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The Ideas

Mothers, so far, yet so near

 Madri, così lontane così vicine  DCM-011
02 December 2023

The photo of Fati and Marie lying lifeless on the sand has been seen throughout the world: a mother and daughter who died of thirst and hardship somewhere in the desert between Tunisia and Libya. This is a desert that Moroccan journalist Karima Moual describes as “a war frontline without bombs; a mass grave equal in size to the Mediterranean Sea”.

Fati is just one of the faces of “migrant motherhood”, of mothers who are victims of the necessity to emigrate. These women combat sea and desert, persecution and detention camps, hunger and thirst, dangers that come from men and nature, driven by the will to give their children a better life.

Many migrant mothers would probably have remained tied to their fate if there had not been a push of head and heart. If the future of their children had not convinced them to leave their scarce security.  This is a widespread condition, though contrary to the past, statistics tell us it is more women who emigrate than men.

However, when we speak of “migrant motherhood” we are not just referring to migrant mothers because the devastating pain and suffering of migration also comes in other ways.

The term “migrant motherhood” refers to mothers who do not follow their children, who are abandoned by them as they pursue a better future. Mothers who remain at home, and deprived of the love and protection of those they have given birth. These women are besieged by the pain of not knowing about the well-being of their kids, while imagining the worst; whether that be their children have beaten by the desert sand or swallowed by the waves of an enemy sea, to never reach their destination.

 Abandoned and grieving mothers like that of Amadou who left Mali at the age of 15 and landed in Sicily after crossing Niger and Libya. We find her story in the book Anche Superman era un rifugiato [Superman Was Also A Refugee] published by BUR and edited by Igiaba Scego and UNHCR Piemonte. Amadou’s mother had not heard from him for years, but when he phoned her, she replies, “Leave me alone, my son is dead”. The boy recounts, “I had to struggle to make her understand that it was me, that I was Amadou. I told her details about my life and our life that only I could know. Then she burst into tears”.

The mother of Jerreth Jaiteh -a Gambian who is now a mechanic in Reggio Emilia, was abandoned too. He fled the dictatorship because he wanted to study and be free. She had insisted until the end that he not leave. The little they had, even the restricted freedom, was preferable to what Jerreth was about to face. She knew of many who had not returned. He knew of boys who had suffered untold violence and even died. The Libyan camps, the desert, the torture, the detentions, are the news that reaches even the most remote villages in Gambia. They reach all mothers whose children have left on their own and perhaps secretly, women whose lives have been completely turned upside down, whose destiny is marked by absence. These are the abandoned mothers.

These women sought an answer to this painful loneliness by organizing themselves in Terre pour tous, an association of family members of Tunisians who have disappeared while crossing the Mediterranean. Among them is Leyla Akik, mother of Youseff, who was trying to reach Italy. Leyla has not heard from her son in over three years. “He is not there”, she says, “that is why my struggle to know the truth has grown and now I feel like the mother of all the young people who disappear”.

“Migrant motherhood” refers also to the women who, in their own Countries, find themselves acting as mothers to the children of those who have left. These women take on burdens and responsibilities, and do not skimp on protection for those who cannot get it from their own mothers who have been forced to emigrate. They extend their love to those who have not been born to them but need them nonetheless. They take care of their sister’s, sister-in-law’s, cousin’s, neighbour’s children, sharing with them the little they have. Extended families that do not boast of any modernity but repair the failures of an emigration that cannot take into account affection and family ties. They are substitute mothers.

In addition, “migrant motherhood” refers to those who leave their children and do so to guarantee them a better future. They know that they put themselves at risk of enormous dangers. They recognize that these dangers include for them violence or rape, which are lurking wherever they tread as is deprivation. That the price to pay can be very high.  Sometimes they become mothers during the journey and do not know who the father is of the baby; nonetheless, they give birth and love the child.

This is like the story of Fiore Kenfa, a 24-year-old young Eritrean woman, and Fassiuta Giomande, an Ivorian woman of 41, who arrived in the obstetrics ward of Palermo hospital from the Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotti.

Fiore Kenfa left a daughter three years earlier in her village in Eritrea, and her husband is in Switzerland. First, she went to work in Sudan, where she was raped. Then she left for Libya, where she became pregnant.

Fassiuta Giomande on the other hand was forced to abandon six children in the Ivory Coast. The one she will give birth to in Palermo is the seventh.  “Some will perhaps think that I am not a good mother, but I left precisely to guarantee my children a better future. I hope to hug them again, to introduce them to their little brother who is about to be born, to live a dignified life together. Am I asking too much?” The mother who leaves her children out of love for them is the most painful contradiction. These are broken mothers.

This is the reason why so many prefer to take their children with them. Even small ones, even when pregnant. In the desert and while crossing the sea they may meet death, they may be made orphans, then the only hope is that they meet men and women of good will.  One day, in Lampedusa, a young man not even 18 years old, from sub-Saharan Africa, landed holding a three-year-old boy by her hands. “I don't know who he is. I found him in the desert, he was alone, abandoned. I brought him with me to save him, and we made the journey together, but he is not my family member,” the boy told Red Cross volunteers and the police.  Save the Children workers explain that it often happens because minors are dramatically separated from their parents in the excitement of departure, or because the parents themselves entrust them to an acquaintance to make the crossing.

Sometimes these mothers lose their children dramatically because they slip from their arms and fall into the sea.  In Lampedusa, there are those who remember the long, mute cry of the mother, not even 18 years old, beside her five-month-old daughter who was no longer there. They had almost made it, the mother and baby, but then a few miles from the coast the wooden boat capsized. 

One day, on a barge from Antalya, Turkey, about 71 miles from Libya, three children died of thirst, their names are: three-year-old Haret, two-year-old Hudaifa and 12-year-old Motaz. “Hudaifa’s mother washes him, changes his dirty clothes. Then she perfumes him and sends him to the sea with her hands”, the Gerta human reports.

What happens to mothers when they arrive in a foreign Country with their children or without them? Do they manage to realise any of the aspirations for which they have faced dangers and pain? Is their status as mothers in the Country they have arrived in taken into account?  Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are not consoling. Without the advantage of language, some are left terribly alone and isolated, and experience the coldness of a society that had not been waiting for them.

In the destination countries, there is no family network for mutual aid, for the community culture is lost.

We who ask these women to look after our children and our elderly often forget that they too have families. Sometimes divided even here, because wives and husbands are divided, working for different families.

To conclude with the words of Pope Francis “Migrant women carry dramatic experiences in their flesh.”