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The Journey Home
Carmen Russo, NYU Florence Student
La Pietra Dialogues
April 22, 2015

Amr Adem is a hotel receptionist that hates chickens and the sound of waves at night. When he joined Vanity Fair journalist Imma Vitelli for a dialogue on Wednesday evening, listeners from New York University and University of Florence learned that there is an incredible story hidden behind his neatly pressed shirt and intelligent face. “This is not a life,” Imma warned the audience, “this is a film.”

The story began in Eritrea, a country in the horn of Africa that faces turmoil behind closed doors. After studying journalism in Cairo, Egypt, Amr returned to Eritrea. He had missed his family, but the political situation soon pushed him back out. There is no freedom of speech or expression in Eritrea, and many journalists or others who disobey the government are kept in prisons. He told the audience: “I am a journalist and my duty is to distribute information to the people, not to be an instrument of the regime.”

The closest place for Amr to go was Sudan. Under the night sky, he hid from soldiers that had been ordered to kill anyone attempting to leave Eritrea. After walking for seven days, he reached Sudan. But Amr had left a sister in Eritrea, and he was tormented by the knowledge of sexual abuse that Eritrean women are subjected to during indefinite army service. Only married women are exempt from service requirements and foreign husbands have a legal right to take their wives out of Eritrea. Before leaving Sudan, Amr changed his identity and got a fake Sudanese passport. Then he returned to Eritrea to marry his sister, who now lives safely in Canada.

Eventually Amr found a real wife and was soon expecting his first child. But he was reminded of his empty hands - he had nothing to give his new son. In search of a better life for his young family, Amr left once again. This time he disappeared into the desert with smugglers, clinging to the few survival stories he had heard. In the middle of the desert, petty arguments were replaced by exhaustion and hallucinations of ghosts. The mothers willing their babies to keep going became Water, the only word the children repeated. As the group walked a path littered with the bones of those who had died in their escape, they became bound together by the desperation.

Finally, they reached Libya. The immigrants were lined up by country of origin, reduced to monetary value, and given ratings of gold or silver if they were deemed worthy. Eritreans were prized merchandise for smugglers because most of them saved up money for years in preparation to escape. Instead of immediately being sold to another smuggler to cross the Mediterranean, Amr stayed in Libya for some time. He discovered that refugees without government papers did not have basic rights. Pregnant refugee women were denied from hospitals, even if they were screaming in pain, because not Libyan means not human. Before leaving Libya, Amr used his fake passport to act as the husband of 15 different mothers, allowing them and their infants to get proper care. One was a stillbirth, and Amr dug the grave for a baby that was not his.

These children and an angry letter from Amr’s father reminded him of his own son, and his responsibility as a real father. He had to get to Europe, but he couldn’t risk his life in the hands of a smuggler so 28 others joined him in buying a boat of their own. After hiding in a chicken warehouse for three days and passing through a checkpoint hidden under the bellies of sheep, they were left alone with the waves.

On the third day of the journey, their food was gone. They could only get help from a passing boat when they held up the one-week-old baby on board with them. They were close enough to the island of Malta to see cars driving on the highways, but the police would only give them supplies and directions to Italy, which was seven hours away. But they made it there safely, and after four years of travel, Amr was in the right place to begin the life he had always wanted. Before finding a job he spent many nights sleeping in a Roman park that he referred to as the hotel with thousands of stars. Today he is reunited with his family, working, and hoping to become an Italian citizen.

Italy was never a dream destination for Amr, but his goal was not to get to a place. He was only searching for a place where he could use his real name for the first time in four years. He was searching for peace. And he has found that in Italy, the only place he calls home.

 

 
 
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