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…