“I will tell you the story of belatedness.
We migrants, we refugees, we foreigners.
We are always seen as delayed people.
We arrive [at] the right time.
And it is always too late.”
It is mid-June when we video chat with Dagmawi Yimer, an Ethiopian refugee and filmmaker living in Italy, for the first time. Dagmawi is in Verona, his hometown, and the two of us are in Rome and Milan, waiting. It is our waiting that triggers Dagmawi’s first impression: “the ban on Europeans’ mobility -once taken for granted- has crushed your lives. It has stopped the clock of your lives’ flow and held people back in achieving their goals. Laws ban migration, vanquish projects, and hinder dreams. You can’t live without dreams.”
Since March 13, 2020, entry to the United States has been denied to people coming from the Schengen Area. In the weeks and months following that decision, some of us working in the U.S. decided to go back to Europe. Those who were already in Europe became stuck there. Months after the outbreak of a pandemic that continues to impact daily life around the world, it now seems clear that March 13 represented a major turning point for those of us who live in-between worlds. The waiting -for borders to reopen, a university to share plans for the upcoming academic year, new migration rules to be announced by the Trump administration- made our lives invisible, suspending and delaying our plans and projects. Our now dusty things sit in empty apartments for which we are still paying rent. Pivotal grounding moments in our lives (deaths, births, anniversaries, birthdays, opportunities to meet, gather, work, live together) have been lost and can’t be recovered. Lost in transit, our lives have turned opaque, leaving us bewildered: the privilege we forged our lives upon has crumbled, and in the world to come we don’t know where to put our projects and dreams. Nevertheless, in this time of global suspension and isolation, we have continued to conduct research and fulfill our obligations.
If we had the privilege to wait so long to experience the reality of this “new” world in which our mobility is restricted, for Dagmawi things have always been this way. As he has shown in many of his artistic projects, revolving around self-narration and self-representation, border and security policies have profoundly marked his experience of mobility and waiting over many years.
Dagmawi’s latest project,Waiting (2020), deals with waiting as an instrument of domination, power and control over migrants. Dagmawi tells us “the story of belatedness” together with Shahram Khosravi, an Iranian exile, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Stockholm in Sweden, and co-director of this experimental film. Waiting integrates an academic reflection on the relationship between waiting and migration with the stories of individual migrants in order to reach a broader audience. Unlike Dagmawi, Shahram appears on camera as he writes an essay in a notebook from which he reads aloud. Speaking about the current border regime functioning “not only through arrangements of spaces and places, but also of time and temporalities,” Shahram says: “If you arrive too late, you have to wait. And this waiting is not an existential waiting for love, waiting to give birth, waiting for death but the politicized waiting imposed on you by politics.” To him, today’s border practices steal and exploit migrants’ time -exactly like colonial practices stole and exploited natural and human resources in previous eras.
Also robbed of his time by the “politicized waiting” of the border regime is the other protagonist of Waiting, Salif Keita, a former school teacher from Burkina Faso who crossed the Mediterranean in 2014. After arriving in Italy, Salif started working as a fruit picker in agricultural regions of both Southern and Northern Italy. In these areas of the country, illegal recruiters called caporali enlist migrants to work in the fields, and usually act as intermediaries between migrants, farmers or traders, and organized crime networks. Migrants’ precarious conditions and, in most cases, their illegal status are exploited by caporali, who maintain control over them with violence and threats. Dagmawi met Salif in Saluzzo in Piedmont, a farming area in Italy’s North, and began documenting the precarious conditions in which Salif was living and the discrimination he was enduring. These trials lie at the heart of Waiting.
Salif’s experiences are all too common. According to reports by the Osservatorio Placido Rizzotto on agromafie (the illicit activities of organized crime in the agriculture sector) and caporalato (the illegal recruitment, management, and exploitation of labor force), in 2014 caporali illegally enlisted about 400,000 undocumented farm workers mainly from Africa, of whom 100,000 lived in slavery-like conditions in shelters with no running water and sanitation. 70% of these workers received a daily payment of €25-30 for an average of 12 hours a day of work with no breaks, and had to pay €5 to the caporali for transportation, €3.50 for food, and €1.50 for water. As is especially common in the South of Italy, farm workers also often had to pay for the shanties in which they lived. This situation has not improved in recent years. In 2018, 39% of agricultural workers had an illegal contract, and the number of farm workers illegally working for caporali were between 400.000 and 430.000, of whom 132.000 lived in conditions of great vulnerability.
