How Palermo Became a Host to African Refugees
In a country whose borders are closing more tightly to migrants, Sicily’s capital has become a center of resistance.
Contributed reporting by Giulia Alagna
Photographs by Tyler Mitchell
Ebou’s home, for now, is a tall yellow building where a Catholic group houses a handful of immigrants his age. It smells of freshly washed shirts and cologne, the scent of young men striving. Ebou Mass is 18, a rangy soccer player with dark eyes and an ear-to-ear grin. He grew up in the small West African country of Gambia, and two years ago he arrived in Sicily, the mound of rock that, on a map, the Italian boot is kicking. His housemates are from Gambia, Guinea, Mali, and Senegal, and razz each other in Sicilian-inflected Italian. They trade off making dinner — Ebou takes Mondays and Thursdays — and play FIFA Soccer on PlayStation into the wee hours. They crave what they lacked in West Africa: stability, opportunity. Ebou tells me, “I don’t want to become useless. I want to become something.”
Four days a week, Ebou hops on his bike, which he saved 50 euros to buy, and races down Via Vittorio Emanuele. Seagulls caw, motorbikes grunt, laundry waves from balconies as if saying hello. He shoots past the markers of old Palermo, a port city that has been passed from conqueror to conqueror. The Palazzo dei Normanni, for instance, is an Arab fortress turned Norman palace turned home to the Sicilian Regional Assembly. Soon, he’s in a labyrinth of alleyways in the old neighborhood of Albergheria, the center of a Palermo once again in metamorphosis.
He hurries into a restaurant named Moltivolti. It’s run, in part, by an Italian native and his Zambia-born wife. Lasagna alla carne is on the menu, but so are moussaka and mafé, a West African peanut stew. Regulars include Sicilian attorneys but also a Ghanaian musician and his dog, Whiskey. The restaurant helps fund a suite of social justice groups. Peek into the kitchen: It’s the world they’re working to build. Ebou loads dishes. The head chef, who’s from Afghanistan, dices tomatoes. It’s Ramadan, and a cook from Morocco simmers eggs and onions for fellow Muslims breaking fast after sunset. I ask another cook, who’s chopping carrots, where he’s from. “Palermo!” he says, and everyone laughs.
Italy was once an exporter of people, so many that Americans think of spaghetti and pizza as our native cuisine. But in recent decades, the tides of migration reversed. The distance between Libya, a launch point for smugglers, and Lampedusa, Italy, is even shorter than the distance between Havana and Miami. In the past decade, close to 800,000 people braved passage across the central Mediterranean in rickety boats that felt more stable than the countries they’d fled. Many moved elsewhere in Europe, and the exodus to Italy has considerably slowed in the past year. Nevertheless, immigrants, only 4 percent of Italy’s population in 2000, now make up about 10 percent.
Immigration has transformed the country’s politics. The year after Ebou arrived, voters elevated the party of Matteo Salvini, a nationalist firebrand with a mastery of social media, to power. Until recently the interior minister, he’s blocked migrants arriving by boat and made the lives of those here much harder. His party, the League, won more votes than any of its Italian counterparts in the recent European parliamentary elections, showing the resonance of his message “Italians first.” Palermo, and in particular Albergheria, however, has become a center of resistance.
The Ballarò market in Albergheria awakens around 9 a.m. Around the corner from Moltivolti, wooden stalls and green and red canopies stretch for what feels like miles. Fishmongers arrange their wares as carefully as Gucci arranges its mannequins: mackerel fanned like playing cards; grouper fillets rolled like cigars; a swordfish head, bill skyward, as imposing as a palace guard. Tourists barter in broken Italian, cats sniff under stalls, a butcher lugs a dead pig over his shoulder, a formaggiàio stirs sheep’s milk into cheese. One afternoon, I watched five men heave a tuna the size of a beer keg onto a table. It felt like street theater, there were so many people filming it.
Sicily has survived many conquerors: Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish — and that’s only a partial list. Instead of resisting their overlords’ ways, Sicilians usually absorbed them. Francesco Bellina, a Sicilian photographer, tells me one afternoon, “We don’t say, when we were invaded by Arabs or invaded by Spanish. We say, when we were Arabs, when we were Spanish.” The market, for example, is a remnant of Arab rule, the Italian version of a souk, or bazaar. Merchants sing-shout to promote their wares, a technique meriting its own name, abbanniàta. “Zucchina lunga, 1 euro! Cantalupo, 1.39!” A man near a wall of athletic T-shirts joins in: “Adidas! Adidas!”
