Unaccompanied Youth Migrants Share Stories, Advocate for integration through activist music

Abu Bakr Fanneh, Lamin Sanneh, Alex Polydoroff and Sicilian accompanists  perform a concert of our original music–a fusion of hip hop, reggae, West African music, and Jazz–at a local live music venue in the historic center of Syracuse, Sicily.

Abu Bakr Fanneh, Lamin Sanneh, Alex Polydoroff and Sicilian accompanists perform a concert of our original music–a fusion of hip hop, reggae, West African music, and Jazz–at a local live music venue in the historic center of Syracuse, Sicily.

This series of photographs—both somber and celebratory–tells the story of unaccompanied youth migrants from all over Africa coming of age in Sicily after harrowing cross-continental journeys. These boys, waiting as asylum-seekers in government-funded camps until they turn 18, are self-actualizing as activist musicians, intercultural mediators, and persevering young men.

In the past three years, more than a half million African migrants have arrived on Italy’s southern shores, prompting intense societal debate on immigration and integration. Unaccompanied minors constitute a growing share of the arriving migrants: in 2016, more than 25,000 youth entered government-funded reception centers–the majority of which are in Sicily–commencing the protracted process obtaining documentation from a backlogged immigration system. Approximately 5,000 of these minors have gone missing from their camps and fallen into clandestine labor operations, migrant smuggling rings, or homelessness. The majority who remain months or years in camps commonly have their allotted government funds clandestinely embezzled by ubiquitous mafia operations. The recent surge of the far-right, xenophobic Northern League—whose stated objective is mass deportation–in 2018 parliamentary elections further exacerbates the enduring uncertainty of unaccompanied youth migrant lives.

 

 

Summer Afternoon at Umberto Primo – July 2017. Syracuse, Sicily. Unaccompanied youth from The Gambia and Eritrea sing, play percussion, and dance in the courtyard of their camp, a repurposed hospital which houses 40 African minors. Waiting at Umberto Primo until they turn 18, the boys are provided beds, clothing, and two meals a day, and spend their time coexisting with each other in the camp’s common areas.

Summer Afternoon at Umberto Primo – July 2017. Syracuse, Sicily. Unaccompanied youth from The Gambia and Eritrea sing, play percussion, and dance in the courtyard of their camp, a repurposed hospital which houses 40 African minors. Waiting at Umberto Primo until they turn 18, the boys are provided beds, clothing, and two meals a day, and spend their time coexisting with each other in the camp’s common areas.

Ibrahim Sanneh – August 2017, Syracuse, Sicily. Ibrahim, a 17-year-old migrant from The Gambia, sings and plays a drum in preparation for a concert the following night at Lido Terraza Fanusa, a nearby beach club.

Ibrahim Sanneh – August 2017, Syracuse, Sicily. Ibrahim, a 17-year-old migrant from The Gambia, sings and plays a drum in preparation for a concert the following night at Lido Terraza Fanusa, a nearby beach club.

“The journey to Italy was hard. We made it out of Libyan prisons and crossed this big sea. God risked our lives. Now, here in Sicily, with this music, we are free. Music gives us the power to express our experiences and feelings, and we know the people hear us.” -Abu Bakr

“The journey to Italy was hard. We made it out of Libyan prisons and crossed this big sea. God risked our lives. Now, here in Sicily, with this music, we are free. Music gives us the power to express our experiences and feelings, and we know the people hear us.” -Abu Bakr

Sayou Fatti – July 2017, Mount Etna, Sicily. Sayou, an 18-year-old Gambian, listens to music on his phone in the highlands of Mount Etna before performing a concert at an NGO retreat.

Sayou Fatti – July 2017, Mount Etna, Sicily. Sayou, an 18-year-old Gambian, listens to music on his phone in the highlands of Mount Etna before performing a concert at an NGO retreat.

ThankGod – July 2017, Mount Etna, Sicily. ThankGod, a Nigerian migrant, smiles for a portrait before singing his original compositions about his long journey and new life in Italy at an NGO retreat.

ThankGod – July 2017, Mount Etna, Sicily. ThankGod, a Nigerian migrant, smiles for a portrait before singing his original compositions about his long journey and new life in Italy at an NGO retreat.

Maxwell – July 2017, Mount Etna, Sicily. Maxwell, a 17-year-old from Ghana, poses in front of clouds hovering over Mount Etna’s crater. Possessing an affinity for languages, Maxwell translated between curious Sicilians and English-speaking youth migrant musicians at the NGO retreat.  “They put hundreds of people in one room in prison in Libya. There was not even enough room for all of us to sit down. We had to take turns laying down to sleep. But it was very uncomfortable. The floors were cement, and we used the same floors for fire to cook our food. I was there for three months.” -Maxwell

Maxwell – July 2017, Mount Etna, Sicily. Maxwell, a 17-year-old from Ghana, poses in front of clouds hovering over Mount Etna’s crater. Possessing an affinity for languages, Maxwell translated between curious Sicilians and English-speaking youth migrant musicians at the NGO retreat. “They put hundreds of people in one room in prison in Libya. There was not even enough room for all of us to sit down. We had to take turns laying down to sleep. But it was very uncomfortable. The floors were cement, and we used the same floors for fire to cook our food. I was there for three months.” -Maxwell

Despite facing structurally induced precarity, many of the young men are crafting fulfilling new lives with the support of committed reception center staff and NGOs, as well as welcoming Sicilians and artists. Camp staff often treat the youth as children of their own. NGOs offer cultural activities, language classes, job opportunities, and legal assistance. Many Sicilians give the youth places at the dinner table, and sometimes a permanent home. Artists engage the youth to tell their complex stories and initiate their cultural integration through a variety of artistic mediums.

Austin – June 2017, Syracuse, Sicily. Austin, a 17-year-old Nigerian migrant, strikes a pose on the rooftop terrace of Umberto Primo. The Mediterranean Sea, which he bravely crossed, is in the background. Austin was a passionate dancer at the camp music sessions and concerts.

Austin – June 2017, Syracuse, Sicily. Austin, a 17-year-old Nigerian migrant, strikes a pose on the rooftop terrace of Umberto Primo. The Mediterranean Sea, which he bravely crossed, is in the background. Austin was a passionate dancer at the camp music sessions and concerts.