The Madonna of the Sea by Maaza Mengiste

The story tells one young Ethiopian's odyssey through Libya while trying to get to Lampedusa, a small island off the coast of Italy. Lampedusa is the entry point for thousands of migrants from East Africa and other parts of the Middle East and Africa. Dagmawi Yimer's story serves as an example of what is continuing to happen and getting progressively worse. (Photo courtesy of Maaza Mengiste)



There is a Madonna at the bottom of the crystalline waters off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy, standing guard near a gap where two rocks curve in an unfinished embrace. Dead leaves and fish float above her like drifting feathers, shimmering in the swatch of sunlight that drapes across the mossy cement foundation where she rests. She is alone except for the child she holds, a hand protectively across his chest. She is called Madonna di Porto Salvo and she is the protector of the island, the saint that watches over all those who cross her turquoise waters and comforts those who do not make it to land.

The island of Lampedusa was once known as a quiet holiday getaway, the place to go for tranquil rest on a lovely beach. Geographically, Lampedusa is closer to Tunisia (113 kilometres) than it is to Sicily (205 kilometres) and it is 295 kilometres from Tripoli. Since the early 1980s, migrants from Africa and the Middle East have used the island as an entry point to Europe, paying hundreds ofShe is called Madonna di Porto Salvo [. . . ] the saint that watches over all those who cross her turquoise waters and comforts those who do not make it to land. dollars to make the dangerous journey on fragile, overcrowded boats. The numbers have steadily increased over the last decades, and the onset of the Arab Spring has brought an overwhelming spike in those figures. The day I arrived on Lampedusa to learn more about its history with migration, there was a ceremony to commemorate migrants who had drowned trying to reach the island. Italian Coast Guard divers secured a wooden cross and a bouquet of flowers at the feet of the Madonna di Porto Salvo, their breaths bubbling through the Mediterranean Sea like shards of glass. Soon after the ceremony was finished, I learned that by chance, there was a boat arriving that day from Libya; their slow, perilous approach detected by the Coast Guard.

A few hours later, I stood at the edge of the coastline, watching as the boat full of men, women and children arrived. Around me were journalists and photographers, members of the Italian Red Cross and other humanitarian aid organizations. There were also residents of the island grimly observing this latest spectacle. They stared, resentment tinged with disinterest, at these dark-skinned foreigners stepping gingerly, shakily, on to Italian soil. It was hard for me to watch with the same detachment. I looked for Ethiopian and Eritrean faces instead, waving at all those who waved at me, trying to smile as some form of encouragement before they were whisked away to begin the tortuous task of establishing their right to be in the place they risked everything – including their lives – to reach. It was difficult to imagine what they would face, but nearly impossible to comprehend the many roads they had taken to arrive at this point. I thought of my friend in Rome, Dagmawi Yimer, who tells his story freely, but cannot seem to speak it without a subdued voice, as if the terror has left a permanent scar.

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Below is a YouTube version of his documentary, part in Italian, part in Amharic.


Q & A With Maaza Mengiste (TADIAS)













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