The word “migrate” at its most basic definition simply means to move from one place to another. Even as an immigrant myself, never has this word held as much weight as it does at this point in my life, when the act of movement itself is a societal sin. I had recently expressed the freedom I discovered within being unanchored, untethered to any country or fixed identity– a type of freedom I’d wrestled with for quite some time. Yet here I am, here we all are, bound not only to one nation, but to one roof.
The COVID-19 outbreak needs no introduction, as it’s been the shock felt ‘round the world for the last few weeks. Upon the closing of in-person teaching at Temple Rome about a month ago, administrators sent me and all the other students in the program back to our respective home countries, and told us to self-monitor for 14 days. Within this span of time, the situation ended up escalating quite rapidly, leading to school closures across the United States mimicking those of northern Italy weeks prior. Now, in the wake of “social-distancing,” “remote learning,” and entire countries on lockdown, we are all left struggling to find a light at the end of this seemingly long tunnel.
Despite our having to leave Rome, the Envoy program is now continuing through virtual conversations on Zoom. A few days ago I had the opportunity to speak with Madhobi, an Italian without citizenship born in Bangladesh who has worked for an organization called Migrantour that leads intercultural tours around Rome. She spoke of her family history, her father moving to Italy in the 1990s as one of the first Bangladeshi immigrants in the country, learning pizza and bread making to sustain himself. Cultural expectations dictated that the man settle in a place first, then the family would follow. Madhobi and her mother followed shortly after when she was only one year old. She expressed that though she might be Bangladeshi from a legal point of view she often sees herself as Italian, but this part of her identity remains fluid. She identifies as Muslim, and her faith seems to play a big role in her life.
Madhobi’s story was moving to me because I could see the contrast in our migration experience. Being only a year old when she moved, these stories were likely passed down to her from her parents, whereas I still remember what it was like to leave Jamaica and come to the States. I’ve also obtained citizenship in the U.S., while Madhobi has not been able to in Italy. However, we share similar feelings of fluidity in identifying with one country or the other. For both of us, and for many other migrants around the world, it seems we try to learn about our own heritage to learn about ourselves.
Later in our discussion we got to the topic of COVID-19– specifically how migrants in Italy are being affected by the virus– and her remarks were rather grim. She spoke of some migrants going back to their home countries, where a few of them end up spreading the virus across borders unknowingly. It has also been difficult for refugees, depending on their status, to receive healthcare, because of the decree recently passed that makes it difficult to access healthcare for asylum seekers. Some Asian descendant migrants are hesitant to get healthcare, fearing they’ll face discrimination; Benedicta, our program coordinator, recalled hearing from a migrant “will they even cure me? They might think I’m the virus.” Muslim migrants are also facing burial issues because most cemeteries in Rome are catholic; in Islam when a person dies they cannot be cremated and must be buried in traditional Muslim fashion. Typically, bodies would be sent back to their home countries, but this has proved difficult because of the virus. Many of these issues are wrongfully being overshadowed by issues of the majority, leaving these minority groups in a vulnerable state.
Still, there have been positives despite these issues. Doctors from all over the world are coming to aid in Italian hospitals, due to the high influx of patients. Part of the Muslim community was able to come together to raise money for hospitals. This situation has highlighted now, more than ever, our collective identity as global citizens.
Being back in the U.S. and resorting to a mainly digital world has been difficult. During my discussion with Madhobi I was reflecting on our internet connection issues, and the language barrier between Italian and English as standing for something larger. Though layers of screens and distance stood between us, we were still able to have a shared human experience through dialogue that may not have happened otherwise. There was one instance in which she struggled to find an English word for something in her own language, and settled on “transmit,” explaining that she meant “to give the opportunity to get to know”. I found that powerful. Through the shared experience of this pandemic we all have been given the opportunity to get to know each other– and ourselves– a little deeper, to emerge stronger when all of this is over.