Don Emeka was drinking at a popular Nigerian bar in Palermo's moldering city center when the attack happened. It was 2014. Three fellow Nigerians surrounded him. At first they were friendly, asking him to join them. But he refused: He knew who they were and, more importantly, which gang they belonged to. Everybody knew the Black Axe and how, over the past year, they had been laying roots in the lawless Ballaro district, selling crack and heroin and women coerced from the West African nation with Juju threats of spiritual damnation.
When the men realized Emeka wouldn't join them they became angry. One took his glass. Then suddenly he was on the floor, his arm and face slashed wide open. Blood was pouring out. He thought he would die. Only the quick work of emergency services saved his life.
Emeka's three assailants ran away, but one, Austin Ewosa — known locally as John Bull — was later apprehended. Ewosa faces charges of assault, attempted murder, and association with a criminal network, all of which he denies. The attack bore all the hallmarks of the Black Axe, a former Nigerian university campus confraternity that has become a major global crime syndicate. Emeka's horrendous injuries were a warning to anybody else who might think to question the group's authority.
Palermo has been a lively center of commercial activity for centuries | (Patrick Lalonde/Courtesy Latterly)
When we met last month in Ballaro, a historic, tightly wound web of tenements and churchyards in Palermo's ancient center, Emeka spoke hesitantly and with a stutter. The attack has traumatized him. His wounds have closed, but the scars that snake down his face and forearm are huge. He has an iron plate in his arm and cannot work in construction, one of the few jobs open to unskilled migrants who have come to Sicily from Lampedusa or Libya. He lives in a flophouse nearby and rarely speaks to fellow residents.
"I have nothing," he said. "No phone, no life. What can I do?"
Emeka's experience is particularly horrific and unique in Ballaro. But his sense of despair is not. Barely a week passes without thousands more migrants arriving on Sicily's southern shores. In 2016, over 150,000 people — most of them Africans — made the potentially deadly journey from Libya to Italy. All are processed through special-made camps. Many then find their way to Ballaro.
That Ballaro is home to thousands of migrants is nothing new. It has been a place of multicultural commerce for over 1,000 years. Its first mention was in the diary of a Baghdadi merchant, and its name, many believe, comes from an ancient Arabic town called Balhara, from where many of its early traders are said to have originated.
Ballaro is also home to Palermo's largest street market, one of four that have existed since the Norman Empire invaded in the 11th century. Each day before dawn, thousands of traders set up shop under brightly colored canopies, selling everything from fruit and meat to batteries and badminton rackets. During the daytime Ballaro is chaotic and cosmopolitan. Panglossian cries of "Amuni!" ("Let's go") or "Bello pre!"("Good price") ring out along its crumbling alleyways.
Many of Ballaro's piazze have street signs in Italian, Arabic, and Hebrew — a nod to its past straddling a dazzling array of civilizations. Sicily has been conquered by Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, Normans, and Arabs, all of whom have left an indelible mark on Palermo. The locals speak an Italian dialect packed full of Arabic and Spanish words. The local food is distinctly North African: In the four days I visited, I didn't eat a single pasta dish.
In recent years, far-right groups like Lega Nord and the 5 Star Movement have flourished in northern Italy. Not so in Sicily. Its political landscape is dominated by the center-left Democratic Party. Leoluca Orlando, Palermo's mayor, has been unflinching in his support of migrants. He is known to greet each boat that arrives, telling their passengers, "You are citizens of Palermo now." Adham Darwarsha, a 36-year-old Palestinian doctor, is the city council's president. He speaks several languages and is similarly supportive of migrants.
But life for migrants in Palermo is tough. Most are housed first at the Caltanissetta refugee camp, in the center of Sicily, before making their way to the city. There they find lodgings in halfway houses and migrant centers. Many end up in Ballaro.
The Church of Saint Dominic in Palermo | (Marianne Lorthiois/Courtesy Latterly)
Documentation can take months, and jobs are scarce. Youth unemployment has leapt from 65 percent to 71.2 percent in the past 10 years. Many migrants are trapped in a cycle of bureaucracy and boredom. I met a 31-year-old Nigerian man for Moroccan stew at Moltivolti ("Many Faces"), a restaurant owned and run by a former Afghan soldier. He has lived in Palermo for 18 months and still does not have resident papers.
"I try to make things happen fine," he told me. "But the government keeps fighting against me. And I don't know why. Every time I meet with them they treat me like I'm a criminal. And the funniest point is, when they meet criminals and these guys who take drugs, they don't treat them in this way.
"I'm trying to discover myself, lead a good life. Honestly speaking, I'm really tired of this country. I don't know how to do it."
Read the rest of this story at Latterly.
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