Palermo is the fifth-largest city in Italy, with nearly 700,000 people nestled between mountains and sapphire sea. Albergheria and the bustling Ballarò market are part of its historic core. In Rome and Florence, the historic centers can feel like outdoor museums — impeccably preserved and quite expensive. Palermo has a similar rococo-ness, its churches, fountains, and town hall scalloped like wedding cakes. But during World War II, the Allies bombed Palermo, and some buildings remain a tremor away from becoming rubble.
For decades, the Mafia ruled the city, and the Cosa Nostra let the historic core rot. Albergheria had few streetlights, sporadic trash service; churches were dumps and alleys drug dens. Palermitans who could escape to the suburbs did. In the early 1990s, however, voters rebelled against mob rule and elected anti-Mafia crusader Leoluca Orlando as mayor. He later told a research team, “I was born in Palermo. I had never been alone at night in the historic city center. It wasn’t possible. It was dark and dangerous.”
Orlando’s administration tried to reverse years of mob neglect and diminish mob influence. He had help from a stream of immigrants: Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Ghanaians, Filipinos. Albergheria is the most integrated part of a city with more than 100 nationalities. The new arrivals were not bound by omertà, or the Mafia code of silence: A few years back, immigrant shopkeepers, fed up with mobsters demanding pizzo, or protection money, even took the once unfathomable step of turning them in.
“If you ask me how many migrants are in Palermo, I reply, No one.”
— Mayor Leoluca Orlando
To be sure, this is a renaissance in progress. There are lights in the neighborhood, but few street signs or tour buses. Sicily’s unemployment rate is among the country’s highest, so it’s hard for newcomers to find even elder care or restaurant work. And the Cosa Nostra lingers, running wee-hours illegal horse races (and sometimes discarding dead horses in the streets) and enlisting brutal Nigerian gangs in the drug trade.
But immigrants are Albergheria. Look up: A building-size mural of St. Benedict the Moor, one of Palermo’s patron saints — and the rare black saint — presides over a soccer field in a monastic robe and cleats. Near the market, a poster for a meeting of Nigerian separatists, a flier for a club’s Afro Euro Ladies Night (“Ladies B4 1:30 AM Are Free”). An African barber around the bend from a Sicilian barber; the African barber’s line is longer. A dress shop named Imperial225, a nod to the Ivory Coast country telephone code. Most of its customers are tourists. I think of what Bellina, the photographer, said about Sicilian adaptability. “When we were African…”
When Ebou Mass left Gambia, at 14, he didn’t know exactly where he’d end up — he just felt like, for his family’s sake, he needed to go. A dictator had ruled his country since before he was born. One in three households scraped by on less than a dollar a day. Nearly 40 percent of young adults were jobless. So many Gambians had already fled that remittances made up an astonishing one-fifth of the country’s economic activity. “I did not tell my sister or mother,” he says. “I just left.” Alone.
Ebou doesn’t share much more about his odyssey; it’s a specter that follows but does not subsume him. He’s a devout Muslim, and he plays me a recording of his favorite prayer, the one that makes him feel safe: “In Africa, there are bad people who do bad things to people. So this is very important; it protects you from many things — from the evils.” He got stuck for years in Libya, which, with no real government, is less a failed state than a circle of hell — migrants have been imprisoned, tortured, even sold into slavery. If you bring up Libya, his gaze drifts, and he steers the conversation elsewhere. I imagine he recited the prayer often.
Ebou’s lawyer is a 28-year-old Sicilian named Alice Argento. For much of her adult life, dinghy after dinghy of Africans and Middle Easterners had washed up on Italian shores. To her, they were no less deserving of help than the Sicilians who carved out new lives in America decades before. “It’s the same thing,” she says. As a student, Alice volunteered at a center for immigrants. Then she helped start Sicily’s first clinic for immigration law. She’d finished part of the Italian equivalent of the bar exam in 2017 when she was offered a job at a migrant camp.
She arrived at an airy seaside villa with a garden and 25 boys eyeing her suspiciously. Their journeys had taught them not to trust. Ebou was the youngest, and perhaps the wariest. “I approached him in Italian,” she recalls. “He replied in English, asking me if I was insulting him.” It took him weeks to thaw. Then he and Alice sat down to discuss his case, and, she says, “It was like he finally could unload.”
Alice tried to explain the bureaucratic process that awaited the boys, something that baffles even adults. At one point, she asked them to draw a place where they felt protected — the way she believed Italy should make them feel. Many drew homes. Ebou drew a soccer game. (“I’m a good striker,” he tells me.) When he learned that he couldn’t start school right away because it was summer, he was crushed. “That was my dream,” he says. “To go to school.”
