Syria Crisis

At Milan Train Station, One More Stop For Syrian Refugees

Italy is often a point of arrival in Europe for immigrants from troubled points east and south. But most will eventually wind up in northern destinations. What have they seen? What will they find?

Inside Milan’s Central Station
Inside Milan’s Central Station
Niccolò Zancan

MILAN — One-way train tickets to Vienna cost 430 euros for three adults and two kids, and that doesn't include agency fees. Shady Zyadan, the patriatch of his family, goes up to the counter to buy them, taking out a wad of banknotes from his pocket.

As he walks up to the ticket booth, he puts his hand to his mouth, maybe in pain — or is it shame? "In Libya they took out all my gold teeth. They did the same to my wife, those dogs. It was terrible, continuous torture. They kept us as prisoners in a house for 20 days, there were more than 30 of them. On May 7 they came to us with a Tommy gun, telling us we were getting on the boat, or we could die right there."

Getting onto the boat wasn’t easy for the Zyadan family. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t easy for them to even move 10 meters. The two youngest traveling with them, Shady’s grandsons aged 14 and 16, are paraplegic, and have never walked nor spoken.

The family has just visited the Arca center, a Milan program that helps those in need, where they were given plates of pasta and cans of Sprite. Now the whole family is waiting on the huge staircase in Milan’s Central Station. This is the last stop in Italy for these Syrian refugees fleeing the war.

"We left Homs eight months ago," Shady tells me. "There’s nothing left in Syria anymore, there’s nobody left there. If you ask me, soon enough Bashar al-Assad will come looking for asylum."

The family want to go to Vienna because they have an uncle there. It was he who sent over the money. They need to get going; their train leaves soon. There are two civil protection workers, Alessandro and Mauro, who lift the boys onto their shoulders. Their grandfather thanks the men, touching his heart, while their mother follows, clutching backpacks in each hand.

The family is finally getting closer to their final destination, after repeating the mantra so many have from the beginning of their journey: Do not stop in Italy, do not get identified there.

A special 5-year-old

It’s like this for everyone. On those stairs, waiting for other trains, there are four families with young children, two pregnant women with their partners, a doctor, an artisan, a teacher and a shopkeeper.

Photo: InterNational Carmen

"It’s a new kind of migration," says Valentina Polizzi, from NGO Save the Children. "It’s not something we’ve seen before."

She, along with Majdi Karbai and Sara Sayed, two mediators, spend their days and nights here in the station giving support to those who need it. "People who speak English come here, they’re well educated and from higher social classes. The first thing they ask is where they can wash. They’re well informed and are always appreciative and respectful. I’ve never seen any violent incidents."

True stories bound to become legends float around the station, like those $9,000 lost at sea during a journey in August, or the magnificent gold jewelry lost on another one. One Syrian man says he paid 2,000 euros for his family to go to Germany, but they were abandoned at a highway stop near Lake Como: "The man who was driving us said he had a flat tire and made us get out, but then he took off at top speed." Now, they are waiting here for a train to Switzerland.

"Even in Egypt we were treated badly," says one refugee. "The price for us Syrians to get across to Europe has quadrupled."

When they get off the boats, many will wind up in the hands of other smugglers. You can see them here in Milan’s station, like vultures hovering around, waiting on their prey.

They offer the refugees a safe journey, complete with falsified documents. Those who promise they’ll get you a ticket to Ventimiglia — just 10 kilometers away from the French border — want a 50-euro commission. They don’t mind waiting: Every day more and more Syrian refugees arrive.

"These families have such strength and trust in the future despite everything being so uncertain," says Polizzi.

Khalid, who fractured his leg and had pins finally put in it yesterday, tells me about his journey: "My boat collided with another one, just outside of Alessandria’s port. I prayed. The sea was good."

The mediator Majdi overheard Hamal, a 5-year-old girl speaking to her father with a bit of tragic humor: "Now we’re in Italy, if you don’t feed me I’ll report you. I’m not saying every day, but at least every other day." They also lived in Homs. One day they went out to buy some bread and an explosive landed on their house, killing Hamal’s mother. It has taken them seven months to get to Milan.

Hamal is smiling now, eating a cheese sandwich and sitting on the ground in the train station. Tonight she and her father and the rest of the family will be leaving as well. She has gotten this far; with her whole life in front of her, who could stop Hamal now?

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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