Maiga is—against all odds—friendly.
Considering the cards he’s been dealt, that’s one of the most surprising qualities about Maiga, a 25-year-old refugee from Mali now living in Rome. As he walks down a street in the center of the Italian capital, he acts as a charismatic peacemaker in an otherwise standoffish city, greeting both a man on the street selling beaded bracelets and an Italian waiter promoting an upscale restaurant.
“Excuse me, sir,” Maiga says to a well-dressed Italian man hurrying to get off a train at Termini train station. “One of the pockets of your luggage is unzipped.”
A few moments before, Maiga had explained how a pickpocket stole all the money he had to his name when he had to sleep outside of Termini. Now he’s worried about a stranger’s suitcase.
In the barrage of news coverage on the European refugee crisis with its overwhelming statistics and numbers, a little bit of humanity gets lost. Meeting Maiga, the crisis suddenly becomes personal.
The Refugee Story
After the recent closing of the Greece-Macedonia border, Italy has become the primary entry point for refugees, surpassing Greece for the first time since June of 2015. Maiga, like almost all of Rome’s refugee population, had no choice but to make the perilous journey from his home country. His story, however, includes more than just a year or two of hardship. At just nine years old, Maiga became a refugee.
After Maiga’s mother died in childbirth and his father was killed in warfare in Libya, he and his stepfather traveled from Mali to Libya. It was there in 2011 that Maiga found himself in a dangerous situation.
Though Maiga had no connection to Gaddafi, the Libyan revolutionary condemned by the international community as a dictator, militia groups created to oppose the tyrannical leader suspected that all West Africans supported Gaddafi. And in the midst of Libya’s uprising, Maiga was therefore caught in the crosshairs at the vulnerable age of 20.
“They thought I was a threat because I was tall and I was Malian,” Maiga said.
After one particularly violent raid on his house, Gaddafi opposition forces beat Maiga’s stepfather to death as he watched defenselessly. That’s when he knew he had to get on a boat; more specifically, a small dingy with 171 people onboard that drifted for four days without food or water.
The Human Story
Talking to Maiga now, it’s easy to get wrapped up in his stories about being a refugee. After all, he’s spent most of his adolescent life running from one dangerous situation to another. He’s more than just a collection of heartbreaking stories, though.
Maiga speaks eight languages, his native being Bambara, a common language in Mali that he describes simply as “sweet.” He was eager to learn Italian as soon as he got to Rome.
“When you learn languages, you become a peacemaker between two groups,” Maiga said. “So I was fine with learning Italian.”
He gets visibly excited when he talks about his favorite foods from home: thick stews and fish. He has a custodian job and a room to sleep in at the church above the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center, a day center right off busy Via Nazionale. At his best moments, Maiga has the air of a cheerful camp counselor, full of life and quick to smile.
“It all depends on my mood. Sometimes I lock myself in my room and don’t want to talk,” Maiga said. “But now mostly I am so very happy. The people around me have helped me so much. It’s not a small thing when people open their doors and hearts to you.”
The Italian government granted Maiga one year of humanitarian asylum that’s up for renewal this summer. He hopes to leave Italy one day—but he’s starting to see that opportunities for formal jobs and permanent housing are scarce.
As the refugee crisis only continues to escalate, people like Jacquelyn Pavilon, the director of communications for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome, hope to clear up public misconceptions about refugees like Maiga. Terrorist attacks in Western countries like France and Belgium have made many point fingers at refugees, but Pavilon insists they’re not looking at the root problem.
“Radicalists are not necessarily poor people. ISIS has a lot of money,” Pavilon said. “I would say that most radicalists are not coming over on boats. These are people who are buying plane tickets and arriving legally; we need to pay more attention to that.”
Pavilon says to overcome this problem of scapegoating refugees, we need to stop treating them as “the other.”
“If someone was running from the club in Paris [that was attacked in November 2015], would you close your doors and say, ‘No, just stay outside’?” Pavilon asked.
Maiga aims for empathy, too.
“Every time I receive something, I try to give something back,” Maiga said. “If we all do the little that we can, it will make the world a better place.”
(Maiga’s full name has been withheld to protect his safety.)