Zerai grew up during Eritrea’s long struggle for independence. When he was very young, his home town came under attack. As the walls of his house shook with bomb blasts, his grandmother led him and his siblings to a bunker belowground, knelt with them, and prayed. Later, when a close relative died, she noticed that Zerai was the only family member who did not show any emotion. “And you, what did you put in your belly to make yourself so cold—a stone?” she asked.
Zerai keeps his inner life hidden to this day. “It’s not like I don’t get angry,” Zerai says. “I do. But when I have to have a dialogue with the media or politicians I try to present my reasons with tranquillity.”
“He really does have, for lack of a better word, a grace to him,” Luis CdeBaca, the ambassador for the State Department’s anti-human-trafficking office, told me. “You can’t help but be affected by someone who has true calm, true spirituality.”
Zerai works for the Vatican as a parish priest, ministering to the thousands of Eritrean Catholics who live in Switzerland. On his own time, he pursues his migration work under the auspices of Agenzia Habeshia, a charity he named using an ancient word for the Eritrean and Ethiopian peoples. Its phone bills can reach a thousand euros a month. For a while, Zerai was raising tens of thousands of euros to pay his callers’ ransoms, until he realized that this was like trying to smother a fire with kindling. He has set the plight of African migration before Italian ministers, European Union commissioners, and two Popes. In return, he has received many sympathetic words but little change in policy. In fact, the situation is getting worse. The number of immigrants reaching Italian shores in the first three months of 2014 was ten times higher than in the same period last year, the Times reported. Last week, four thousand people arrived on Italy’s coast in two days. Frontex, the European equivalent of the Department of Homeland Security, plans to deploy satellites and drones to guard Europe’s borders, and counsels its security forces on the distinction between directing “returnees” back to Africa and engaging in pushback, a violation of international law. In early February, a video surfaced online showing police officers firing rubber bullets into the water near Africans trying to swim around a breakwater protecting a Spanish enclave in Morocco. Fifteen people drowned.
Two weeks after the October 3rd shipwreck, Zerai wondered whether there would be any response to the atrocity. “The politicians, they talk, talk, talk. But . . . ,” he said, and shrugged. “Every year, the same thing. After a few months, no one will remember this. Unless us—we continually remember.” Sweat gathered on his forehead, and he dabbed at it with a handkerchief. “It is not possible to accept this type of tragedy as normal,” he said. “This is not a normal accident.”
Lampedusa is a seven-mile flyspeck of limestone and arid soil. Along with nearby Lampione, it is the last of Italy’s footprints on Africa’s continental shelf. Most of its southern shore is forbidding terrain, where the sirocco pushes breakers onto bare crags. In 1843, Ferdinand II claimed Lampedusa for the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; during the Second World War, the Allies bombed it heavily. After the war, it enjoyed sixty years as a sleepy enclave of fishermen and tourists. In 2000, a wave of xenophobic violence gripped Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, and displaced immigrants from across Africa began arriving by boat. In 2009, as Italy’s tolerance for new arrivals declined along with its economy, Silvio Berlusconi’s government renamed Lampedusa’s eleven-year-old reception facility the Center for Identification and Expulsion. Today, along with Spanish Morocco, Cyprus, Christmas Island, and Nauru, Lampedusa is a zone of global limbo, where developed nations decide who is most deserving of a new life on the other side of the wall. More than two hundred thousand people have landed on the island in the past fifteen years. In Libya, human smuggling is called “the Lampa-Lampa business.” During the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, Italian politicians warned of “a Biblical exodus,” “an invasion” that would bring the country “to its knees.”
Most of the October 3rd survivors aspired to official status as “refugees,” meaning that they had fled political persecution and were entitled to protection under international law. Some call the survivors “asylum seekers,” to account for the tenuous nature of their rights. In Italy, they are called clandestini. In Algeria, they are called harraga, Arabic for “those who burn”—some Africans destroy their papers before arrival, to avoid being sent back. The media call them “migrants,” implying that they leave Africa for purely economic reasons. The power to decide who is a refugee and who is a migrant usually lies with interviewers wherever the survivors wind up applying for asylum. The rates at which asylum is granted vary widely. On Lampedusa, new arrivals try to avoid being fingerprinted in Italy so that they can apply for asylum in Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden, which receives more applications from asylum-seeking Eritreans than any other country. The 2006 Schengen Borders Code, which raised the legal walls surrounding Europe while lowering them inside, works in the arrivals’ favor as they continue north.
Relatives will drive thirty hours from Oslo to Sicily, and drive back with their family member, taking advantage of the E.U.’s open internal borders. Those without someone to call often end up living in baraccopoli—shantytowns—outside Milan and Rome.
Until recently, Zerai was based in Rome. “That is not my decision,” he said, when I asked about his move. “My bishop say I go to Suisse, and I go.” Switzerland is two days’ journey from Lampedusa. On October 21st, after two train rides and a short flight, Zerai boarded an overnight barge from Sicily. Travelling with him was Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean-born Swede who also advocates for Eritrean asylum seekers. She receives many calls from Eritreans in the Sinai, who beg for ransoms as large as forty thousand dollars while their captors pour molten plastic down their backs. As an activist, Estefanos is more extroverted than Zerai, mixing with hackers at human-rights conferences and battling with Eritrean government supporters on Twitter.
Estefanos and Zerai hired a van to take them through Lampedusa’s small port town, where the warm, salty air and the low, pale buildings evoke Tunis or Algiers. The road to the detention center ran past a yard heaped with the remains of boats, Arabic script still visible on their splintered hulls. The van parked near a rusting gate; some distance beyond it, milling around in government-issued tracksuits, was a group of detainees.
