On a remote island between Italy and Africa, a doctor does everything he can to deal with the health crises of refugees.
As the director of the only medical clinic on Lampedusa, Bartolo has seen it all. He has dealt with shipwrecks where corpses wash ashore; women pregnant from rape; babies separated from their mothers; teenagers who have no idea what their next step might be but know that they cannot return to the hell their homeland has become; and others so shaken by the trials of their exodus that they want nothing but to go back home. The doctor has seen refugees who have sold their kidneys or had other organs harvested to afford the exorbitant price of their escape. “This book is an eyewitness account, put down on paper, just as it is, black and white, without filters or embellishment,” writes co-author Tilotta. Interspersed with vignettes of tragedy and occasional hope is the doctor’s own story, how the son of island fishermen returned home with a wife and a medical degree and how he has needed to be all things to all people in the decades since. “Sometimes,” writes Bartolo, “when I am the only friendly face in front of them, patients feel as if I am no longer their doctor, but a saviour who can give them back their loved ones and reunite their families.” The author has even attempted to adopt a couple of the refugees, but perhaps his main role is as the conscience of this crisis (he was the main figure in the award-winning documentary Fire at Sea). After meeting the pope, Bartolo reflected how the two shared the understanding that “we are surrounded by invisible walls without doors, that we are fighting a hopeless battle against those who want to rid themselves of the problem by simply ignoring it.”
Though the chronological hopscotch makes it more like a scrapbook collection of memories than a cohesive narrative, there is great hope and poignancy here.