Most of Alice’s clients are boys, ages 15 to 18. As we stroll through Albergheria one night, several run over with huge smiles. “Mi raccomando!” she half-teases them, an Italian maternal admonishment to not do anything stupid. A few years ago, the boys mainly came from Gambia, Senegal, Ivory Coast. More recently, they’ve come from Mali and Guinea. (The comparatively few girls are usually Nigerian and victims of sex trafficking.) If their country was at war, they asked for asylum status. If it was merely in shambles, they asked for a humanitarian protection permit, which lasted two years and could be renewed.
As an orphan who’d endured so much so young, Ebou had a strong case.
Back home, the boys’ families often assume they’re rich. They are gravely mistaken. The fall after Ebou arrived, the migrant camp where he met Alice closed. The next one ran out of food, and the boys panicked. “My father said, ‘Stop, I won’t hear it anymore, let’s go to buy pizza,’” Alice says. That camp closed, too. By the winter, Ebou had moved six times. Back in Africa, his mother died (his father died years before). His older sister called to tell him. He says, “This was the saddest news I had ever had in my life.” He didn’t go back. He dreams instead of bringing his sister and her son to Europe. For now, Ebou relies on Alice and her parents for advice and reassurance; if she gets upset with him (because, say, he skipped school), he calls her mom instead.
I meet Ebou one day at a park in sight of the palace. Graffiti dances around the base of an obelisk marking the birth of the Italian state. The grass is parched, the bushes in need of trimming. Three kids shriek on a swing set. “Do you feel like a real Italian?” I ask. “No,” he says. Ebou is having a rough day. He’d had a spat over chores with a staffer at his building. And though he’d been dishwashing at Moltivolti for months, he got the internship through a nonprofit, and his pay was delayed. He was so defeated, he ditched school again. Even so, his determination flickers. He says, “My mom told me this: I will never suffer in my life. And I believe it. And wherever I go, there will be a person who will try to take care of me and help me.”
After the ascent of Salvini’s party, in 2018, Italy rolled out new immigration rules. “Everything is different now,” Alice says. “Everything.” Fewer migrants have been granted asylum. Italy also largely stopped issuing new humanitarian permits. As tens of thousands of old ones expire, those who can’t find work on the books or get other papers will become undocumented immigrants — or, as Italians call them, clandestini. Just before the changes, Ebou had his humanitarian permit hearing. The permits were issued to immigrants who didn’t qualify as refugees but were deemed vulnerable in some other way. As an orphan who’d endured so much so young, Ebou had a strong case, but Alice knew that in immigration proceedings, there are no shoo-ins. Ebou learned the result at home; he called Alice, but he was too overwhelmed to speak and handed the phone to a staffer. She told Alice, who was driving: He got it.
My visit to Palermo coincides with one from Salvini. It’s a big day for the town: the anniversary of the death of a judge named Giovanni Falcone. Falcone helped dismantle the Cosa Nostra, locking up more than 300 mafiosi during the famed Maxi Trial, so named because of its enormity. On May 23, 1992, as Falcone was traveling in a motorcade outside Palermo, Mafia hit men detonated a bomb and killed him, his wife, and three bodyguards. The way Sicilians mark the day reminds me of the Fourth of July — appropriate, since the cruelty of Falcone’s death emboldened Sicilians to rise up against mob tyranny.
It’s a bright afternoon, heat radiating off the pavement. I’m at a café on Via Luigi Pirandello, in a middle-class part of town. Almost out of nowhere, hundreds of people materialize — I hear them before I see them, chanting in Italian, “We hate indifference!” Children grip red, green, and white balloons; they wave signs that say MAFIA NO; they raise black-and-white photos of mob victims in silent tribute. As the procession nears, people in the six-story buildings flanking the street unfurl white sheets over their balconies, just as Palermitans did in protest after Falcone’s death.
While 23 percent of voters in the south supported Salvini’s party in the European parliamentary elections, on the eve of his visit I spot quite a few protest banners: WE ARE ALL PEOPLE and NO MAFIA, NO RACISM, NO NEOFASCISM. Near the port, a few dozen teenagers huddle outside their school, waving a giant white banner with red lettering: SALVINI, WE ARE HERE, WHAT DID YOU WANT TO TELL US?! Earlier in the month, education officials had suspended one of their teachers; her students, as part of a Holocaust remembrance event, had made a video comparing Salvini’s immigration policies to those of Benito Mussolini.
Until recently, Salvini’s party was called the Northern League, and it dreamed of seceding from Italy to create a republic in northern Italy called Padania. It demonized, in particular, the poorer, less educated Southern Italians who journeyed north seeking work. They were terroni — ill-mannered farmers. Dirt people. When Salvini came to Palermo in 2015 to make amends, crowds greeted him by hurling tomatoes and eggs.
