Lebanon and Lampedusa – Francesco Piobbichi knows two types of borders. One is shifting and dangerously abstract; the other is fixed and feels safe.
Over the first type of border, refugees flee in rickety, overcrowded dinghies, risking their lives as they make the perilous journey across the sea. Over the second, they travel in planes, buckled safely into their seats.
“On one, I accompany [refugees] on the planes; on the other, I see them dead or traumatised,” says the 44-year-old social worker, who works with refugees. For years – first in southern Italy, now in Lampedusa and Lebanon – Francesco has worked for Mediterranean Hope, a project financed by the Federation of Protestant Churches.
The federation, together with Sant’Egidio volunteering community, are implementing humanitarian corridors for refugees. The pilot project targets vulnerable Syrian refugees in Lebanon and helps them travel to Italy safely, legally and by plane.
Francisco accompanies the refugees to Italy through the humanitarian corridors, organising their flights and sparing them the risks of the dangerous sea and border crossings. But on the tiny southern Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, Francesco awaits refugees who have not been so fortunate, provding first aid to those who have reached its shores in dinghies.
“In Lampedusa, I see people who are exhausted if they arrive safe, and then they are put in [a first reception centre], but I see those people mainly without even a suitcase,” he says.
“In Lebanon, while working with Humanitarian Corridors, I realised that a suitcase embodies the dignity of those people, because inside they have their most loved and cherished items.”
“I try to tell them the stories that I see every day. This is a way to bring in the ‘frontiers’ at each corner. These days, physical and mental frontiers are everywhere, not only in Lampedusa,” he says.
‘With this job, you risk getting used to death’
After witnessing the recurring tragedies at sea – at the end of May more than 700 people died in only three days – Francesco started drawing.
The Cemetery of Indifference was one of his first drawings. It depicts an island emerging on top of hundreds of sunken boats that drain in colour as they get closer to the bottom of the sea.
“We know nothing about 23,000 people, as if we had killed them twice,” Francesco says. “The sea killed them the first time; our oblivion the second.”
Drawing has become a therapeutic form of self-treatment for Francesco, which he feels helps him to maintain a degree of compassion in the face of near-daily tragedy and devastation. He doesn’t have any background in art, but three years ago, when he created his first sketch, he felt it was a meaningful expression of the tragedies he had witnessed on the Mediterranean.
“For me, [drawing] was the only way to keep my sensitivities alive – because with this job, you risk getting used to death,” he explains.
“When you see women with third-degree burns from contact with burning gasoline with salt water, it’s hard to stay sane.”
Francesco has seen many such women arriving in Lampedusa, with severe burns from boat engines or gasoline, injuries aggravated by the salt and sun. Usually, traffickers seat women at the centre of boats because they weigh less, but their position means they are unable to move.
Welela was one of these women. She was an Eritrean who died from the burns she sustained during the Mediterranean crossing. Together with a group of activists, Francesco was able to trace her history – learning that she had been living in Libya, working to save money for the journey, and her a name. Otherwise, Welela would have been buried as another unknown victim of the crossing.
She is now in his drawings, depicted as an angelic figure with fire behind her, half submerged in a barbed-wire sea.
Francesco always travels with a bag of coloured marker pens and paper under his arm. He draws quickly with an angry and fidgety sketch. His figures sometimes seem scrawled since his drafts are made on the spur of the moment.
His sketch, Where is my Son?, is the outcome of the meeting between Francesco and a grieving father in Lampedusa.
“The first time I saw [the father], he was clutching a photo of his son in his hands,” Francesco recalls. “In order to come here to search for his son, who disappeared two weeks before, he had taken a loan. His son died in the tragic shipwreck trying to escape Libya.”
Over the years, many stories have become enshrined in his sketches. However, barbed wire and death are symbols that appear time and again – symbols of the Mediterranean frontier, along with the barbed-wire borders of Europe, fencing the refugees off from the safety they are seeking.
“Migrants who land on Lampedusa carry the [experience of the] frontier for the rest of their lives,” he says.
“At Favarolo pier [an arrival point on the island], migrants are greeted by people wearing white suits and masks, latex gloves, and are taken to an identification centre,” he explains, describing the arrival process for many refugees.
“However, people who travel through Humanitarian Corridors, who could be the same ones in the boats, are welcomed with dignity, not as carriers of diseases.”
Breaking down physical and mental borders
Francesco has been showing his sketches during tours of Italy – in bars, churches and even among crowds of football supporters – as he tries to raise awareness about the plight of refugees and to share the stories he encounters each day as part of his job.
He sometimes sells copies of them – although never the originals. The proceeds from the prints are put into a scholarship fund to help local students in Lampedusa or refugees.
Rather than just being a means of storytelling, he says the pictures are meant to spark an open and public debate with people from different social backgrounds and with different opinions.
“It’s a way of breaking down physical and mental borders and [stopping people from] creating categories that produce more racism and separation.”
“It would be wrong to separate migration policies and policies to support vulnerable people because this would lead to the construction of categories and would contribute to exclusion and xenophobia,” he concludes.
“It’s necessary to put the rights of all the human beings at the heart [of everything] without distinction in order to avoid triggering a fight between the poor.”