Sicily, Italy – “Hey Rasta!” a man calls across the street, the latest passer-by to greet their young neighbour outside his house. With long dreadlocks falling over his blue pyjamas, Italian flag flip-flops under his feet, Rasta reflected on his popularity.
“It’s very nice to be a cool man,” said the 25-year-old from Sierra Leone.
Despite appearing at home in his surroundings, Rasta is about as far from his former life in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, as anyone could imagine. Until recently, a professional footballer by his own account and that of those around him, Rasta now finds himself living on a former US military base in Sicily.
Surrounded by dry farmers’ fields sown with silence, the Mineo base has been transformed into Europe’s largest centre for refugees.
About 3,000 people, including 30 children, now occupy the identical houses that give the base a model village vibe.
Although Rasta had no plans to come to Italy when he left Sierra Leone last summer, he is grateful to have reached Sicily. Some 800 others who made the same sea journey from Libya were not so fortunate, drowning when their boat sank on April 18.
Rasta was one of the few survivors, many of whom are now housed together in Mineo.
“Life here is better than Libya, but it’s not easy,” he said. “I’m going to school to learn Italian for one hour every day. The director is very concerned about us; he asks about us and visits us personally.”
Soon after the survivors’ arrival in April, the management gave each person a mobile phone and installed a TV in their shared house.
The latter was intended to give them a distraction from their memories of the shipwreck, the residents said, although they continue to watch news of boats travelling across the Mediterranean.
The deaths of their fellow passengers led to significant changes at the EU level over how to handle the current humanitarian crisis, including increased funding to sea rescue operations.
Rasta’s survival was a stroke of luck. More than 16 hours after leaving the Libyan coast, the overcrowded boat approached a stationary merchant ship, the King Jacob, which had been told of the smugglers’ vessel by the Italian coastguard.