Salvini defends his crackdown as a way to keep Italians safe. “If I could reduce the number of these crimes and the presence of illegal immigrants, they can call me racist as much as they want,” he told Time magazine last year. Like President Trump, he also frames the issue around economics. “Italians can’t compete with illegal workers who are being exploited. So to restore dignity to work, we must control immigration.”
The night before the Falcone remembrance, I stop by Mayor Orlando’s office. He won reelection two years ago and has fashioned himself as a foil to Salvini. His aide tours me around the town hall, a pastiche of gold leaf and chandeliers. We pause at a sculpture of the Genius of Palermo, a city protector of sorts: a crowned, bearded man staring into the middle distance as a snake suckles his bare chest. “Palermo, the golden dell,” an inscription reads in Latin, “devours hers and feeds the foreigners.”
Orlando is an imposing presence; his hands act out his words. Palm fronds fan out behind his paper-strewn desk; to his left sits a framed letter from Pope Francis, applauding the mayor’s advocacy. For example, he refused to carry out part of Salvini’s signature immigration plan. Orlando joked, “The army did not arrive. If you see some soldiers, please call me.” He smiles.
Orlando sees the new arrivals as integral to Sicily’s economy and culture, part of, as he once told Al Jazeera, “our Mediterranean soul.” He’s even set up an advisory group of migrants to make sure they have a voice in city politics. Denying them residency only forces them into a life of illegality and exploitation, he says. “We have no migrants in Palermo. If you ask me how many migrants are in Palermo, I don’t reply 100,000, 120,000. I reply, No one. Who lives in Palermo is Palermo.”
Another evening, the sunset pinking the sky, I walk up the street from Moltivolti to a nearby Catholic-run community center. Local Muslims had gathered for iftar, the meal that ends the daily Ramadan fast, at the charity’s invitation. Their imam was born in New York and moved to Sicily as a kid. The group nibbles on Italian pastries instead of dates, gulps water from plastic cups, drapes prayer rugs across the linoleum floor. Men slip off their shoes, and women scarf their hair. They pray. Once finished, they dig into boxes of pizza stacked high on a folding table, pink lettering beckoning buon appetito.
Ebou hunches over the sink in the Moltivolti kitchen, wearing a red T-shirt with blue lettering that says NEW YORK and a thin gold chain. It’s a tight space fragrant with olive oil; knives thwack-thwack, pots clang. This is Ebou’s first job, and before he started, he worried he’d be treated like a dishrag — worn to tatters, then discarded. Many immigrants are. The head chef, Mohammed Shapoor Safari, recalls slaving under the table at another restaurant years ago. As vexing as the job was, it felt like proof that his trek — from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Iran to Turkey to Italy — had been worth it. When he was let go, “I just felt like I wanted to cry, because I missed my family. For three or four minutes, it was as if I couldn’t remember my name.”
Moltivolti opened five years ago. Safari knew the founders well enough to get work laying bricks and painting walls; he convinced them he belonged in the kitchen by whipping up ravioli and a meaty, oniony Afghan curry called doppiaza (which is still on the menu). Now, of 28 employees, half are immigrants. Their T-shirts say, in Italian, “My land is where my feet touch.” The menu is divided into Sicilian dishes (“North Africa,” I hear someone joke) and African et al. (“South Sicily”). When Ebou smells the peanuty Senegalese mafé, he’s home.
Ebou likes the job. He dabbles in prep cooking. When he goes on an herb run and forgets basil, no one yells. “They are so kind,” he says. If Italy’s immigration laws remain intact, when his permit expires, he will likely need full-time employment to remain a legal resident. This is so hard to find that, at an Albergheria construction site, I saw a sign warning hopefuls: NO JOBS. (And indeed, by the end of the summer, Ebou was no longer working at Moltivolti.)
During my visit, Ebou invites my translator, Giulia, and me to dinner. Because of Ramadan, it’s late, and the streets near his building are so dark that I can barely make out an Air Italy billboard. We bring cannoli and a bottle of Coke, Ebou’s favorite; beaming, he shows off a white ALWAYS COCA-COLA T-shirt that Alice gave him earlier that day.
In the kitchen, he’s effortless, a musician tuning his instrument. He peels onions with one hand, knife flying like an extra thumb. He tastes his sauce, which tomatoes the air; sprinkles salt and pepper; waits as the flavors mature, thumbing through his phone, checking on friends scattered across continents. At last, he spoons out three plates, and we sit at a table in the living room. He’d made a dish called chus: fried chicken, basmati rice, and a tomato-and-onion sauce. It’s his mom’s recipe, and it’s delicious.
About the author: Ashley Powers is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The California Sunday Magazine.