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.
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.
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?"