Videos of African children smiling and inciting Italy to hold on are circulating on the web. Our country, they say, has experienced hard moments in history but has always overcome them. I have republished the video myself, thanking them. Many Syrian refugees I’ve known since I worked in the refugee camps, write me words of encouragement on Facebook, send virtual flowers and beating hearts. Syrians living in the north-western area of the country send prayers to their families in Italy also addressed to our people and our land. The very ones who live in a war zone, and that for years have not known whether they would be alive or dead at the end of the day.
The times are dark, indeed. And I cannot but stress the importance of these actions. In the frenzied exchange of information on the net, like a cyclone engulfing everything then spitting it out miles away in its frenetic race, metaphorical images, new legends, epic events, and extemporised mythologies are being disseminated. The warning of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz – “There is no better place than home” – today seems almost absurd in its clarity. For days I have been wondering about those who live under the bombs or in marginalised slums and have the strength of mind to console a population, the Italians, who fortunately live in what could be defined, relatively speaking and despite the current circumstances, “the best of all possible worlds” in this contemporary era.
Probably the interpretation key to understanding this beautiful phenomenon is experience; the experience resulting from brutal events. These people know what it means being locked in their houses because of fear; they know what it means to risk their life, one family member at a time, to get food. In refugee camps, they know what it means to be unsure of being treated and the risk of dying from a dental abscess. They know what it means spending long hours without electricity, squeezed around a cast-iron stove – for those who have one – trying to protect the little ones from possible domestic accidents. They know they do not know, that fate is unknown, and they have to live day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. And it is precisely those who live in extreme situations – very far from our own – who choose, among all possible reactions to this 21st-century scourge, to console us. They start from a simple equation: motivation does not matter, what unites us is the sense of bewilderment, fear and deprivation. For this reason, we feel united with you. And they reassure us.
I believe that this should make us reflect. For example, everything is being done to get Italians stuck abroad back home. It is evident that the mobility to which we are accustomed, and the autonomy that is now being severely tested, puts us in crisis. We are rebalancing our perceptions, reworking social achievements, rediscovering the uniqueness of our lifestyle of the highest quality. Dear Director, as you pointed out in your article, (“Il rovescio de muro”, Avvenire of 1 March 2020 tinyurl.com /gmx8lju) notwithstanding we have of one of the most commonly accepted passports, we have discovered what it means being discriminated against or shocked in front of closed doors and ports. Many countries, however, have illuminated their most significant buildings with the Italian flag to support us; I thank Slovenia, Poland, Sarajevo, Jerusalem, Niagara Falls in Canada and others for this extraordinary message of solidarity. The world loves Italy and Italy loves the world. But it is the African children sitting in the open air, with the teacher that making them repeating the comforting phrases for the Italians seems to be dancing in front of the blackboard, to be for us, together with the Syrians under the bombs and the refugees in the refugee camps and others in similar contexts, that point of reference that must make us recalibrating our lives.
We are all working to overcome this unprecedented world crisis. The government studies and takes wise measures, and people understand and try to adapt to the new situation through creative, emotionally engaging, and apotropaic solutions. We grieve for those who have lost their loved ones. But it is when we feel vulnerable from the medical, social, and economic point of view that we need to look at the world as one shared place. The African term Ubuntu, which in Bantu means “humanity”, corresponds to a real philosophy that enhances the sense of universal sharing, the bond that unites all peoples. Such philosophy is synthesised in the Xhosa concept, the ethnicity of Mandela, and Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu is a motto that has always guided me. It means “I am because we all are”, or – as John Donne said using other words to the West in the 17th century – “no man is an island”.
People acquire meaning within the community. The value of community is a principle that Italians have always applied with conviction. We are masters in reflecting this principle in the jurisprudence that regulates our lives and in our splendid Constitution. There are many strategies that we can put into practice with individual gestures and with targeted policies to enlarge this community that belongs to us all. African children and Syrian refugees remind us of this from the margins of globalisation. It is up to us to keep silent, at this shocking moment, and to rediscover and powerfully express the universal Umuntu that is inside us. But not alone, together with the world, because the world that loves us is asking us to do so.