Yodit cupped her hands in prayer as we dialed. Those hands flew to her mouth as she realized that the phone – and her prayers – had been answered. It was the first time she had spoken to her mother since being rescued at sea and taken to Italy two weeks before.
I met Yodit, a 16-year-old Eritrean girl with short hair and a bright smile, in the Pozzallo registration center in Sicily last week. I had gone to talk to people about what they had experienced while traveling through Libya en route to Europe. But I ended up spending most of my time giving my mobile phone to children as young as 12 so they could call their parents in Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt and elsewhere and tell them that they were alive. The center gives out pre-paid calling cards with five euros on them, but the only phone there was broken.
The center near the port has a capacity of 180 people, but it held 365 when I was there, including 185 children who were traveling on their own. Many of these kids had been there since May 28, waiting to be transferred to dedicated shelters for unaccompanied children. According to UNICEF, more than 7000 unaccompanied kids have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy this year. Pozzallo is designed for short-term stays, and children, women, and men were sleeping in the same rooms on bunk beds and mattresses on the floor.
In the following days, my interpreter fielded calls from anxious parents, hoping to speak to their children again, to help them in some way. By then we were far away and could do little to help.
These kids survived horrors on their journeys, are living in unacceptable conditions today, and face uncertainty in the coming months. To be able to hear a loved one’s voice means a lot.
There are many things to fix at Pozzallo, some of them related to chronic problems with Italy’s response to boat migration. Fixing the phone would be a simple place to begin.