Zerai wore a blue short-sleeved shirt with a white square at the center of the collar. His beard, flecked with gray, covered most of his neck and crept up his cheeks. Most striking are his eyes—they are heavy-lidded and formed like a cello’s cutouts. With his deliberate gestures and serious demeanor, he looks like a portly Haile Selassie.
After some discussion, the Italian soldiers guarding the center allowed a small number of detainees to approach the gate. Estefanos took out her recorder to interview an Eritrean named Mogos. He was around twenty, and he had arrived in Lampedusa six days earlier. Estefanos asked him why he had risked the journey.
“The situation in Libya is really bad,” Mogos said, speaking in Tigrinya, his first language. “All you do is get out from one prison and go to another one. We thought it better to die than to be in prison all the time.” The day before, the Italian government had held a memorial for the October 3rd dead, but the service was in Sicily, and the victims were represented by a number of large wreaths. On Lampedusa, the survivors were not permitted to take a ferry to the service, and they staged a sit-in, blocking the road in front of the town hall. Many had begun a hunger strike, including Mogos. His words slurred in places and his handsome face was slack. He seemed to be holding himself up by his fingers, which poked through the grid of the gate. He lacked the energy to give a full account of his ordeal—how guards had fired on him as he ran away from a Libyan prison, how smugglers had kept him in a place they called the mazra’a, an abandoned barn, where he waited with others for a boat. The mazra’a, he said later, was so hot that no one wore clothes. One day, the police arrived, made them lie face down in the dirt, and opened fire. “God spared us,” Mogos said later. “To them, our lives are no more important than a housefly.” Earlier, during a failed sea crossing, he saw another passenger try to escape from Libyan border guards. They doused him with fuel, set him on fire, and threw his body into the water.
Standing at the gate on Lampedusa, Mogos kept this mostly to himself. “Please give our regards to Father Mussie,” he said, not realizing that Zerai was standing a few steps away. Zerai heard his name and turned to Mogos. “We haven’t yet done anything for you,” he said.
A tall Italian soldier approached Zerai. He seemed uneasy, a man under vague orders. “Buongiorno, Padre,” he said. “Tutto bene?” Zerai took him aside. He asked in a low and even tone to be allowed past the gate. (Unlike Zerai’s English, which was learned more recently, his Italian has a hard-won precision.) The soldier steered him toward a young woman who was handling the camp’s public relations. Zerai repeated his case. Another soldier seemed to find him ridiculous. He turned to a comrade and laughed. Zerai continued to press for twenty minutes more, to no avail. He did not seem surprised by this result. “A low-ranking officer will try to exert some form of power, even if in practice there’s not much they can do,” he said later. “But they use their power just to be there, to make you waste time. The one who can do something, who has the power, is elsewhere.”
Zerai was born in 1975 in Asmara, where his father worked as an engineer. Today, Asmara is the capital of Eritrea, but at that time it was held by the Marxist government of Ethiopia. When Zerai was five years old, his mother died in childbirth. Two years later, the secret police arrested his father, who bribed his way out of prison and fled the country, eventually reaching Italy. Zerai and seven siblings were raised by his grandmother, Kudusan, a sturdy woman who attended Catholic Mass daily. He calls her “my first testimony in the faith.”
As a boy, Zerai sought refuge in the church, where he played volleyball and soccer and sang in the choir. On Saturdays, the friars took him along to the store to buy groceries. Having lost both parents, he saw that priests could have a larger family, and, at fourteen, he told his grandmother that he wanted to join the priesthood. She asked the bishop. The bishop told him to seek permission from his father, who summoned Zerai to Rome.
When Zerai left Eritrea, in the early nineties, the country had nearly secured its independence after thirty years of fighting. Isaias Afewerki, the rebel leader who had assumed control of the new Eritrean government, enjoyed the country’s confidence for six relatively peaceful years but then began cracking down on opposition; he went to war with Ethiopia, and imposed mandatory military service. Zerai’s brother Biniam told me that Zerai, during his last year in Asmara, chose to spend his time with “big, big people”—businessmen, lawyers, judges. He was sixteen years old but “his mind was not like a kid,” Biniam told me. Zerai travelled to Rome by plane, with one suitcase. Zerai’s father had remarried, and was not much help as Zerai got settled. Their father “was up and down,” Zerai’s sister Senait, who now lives in Uganda, says. “He doesn’t stay in one place.” Zerai found his way to a British priest who worked out of an office at Rome’s central railway station and helped unaccompanied minors apply for asylum. With his help, Zerai obtained a residence permit.
Rome was nothing like Asmara. He could go anywhere he wanted without fear of arrest. On Saturday nights, he partied with Eritrean friends at discos on Via Casilina, Via Cassia—wherever was in fashion. He wanted “to experience life,” never thinking of the wayward years of Francis or Augustine. Occasionally, Zerai heard racial slurs on the bus and at one of his early jobs, sorting newspapers. When Africans made mistakes, the managers called them stupid or negro di merda. Zerai quit and found work at a fruit stand in the Piazza Vittorio, where he honed his Italian by chatting with customers. He tasted fruit that he had never seen in Asmara—“pear abate, apple renetta,” he said. “The kiwi I had never seen.” After work, he volunteered with the British priest as a translator and an informal consul. He learned how to expedite the official processes of obtaining identification, residency permits, health cards, thirty-year pensions, tax forms. The immigrants “could have gone by themselves, but they didn’t know the language or the logistics,” he told me.