After meeting Dagmawi for the first time and hearing about his work, we watched Waiting and engaged in another video conversation to ask him questions.It is almost July now and we are all still stuck in the same place.
Giulia & Valeria: Dagmawi, in Waiting, Shahram says that “keeping people in waiting is a punishment” -a punishment for being a foreigner and for having thus arrived late. What’s the impact of this endless waiting on migrants’ life?
All illustrations in Waiting are by Marco Paci
Dagmawi: If you can’t see a way out, you can’t even go back to your country because of a piece of paper. To be a legal migrant means having the chance of going back to your home country with dignity. Otherwise, what’s left for you is to hide and wait for an amnesty that would regularize your position. But in the meantime you become an easy target of injustice and exploitation.
Giulia & Valeria: In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic enhanced migrants’ precariousness?
Dagmawi: On the one hand, there are migrants who have been living in Italy for a long time and coexist in the same neighborhoods as Italians. They all share the same hardship, it is a matter of social/class identity. On the other, there are migrants who are invisible because they don’t have documents or are waiting to have them. This is serious. I am seeing people up close who are having difficulties in obtaining a resident permit that was previously denied or a renewal of it. This pandemic slows this process further, and doesn’t allow you to make any plans. Now you are facing a collective hardship. You already had a hardship, and now with the pandemic you are facing a double disadvantage since you can’t have a work contract either. In the future we will not be able to ignore the impact that inequality has on public health.
Giulia & Valeria: Let’s go back to Waiting. Shahram and Salif are filmed by you as they write in a notebook. Shahram writes an essay that he reads aloud in front of the camera. Salif writes letters to his son, who is in Burkina Faso, and reads them, as we hear through the voice-over. What is the role of writing in Waiting?
Dagmawi: Audio and writing are more intimate than video. The writing is embodied: it’s the notebook, it’s the content. These words would be hard to say in front of a camera. That is why they find their space both through audio and writing. The camera is awkward, and makes you feel uncomfortable.
Giulia & Valeria: We look at the use of writing in Waiting as liberating. It gives Salif and Shahram the chance to use their own voices to tell viewers about themselves, about the story of their migration, and to become both interviewers and interviewees, objects of the storyline and filmmakers. What is the function of the illustrations? Is that a different type of visual language?
Dagmawi: The illustrations serve a similar function to the writing. It’s more evocative. Waiting is an experimental work; it’s a way to facilitate the act of listening. As I was listening to Shahram’s academic essay and sketching this project, I immediately thought about illustration to intertwine Salif’s narration to Shahram’s. Therefore, the illustrations guide the viewer in getting in and out the two stories. In addition to that, using illustration is a way to protect Salif. It’s a precaution, a way not to disclose everything about his story. Marco Paci is the illustrator who reimagined Salif’s and Shahram’s words as original drawings.
We met with Dagmawi for a third time in late July to exchange our final thoughts and impressions on his work and our discussion. We then transcribed our interview and translated it from Italian into English.
It has been six weeks now since our first meeting with Dagmawi. It’s early August and we are still waiting to go back to New York, or to be given back the choice of where to be. We hope to get together in New York at some point, something we planned on months ago, when we invited Dagmawi to present his work at the Zolberg Institute and run a documentary filmmaking workshop with undergraduate students. Like so many plans, we have been forced to give this one up.
Valeria G. Castelli, Ph.D., was a 2018-20 Visiting Research Scholar at the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at The New School, and is currently an instructor at NYU.
Giulia Sbaffi is a Doctoral Candidate at NYU, and a researcher at the Archivio delle Memorie Migranti (Archive of Migrant Memories).
Dagmawi Yimer is a filmmaker, and the co-founder and co-Director of the Archivio delle Memorie Migranti.