clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

I was forced to see the human cost of the refugee crisis. I wish others were too.

Elizabeth Svokos

I was making my daily rounds across the internet at my staff writing job when I found a photo starting to go viral. It showed a man in a helmet and lifejacket gently cradling a baby. The baby’s mouth was slightly open, and the man’s lips were squeezed together in a tight straight line.

The man was a rescuer in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy. The baby was dead — one of 45 people who perished when their boat sank in late May.

It was a startling image showing the horror of the ongoing migrant crisis. I was devastated looking at it.

But I also saw an opportunity. Most American media outlets had been giving the crisis minimal attention. The photo was a way to educate my readers about the fact that thousands are dying as they try to escape their home countries — and there’s no solution in sight.

I wrote an aggregated piece about the photo, including as much context as I could in a 500-word post. The piece was edited and published. I shared it on social media.

And then I stopped thinking about the dead baby.

There was a shooting at UCLA the next day. The Supreme Court announced its annual decisions in June. The political conventions burst through July. By the time I went on vacation in August, I had forgotten all about the baby.

Until I was face to face with its grave.

“They are here, a number in a grave, where the dream for a better life had died”

My sister and I visited Calabria, Italy, a mountainous region where our mother was born, in August to see our family. The region has been responding to the migrant crisis for years. More than 180,000 migrants arrived in Italy in 2016, compared with 150,000 in 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Most migrants are picked up by a rescue operation in the sea (run by either volunteers or the Italian Coast Guard), which then takes them to a port in south Italy or Sicily. The Calabrian port city of Reggio has been handling a huge amount of this burden.

Between the family links and my work as a journalist, my sister and I felt a personal obligation to at least serve as witnesses to what has been going on these past several years. So we asked a cousin with connections to the local government to help show us the crisis.

Within 72 hours of our arrival in Reggio, we met with officials and volunteers. We saw a ship come in with 700 migrants. A group of local volunteers receive every ship of migrants. At the port, they hand out snacks, drinks, and clothes. They bathe and dress infants. Doctors and psychologists volunteer to examine the migrants and intervene against abuse and trafficking. We visited homes for unaccompanied minors and hung out with teenagers there.

And we saw a cemetery on top of a mountain.

Don Nino Pangallo, a Catholic priest, and Hassan El Mazi, a Muslim leader, were our guides when we visited this graveyard at the edge of a cliff overlooking Reggio. They walked us past the towering family crypts decorated with flowers to dozens of dirt mounds lined up in several rows. Each mound had a piece of wood marked with a number on it.

Buried there were 45 people, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, who died in late May in the Mediterranean Sea trying to make the journey from Libya to Italy.

When Don Nino, who works with the charity organization Caritas, and Hassan, head of the Islamic Cultural Center of Reggio Calabria, buried these people, they didn’t know their names. They didn’t know where they came from or what religion they practiced. They only knew they were people with hope, and they died in the pursuit of that.

“There are people looking for them, crying for them,” Don Nino said, “and they are here, a number in a grave, where the dream for a better life had died.”

“This is what the migrants are ready to risk when they leave,” he said. “Nobody leaves for vacation. People leave because they are desperate; people leave because they cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. An end to hunger, or to war, or to oppression. Who leaves? What kind of parent would let their child leave, if not in a desperate situation? And it’s anguishing to see.”

We approached the graves, and the men pointed out two mounds nestled next to each other. That was a mother and baby, they explained. Attached to the piece of wood was a photo of a rescue worker cradling the dead child in his arms.

I stopped short.

“I know that baby,” I mumbled. “I wrote about that picture.”

I felt an urge to tell Don Nino and Hassan, at first feeling proud — I knew! I was paying attention! I told other people about it! — but then I felt a stifling gust of shame. I had forgotten about the baby. These men were doing so much, dealing with tragedy, working for a resolution and for peace … and I forgot.

Viral photos capture the public’s attention — but not for long

The rescuer holding the baby was from the group Sea-Watch.

Sea-Watch released the photo under the assumption that people only care when they are forced to see atrocities. The most dramatic example of this happened in 2015, with the photo of 3-year-old Syrian child Aylan Kurdi, found dead on a Turkish beach.

The picture of Kurdi went viral. For about a month, news organizations regularly published stories about refugees. Donations were made, politicians gave speeches, and it seemed like people actually cared.

Until the news cycle moved on, the public largely stopped paying attention, and publications stopped voraciously covering the crisis.

Similarly, when Sea-Watch released the photo of the rescuer and the baby this May, the articles came from all over the world. It was a particularly deadly week in the Mediterranean, as more than 1,000 people died. Headlines said the photo was proof of the devastation, heartbreaking, a sign of the consequences, a wake-up call.

Don Nino Pangallo, a Catholic priest, and Hassan El Mazi, a Muslim leader, at the cemetery for migrants in Reggio, Italy.
Elizabeth Svokos

And then that week passed, and the news cycle moved on, and nothing changed. In 2016, more than 5,000 migrants died in the Mediterranean.

As the news cycle moved on, the people of Reggio moved in. When the ship with the dead arrived, Hassan and Don Nino stayed with the bodies as officials made efforts to identify them. The ship also brought survivors, some of whom were related to the victims and could name them. Hassan received desperate calls and messages from people in northern Africa.

“They didn’t know if their loved ones were dead or not, but they just heard the news reporting that a boat had arrived with 45 corpses,” he said.

Hassan and Don Nino gave both Catholic and Islamic funeral services because they could not identify the religions of many of the dead. Members of both religious communities came to the burials. The local Italian community has since organized prayer groups at the cemetery. Old women visiting graves of loved ones bring extra flowers to leave for the migrants.

