Baby L has a tender, curious, stern face — brow furrowed, cheeks bulging. She’s in a fuzzy pink onesie, strapped to her mother’s back by a colorful wrap. Michael Bublé’s Christmas album wafts in from the kitchen.
Mom fills her tray with food, asking softly for more of this, less of that, none of those — grazie. Someone scoops up the one-month-old so Ma can eat unencumbered. We goo and gah at the bambina who eventually relents with one of those involuntary infant smiles. I’ll be home for Christmas; you can plan on me, Bublé croons.
M, an employee, shares that Baby L was born here at the center, after casting off from the Libyan shore: baby’s first boat ride. She swayed back and forth in her mama’s womb as they crossed the Mediterranean Sea in an inflatable raft, a gommone. “Polmone?” I mishear. “No, she came on a gommone.”
I’m supposed to be stirring the rice now but instead, I’m playing peek-a-boo with another child, a one-year-old. She erupts in giggles every time I squat down beneath the bagnomaria, the metal cart keeping the food warm. “Boo!” I say from below the spaghetti tub. “EEK!” she shrieks, popping back up to steal a glimpse, stomping her feet in glee. An irresistible face like that would have me peek-a-boo’ing into eternity, but duty calls as another woman has arrived in the food line.
An international patchwork of sounds and gestures permeates the room, although everyone seems to know the Italian word for rice. Most of the migrants, in this asylum services network at least, are from Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia and other African nations, but these past few meals have also served women from China, Romania, Nepal, Vietnam. I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.
I am insatiably curious about their stories, but I ask only food-related questions: “Riso? Pasta? Pollo? Frutta?” I know from listening to staff that the women, while they await their bureaucratic fate, are working, mothering, studying (Italian language, sewing, cooking).
They may be here for a year or more as their asylum cases slither, retreat, flatline and then slither again through the Italian immigration system, which mutates as they peel their clementines. Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini characterized any humanitarian concerns about his latest decree as “fake news of epic proportions.” Ahh, feels just like home. #MakeItalyGreatAgain
Despite the traumas that brought many here and the pain that seems etched in some faces, it’s not a dark, despair-filled room. Looking out at the tables as I adjust my latex gloves, I’m reminded of a high school cafeteria (plus babies, minus boys).
A quiet 19-year-old watches a video on her phone alone in the corner. A woman dances on her way to the recycling bin, music blasting too loud for the staff’s taste. Two twenty-somethings roll their eyes at another woman who walks through the door, scanning her up and down. Another woman tucks a phone into her hijab as she twirls her spaghetti and animatedly chats with someone, maybe from back home. An older lady complains to the staff that the chicken is inedible. A baby gets passed from table to table, finding a new auntie or sister at each station. Normal, kind, rude, shy, funny, angry, warm people who, by some twisted fate, have been compelled to add “refugee” to their résumé.
“Watch out!” a volunteer warns. “Those hard-boiled eggs are hot!”
“I escaped the fiery war of Syria — you don’t think I can handle a hot egg?” an employee jokes as he cracks the shell.