Religion at the docks

The incident

“During the welcoming procedures of refugees at the docks in Trapani harbour (Sicily, Italy), in which medical consultations and treatments are included, one of the volunteers, a woman, came to me speaking with a loud voice, very agitated and complaining about a Somali girl who was also present. The volunteer woman wanted me to tell the girl that she should not make a fuss about not having a veil to cover her hair, because she was creating problems and slowing down the procedures at the dock. By talking to the both of them, and trying to calm down the volunteer, I reconstructed the event: the Somali girl had received the anti-scabies treatment and thus new clothes to replace the old ones, that were to be sanitised. Not having anything available to replace the veil, she was wearing before the treatment, the girl put back her own veil. This action made the anti-scabies treatment invalid and provoked the anger of the volunteer, who did not realise that on the one hand, she did not explain to the girl the importance of replacing the clothes, and on the other hand, wearing the veil was something essential to the girl. I exhausted myself to try to keep the volunteer woman calm and explain the importance of the veil for the girl, and how simply the problem could be solved. The volunteer kept shouting at the girl, using sentences in Italian like “Here we are in Italy”, and she was not demonstrating any willingness to look for some clothing that would replace the girl’s veil, even though she was clearly not asking for a fashion accessory. The situation was then solved in a very simple way with the help of another colleague whom I asked and who provided us with something that could replace the veil, without any particular difficulty. I could not express my frustration while working, as it would be unprofessional, but it took me days to expel the anger I felt. I could not get myself to understand and to explain the reasons of this woman’s presence, especially a volunteer, in such a context, given the total lack of open mindedness and the pragmatism needed for a similar job.”

