As a huge influx of migrants reached Italy throughout this year, many organizations and communities took charge of repurposing buildings as temporary shelters.
Spread throughout the country, these places provide asylum seekers a safe place to stay and sleep, basic provisions, tasks to keep them occupied, some lessons in basic Italian, support, and friends.
I had the chance to visit a community like this in my town, Bergamo (in northern Italy) and asked some of the residents about happiness. These five men, aged between 18 and 26, arrived on the shores of Sicily in August – fleeing from poverty, persecution, restrictions and violence. Upon arrival, they were sent to Bergamo, where they have now been living for almost two months.
As soon as you walk into the community, you can feel the warmth, respect and tolerance. There are 29 men from Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and Mali sharing the same dorm room in the basement. They cook together, sing together, eat together, play the drums together, watch TV together and help the community and town as much as they can – they have helped with community service and environmental programmes.
When the shelter volunteers said that I wanted to conduct a few interviews, five people offered to answer my questions. Their full names were not published for reasons of privacy and their answers were only occasionally added to, to make the meaning clearer.
Are you happy?
D: Yes, I am happy.
F: Yes, I’m happy.
L: Yes, I’m happy too.
Why are you happy?
D: The way [forward] is coming, and we see many people here in Italy – African and Ghanaian people – these days.
F: I am happy because I entered this country.
E: Also I am happy that they [the volunteers] gave us what we needed, and we didn’t have to ask.
J: The first thing that comes to my mind when you say “happiness” is my dream.
L: If you people are here taking this video [of us], I’m happy.
How would you draw happiness?
D: This is an arch and this is a hammer. I was a carpenter back home, and working makes me happy. And then this one is a person.
F: I drew a flower- if I see this flower I’m happy; then this one is my heart, and this one is my head, yeah, I like my face! And then this one is a lady: if I see a lady I’m happy.
E: This is a game, you use sticks to play it, and this one is a heart. This one is a person, this one is a tree, we call it flute, and this one is a flag – it’s an Italian flag, because it makes me happy.
J: This is my girl. Yes, this is my mum. Everytime I see my mama, I’m happy.
L: I drew my face, with a big smile, and it says “always smiling”. I used to be happy, always, when I saw my friends, always laughing, always smiling – that’s why I drew this thing.
So, after two hours of talking, understanding each other with some difficulties, filming and laughing, we finished this short interview. It was amazing to see these men really focused on their drawings, and really certain about what makes them happy and what they want their lives to look like.
These refugees are still waiting to get travel documents and go to Northern Europe, their destination, but because of bureaucracy and difficulties connected to the European asylum-seekers policy, they are, and will be, stuck here for some time.
Even though they have suffered a lot before reaching here and may face many more struggles to come, they are some of the happiest people I met in my life.
Thank you, D, F, E, J and L for sharing parts of your life with me. I hope your paths head in the directions you want them to go.