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LA STAMPA

Boat People To Wedding Bells: An Italian Fairy Tale For Three African Immigrants

How three African men escaping the civil war in Libya braved the Mediterranean Sea on a small fishing boat to find love in the most unexpected circumstances.

Migrants arriving in Lampedusa (Sara Prestianni)
Migrants arriving in Lampedusa (Sara Prestianni)
Francesco Moscatelli

SANTO STEFANO DI CADORE - Last year, three men escaped the civil war in Libya, braving the Mediterranean Sea on a crowded fishing boat. They spent four days with no food and water, huddled together with hundreds of other desperate people. They landed on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, and were eventually sent northward to an immigrant shelter in the Dolomite mountains.

Ten months later, in the small village of Santo Stefano di Cadore, north of Venice, the three men are married to three local Italian women.

The three couples will no doubt have to face the prejudices of a region where the Northern League anti-immigration party is very popular, having gathered 27.7% of the votes at the last elections.

Jude Thaddeus Ejims is a 32-year-old mechanic from Nigeria. Sainey Badie is a 31-year-old English teacher from Gambia. Ousmane Aboubacar Malam Sidi is a 33-year-old worker from Niger. Each had moved from their Sub-Saharan African homelands to work in Libya, under Muammar Gaddafi's regime. Like many other immigrants, they fled to Italy because they "had nowhere else to go."

On May 13, 2011, their lives took a surprising turn. For weeks, boats had been arriving to Lampedusa from the African coasts. The immigrant shelters were full and the Italian Civil Defense decided to dispatch the thousands of new arrivals across the country. That day, at 4.30 p.m. the mayor of Santo Stefano di Cadore, Alessandra Buzzo, answered a phone call from the local Civil Defense representative who was looking for a town willing to welcome a bus of 90 African people for few days. Half of the village wouldn't hear of it. Someone started a Facebook page calling for "No refugees' in the area.

Despite the criticism, rife even amongst her allies, the mayor decided to accept the group. Four hours after the phone call from the Civil Defense, the local sports center was already surrounded by protesting locals. But inside, a group of volunteers was getting ready to welcome the refugees with beds and warm meals.

Not a ploy

The three love stories -- between Jude and the 28-year-old daughter of the mayor, Chiara De Monte; Sainey and Veronica Buzzo, 36; and Ousmane and Marika Buzzo, 34 – began almost as soon as the group arrived.

Their respective romances blossomed in the following months, even though the three men had to move to other northeastern Italian towns, where they fought to obtain their refugee status, which was quickly denied. The answer to the question that immediately arises: No, their marriages aren't a ploy to get Italian citizenship. The three women's friends swear that the couples' joy, the parents' tears, everything was real, and not put on for show.

"From the first evening, Jude caught my attention because he was one of the warmest and nicest people of the group. We immediately bonded", says Chiara, a social worker. "After a few weeks, he wrote me a letter, declaring his love. At the beginning, I was a bit skeptical, in part because this wasn't really the best context for a relationship and in part because I was a bit concerned by the other villagers' opinion. But in the end, I realized that our bond was stronger than any doubts."

Marika Buzzo explained her choice in an interview with the local newspaper "Gazzettino": "I am peaceful, because I know that Ousmane is a very sweet person. Soon we will visit his family and all his brothers, whom he has not seen for years, in Niger. I'm Catholic, and he's Muslim. But that's not a problem. We have a lot of respect for each other."

The new brides' first concern is finding a job for their husbands. None of them have a driver's license, and they are still struggling to speak Italian. Moreover, the economic crisis has hit the region hard. "For the moment, Jude and I live in an apartment here in Santo Stefano. We have not yet decided to stay or to move out," says Chiara. "There are still many prejudices; looking towards the future is not easy. We are happy, but the fact that there were more Africans than locals in the town hall for the ceremony is not a good sign."

Read more from La Stampa in Italian

Photo - Sara Prestianni

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