Migrant Lives

Landing On A Hopeful Shore, Italy's 100,000th Migrant

A former cook for the Free Syrian Army, Iftikar al Daye is the 100,000th migrant who has arrived in Italy since the beginning of the year, and a symbol of hope for fleeing refugees.

On Lampedusa island
On Lampedusa island
Guido Ruotolo

BRINDISI — Dressed in black with a white veil, Iftikar al Daye is sitting on a bench, waiting. She's in a Red Cross tent in what used to be a shed for the Montecatini chemical company on Italy's Sant'Apollinare jetty. A handwritten card is pinned on her chest with the number 580.

Daye, who is Syrian, lifts up the white mask she received as soon as she disembarked from the Scirocco, one of the vessels belonging to the Mare Nostrum military and humanitarian operation. She appears to be calm, serene almost, as if crossing the Mediterranean Sea didn't exhaust her in the slightest. Thanks to interpreters from the immigration office at the Brindisi police station, she is able to talk with us.

Back home, she was a cook for the Free Syrian Army, "the rebels," as she explains. "I left Damascus two years ago with my son, my daughter-in-law and my grandchildren," she adds. "We've mostly been in Egypt since then, and we left on the boat from there."

Proud of what she did, she says she and her family escaped their home country for "fear of reprisal." Now, as her young granddaughter sits besides her, she doesn't know what's next. "I haven't decided what to do. I'd really like to thank Italy for having saved us and hosting us now," she adds.

But the family has another country in mind. "We want to go to Germany to treat my son, who suffers from diabetes," she explains. Doesn't Italy have good doctors too? "They're better in Germany," she replies.

Stretching resources

Daye doesn't know it yet, but she's a symbol. She is the 100,000th immigrant to land on the shores of Italy this year. Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 14, a total of 100,688 citizens from non-European countries have fled their home countries and arrived here, government figures show. The Scirocco that rescued Daye saved 750 other migrants along the way.

"The figures are so big that we've had to start using other ports in the south, and all available facilities to accommodate the migrants," says Mario Morcone, head of Italy's Department of Immigration and Civil Rights. "We'll have no choice but to use disused barracks if this flow doesn't stop."

Messina in Sicily, Civitavecchia in the Lazio region, Montichiari in Brescia and San Vito dei Normanni — these cities and towns are all helping to provide shelter for the migrants. Authorities are about to build an emergency "tent city" to deal with the situation, Morcone says.

Once Mare Nostrum's Scirocco enters the harbor with 750 migrants aboard, Nicola Prete, prefect of southern Italy's Brindisi province, is in charge of the welcoming machine. "Following medical examinations, 250 people will go to Lecce, 250 will stay here in Brindisi, 150 will go to Abruzzo, and 50 will go to Bari and Foggia," he explains.

Being rescued by the Italian Navy is only the beginning for these migrants. Just as Daye experienced, the drama of this relentless exodus doesn't stop with their arrival here.

Escaping death, looking for a future

Witnessing the scene of their exodus, it feels as if these thousands of young Syrians, Palestinians, Somalis, Egyptians and Sudanese would have had no conceivable future if they had stayed in their home countries. They were destined to die.

"We're Palestinians, from Gaza," a woman says as she sits with her four children at the Red Cross station on the Sant'Apollinare jetty. She can't possibly have fled from the violence and bombs of Operation Protective Edge, a military offensive against Hamas that Israel started July 8 in the Palestinian enclave. The woman must have escaped long ago, as did Daye, whose journey to Italy ultimately took two years. It will be months before we see the first Iraqis fleeing ISIS — the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — arrive here.

Most of the migrants who emerge from Scirocco are young, no matter their ethnic origin. The Syrians (who declare themselves — some show an Egyptian entry stamp on their passports) sailed from Alexandria a week ago. Many others come from Libya. Back at the Red Cross, a Somali girl says that in her group, people want to reach Germany, Switzerland, Sweden or Norway.

"None of these hundred thousand migrants have committed any crimes," Prete says. "We don't lock them into the welcome centers, so if they want to leave tomorrow, why should they be stopped?"

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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