shares my special story. They see us as ‘The Africans,’ as though that can begin to define our identities. We are not ‘The Others.’ We are just like you.” (Piazza San Marco, Florence, Italy)
“When I’m standing up here, walking along these streets day after day, my mind drifts to my family, always. I wonder if my grandmother’s hair has turned completely white and if my uncle has saved enough money to buy a new car and if my baby sister still sees animals in the clouds, because I still do. I hope I never stop.” (Taken from Piazza dei Pitti, Florence, Italy)
You can read my original blog post about the interaction with Stefan that inspired this series
here and check out photos from the opening night of my gallery show at the Drury on C-Street Gallery (on display through the month of November 2017).
You can also check out my feature article both in the print and
digital editions of the Fall 2017 edition of the Drury Magazine, Virtue.