“As believers, both Muslims and Christians, we can open our arms and help these people to be more than just a number, as it was in the concentration camps,” Don Nino said. “And we can help our people to deal with their resistance and close-mindedness and open their arms, too.”

Why hasn’t anyone else in America written about the burials in Reggio?

In an age that has seen reckless treatment of humanity — countries refusing to let migrants and refugees in and stalling on long-term plans to deal with crises — this story is an inspiration. This small, isolated region in the south of Italy gave the ultimate respect to foreign strangers. Muslims and Catholics worked together. The devastation of the migrant crisis was on full display — as was the kindest humanity.

But the rest of the world didn’t know. There are dozens of articles about the photo of the baby, including in major publications like Reuters, the Washington Post, Fox News, and CBS, but I have yet to find one in English about the burials.

Why am I the first American to write about the burials in Reggio? Reggio is a European city with an international airport. People there were eager to tell their story — all we needed was one connection to local officials to be able to set up a series of visits, including with the mayor and Italian Coast Guard.

The problem isn’t isolated to this one story — coverage of the refugee crisis across the Mediterranean in the American press has been spotty at best, with vast amounts of attention lavished on it for a few weeks at a time, and then long stretches of neglect.

There are some individual journalists doing deep, consistent reporting of the refugee crisis. I am particularly inspired by Joanna Kakissis, a Greek-American NPR contributor based in Athens, and photojournalist Lynsey Addario, who has been covering the crises across the Mediterranean, recently documenting refugee camps in Greece.

But both of these women, like my sister and myself, have personal drives to motivate their coverage. Kakissis has the Greek connection, and Addario has dedicated much of her professional life to human crises like this.

Donald Trump’s executive orders on Muslims and refugees went into devastating effect on Friday. And I wondered if some Americans’ suspicion of migrants could have been softened or even erased if there had been more comprehensive, regular coverage on the Mediterranean crises.

It’s a tricky line of thought, to be sure. Trump won the election in part due to suspicion of the media, so it’s hard to say there would have been a large enough effect on the public. But as many voters claimed terrorism and national security among their biggest concerns, better-reported migrant and refugee stories could have helped allay fears.

This coverage wouldn’t be about the stats on arrivals and rates of terrorism, but rather these everyday stories of integration, highlighting the humanity of the situation. My time with my family in Italy was peppered with these moments showing, simply, the lack of danger foreign migrants brought to this little isolated region. It’s hard not to notice the migrants now living in Calabria. We had a bizarre and optimistic series of encounters seeing the white Italians casually accept having African people live among them.

I wonder if it would have swayed a voter not just to hear from what refugees fled, but also to learn how migrants are revitalizing country towns. And more than this, to know how excited born-and-raised citizens are about those towns, rather than wary.

These are the types of stories you learn by actually being there and being among the locals. But unfortunately this problem confined to the refugee crisis. As the media industry changes, original, on-the-ground reporting is falling to the side.

The digitization of news has had a financial impact, losing money and leading to layoffs. As Mother Jones reported, a major, originally reported story cost $350,000 but only made $5,000. Publications are often turning from staff jobs to less expensive freelance. Meanwhile, local news organizations are struggling to stay afloat.

There’s a better way to cover the migrant crisis, both as an industry and as individual reporters

Is there any way to fix the problem? Perhaps if publications made it a point to invite tips from people local to a given news piece, we could find more stories like the Calabria burials. Some publications are taking steps toward that, like by translating pieces into the languages of the people they affect.

Freelance foreign correspondence can be risky, but as Kakissis proves, having somebody on the ground who understands the culture is valuable. This would require more editing, but rather than send someone out, why not encourage more freelance submissions from local people?

The internet makes reporting cheaper and easier — someone can email you an image rather than you having to physically go find it yourself — but it has also made reporting less thorough without people actually on the ground.

With Trump’s orders signed, the question is what importance this coverage now holds. With so many domestic issues under the new administration, it’s difficult to imagine there being an increased premium on foreign reporting. This is tragic, because our domestic policies are affecting foreign people. We are putting more international lives at stake, and we have a responsibility to point a spotlight on those lives, whether it’s Syrian refugees, Iranian researchers, or Latin-American women seeking contraception.

As a political writer, I’m well aware there’s an outsized amount of drama going on in Washington right now. But I hope that doesn’t mean we forget about the lives of people across the country and around the world.

I can’t change the media industry, but I can change how I act. I wrote about the baby, and then I forgot. I didn’t ask what happened next. I didn’t wonder what would happen to the bodies. I moved on to the next news story. The shock of this experience was an overwhelming reminder that there are real people behind the trends and viral images.

I may not always be able to physically go find the story, but I can do more research. I can try to find local sources. I can check back in. At the very least, I can remember.

“Nobody is just a number; we are all human beings,” Don Nino said. “And even if I am not able to recognize you because your body is disfigured, I’ll welcome you as my brother. As I would like to be treated, and as I would treat my own father, my mother, my brother.”

Don Nino and Hassan walked quietly through the rows of graves, adjusting flowers and tenderly touching the numbers.

“If we forget the signs of humanity, humanity gives way to barbarity.”

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Svokos and Matteo Pace.

Alexandra Svokos is a political writer at Elite Daily, where she feels enormously thankful to be able to travel to report. Her mother’s family is from Calabria, her father’s family is from Chios, Greece, and she aches to see long-term international solutions enacted to save the lives of refugees and migrants, who are also known as people. Follow Svokos on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at