He poked at his spaghetti, turning and stabbing the fork in a slow, haphazard manner. There were fleeting moments when it seemed like he might bring it toward his mouth, but then he’d freeze, captured once again by whatever thoughts gave him such a far-off stare.
It’s January now and the Bublé carols have melted away and been forgotten, like the rotting banana peel that’s dangling from a branch outside the cafeteria window, tossed from one of the residents’ rooms.
“Christina, can you tell them in English the rules?” the coordinator had asked me earlier. “That they have to dispose of their items and wipe down the tray when they’re finished? Last time they didn’t do it,” she explains. “Maybe they didn’t understand.”
A family from Pakistan arrived around Christmas at this center in Milan, one of several shelters in the region which provides temporary housing and services to migrants in the process of applying for asylum. Last year, about 23,370 migrants arrived in Italy by sea, with Pakistan being the fifth most common nationality (Tunisia, Eritrea, Iraq and Sudan are numbers one through four). Another 1,311 people were classified as “Dead and missing.”
I do not know the circumstances of this family’s arrival, but we do know they speak some English, or at least the children do. I speak directly to the timid mother about the cafeteria rules, but her body language indicates something other than comprehension. I sense that the kids will translate later, like so many migrant youth do for their parents. Their father, I learn, is sleeping on the street. Only women and minors are allowed here, and reportedly there’s no room for him at the men’s migrant shelters.
Many of the staff know English to varying degrees, but Italian is the predominant language in the building. This undoubtedly helps with new arrivals’ assimilation to their host country, but since Italiano is not a very international tongue, it’s often another barrier in an already daunting journey. So, I suddenly feel useful, which is a rare feeling for me in this country: Yesterday, my plumber asked me repeatedly for a bucket, and I had no idea what he wanted until he emptied my trash can and started filling it with an acidic liquid to clean the scambiatore, whatever that is.
Eager to prove that I’m someone who knows what buckets are, I make excessive eye contact throughout lunch with the Pakistani girls — like, “Heyyyy. Hey, I’m here if you need some cheese but you’re too embarrassed or scared to ask for the cheese. I can totally bring you some cheese.”
There are two or three elementary-age daughters and a teenage son, the aforementioned spaghetti-poker. The boy’s jacket sleeve hangs where a left lower arm and hand should be peeking out.
I read this week that during the autopsy for a 14-year-old boy from Mali who drowned in the Mediterranean, Dr. Cristina Cattaneo stumbled upon something carefully sewn inside his clothing — a school report card. He must have believed that the document would be così prezioso — so precious — for his future, Cattaneo reflects in the book Naufraghi Senza Volto. That it would be evidence to the Europeans of his skills and academic potential — a document that would prove he is bravo enough to be accepted at shore.
I dish a plate of pasta to one of the girls. “She never smiles. Never,” a volunteer observes.
Can’t blame her, I say to myself; “No?” I say to him.
“But who knows what has happened to her,” he adds.
Later, when the family was properly cleaning up at the end of lunch, per translated instructions, the stoic girl asked me for a “tissue,” meaning a paper towel. “Here you go,” I said with a smile. “Thanks,” she replied in English, and then, despite herself, the corners of her lips turned up ever so slightly.
“Well, look at that!” my lunch partner chuckles.