1. Identities of the actors in the situation
The narrator is a cultural mediator, working for the Red Cross at the docks, where refugees disembark from the boats. In this case the place for landing is Trapani harbour, Sicily, Italy. She is an Italian woman of 31 years old. The narrator believes that her mediation tasks are of great value, especially to those refugees who have a need for intercultural understanding and acceptance, when they arrive to a new country. The narrator is a professional mediator in the sense that she is paid for her work. The person, who caused the shock, is an Italian woman, 50 years old, who is working as a volunteer to assist refugees/migrants. The volunteer has a lot of experience in this field. Being a volunteer, she is not paid for her work. Like all volunteers working with the Red Cross, she has received intercultural training. A young Somali Muslim refugee woman.
2. Context of the situation
  The first two actors in this situation are related because they work for the same association, the Red Cross. They do not know each other personally but they meet sometimes during the arrival of immigrants in Italy. The third actor involved is a Somali migrant woman, who just arrived in Italy with a boat and is being assisted by the association in question, going through the set of checks and controls at the docks. The critical incident occurred in Sicily, in the province of Trapani in November 2015, during the assistance to migrants at the docks of the port. It is an event that often occurs in Sicily, where many boats arrive from the North African coasts, loaded with migrants and refugees. It is always a very chaotic and tense context where the migrants receive material as well emotional support, and undergo initial medical assessments and care. Once migrants disembark the boats, they need to go through different tents placed at the docks, to undergo different treatments, checks and to receive food and clothes. The first two tents are destined to the first medical visit, to identify any possible health emergencies. I was assisting one doctor in the first tent. During this first medical visit, they are each given an identification bracelet, which allows them to have their own medical file, and to receive food, clothes and the anti-scabies treatment. The third tent is also managed by the provincial health authority (ASP), this time for the anti-scabies treatment. Migrants are led there after the first medical visit to undergo this treatment. They need to leave behind all of their clothes as they may be contaminated, and they get new clean clothes after the treatment. The Somali girl had just undergone the anti-scabies treatment. My colleague, the volunteer, had gone back to the first tent where I was, followed by the Somali girl, to talk to me. At the docks, a final tent is also present, and is managed by the police, for the final step of the disembarking procedure, which is the identification. Overall, there were about twenty civilian volunteers; about seven volunteers of the association, the Italian Red Cross, about seven doctors and nurses of the provincial health authority inside one tent, the police were present outside the reception place, about ten officers from the police. The narrator does not recall how many the migrants were, but they were more than 100. The image below shows the physical setting of the incident. The tent where the incident occurred is indicated by an arrow. DocksIncident  
3. Emotional reaction
The narrator felt anger. Her colleague’s attitude really bothered the cultural mediator even if she has the hypothesis that the colleague did not understand why. The narrator tried to keep it to herself, because a professional attitude was needed in the context, especially since the volunteer had lost hers by shouting. The narrator also felt frustrated and had a moment of confusion as to the reasons of the presence of the volunteer at the docks and her temper. “I exhausted myself by trying to keep her calm. Anyway, I tried to be helpful to solve the situation the best way”.
4. Representations, values, norms, ideas, prejudice: The frame of references of the person who experienced the shock.
1) Human rights/human dignity/religion-freedom of belief/equal value of different cultures The narrator believes that everyone has the right to profess one’s religion and to be respected for this. Thus, the narrator believes that, regardless of the place, it is important to preserve freedom of expression, and in this case the freedom of belief; she is a supporter of the respect of human rights and convinced that a respectable welcome for migrants is a possibility and a duty. She considered it important to emphasise the value of respect but also the importance of anti-scabies treatments. She tried in the situation to compromise between both needs. 2) Integrity of the mediator role and the intercultural professionalism The narrator values her role in helping in the disembarking procedures for the migrants, as demonstrated by the fact that she maintained her professional attitude even when confronted with the lack of professionalism of the volunteer. She noted the incompatibility between the volunteer and her role; she thinks that the volunteer does not possess the values and knowledge that all volunteers should have to be able to offer their services at the docks. This gap between them might also lead to a conflict were the damaged one could be the Somali girl, as the message is getting chaotic and less and less clear for her. 3) Professional identity threat and hierarchy The narrator also suspects that the volunteer may be jealous of her role, as the narrator is paid for her work and the fact she is much younger than the volunteer can also have a negative impact on the volunteer colleague.
5. What image emerges from the analysis of point 4 for the other group (neutral slightly negative, very negative, "stigmatized", positive, very positive, real, unreal) etc?
A negative image of the volunteer colleague emerges because of her lack of sensibility, empathy and ability to respond to the Somali girl’s needs. Perhaps, the most negative image is the volunteer’s lack of understanding of the young woman’s religious needs, which are just seen as caprices and manners or even hysteria.
6. Representations, values, norms, prejudice: The frame of references of the person or group that is causing the shock / that caused the shock in the narrator.
1) Rules (Following protocol) and sanitary measures From the volunteer’s side, we can think of the incident as a lack of resources while facing an out of protocol situation. As the incident is described we can think that the volunteers are trained on a strict sanitary protocol which was violated by the young Somali girl when she wears her “unsanitised” veil. The procedure is not respected and it might imply a potential danger of any possible disease spread at the welcoming dock. We mention above a possible lack of resources as the volunteer cannot understand or think about the representation system of the newcomer or the symbolic weigh for the young woman of the veil. 2) Charity and solidarity The woman is probably driven by a sense of solidarity towards the “weakest”, otherwise it would be difficult to explain her voluntary work, except for the need to appear charitable. Her reaction may also relate to the expectation that the refugees should be grateful for the help they are offered – and this young woman appears to be ungrateful, when she is “complaining” about a subordinate need as a veil in a situation, where she just saved her life through the voluntary and professional helping organisations in Italy. 3) Acculturation and Italian identity Anyway, she seems limited in her actions by prejudices towards the migrants and by absolute positions that do not allow her to be open-minded enough to try to understand the reasons of the other person, the young Somali woman. The narrator brings forward the hypothesis that the volunteer may at the same time be scared of the changes that migrants may bring and she therefore values the precedence and preservation of her own culture, as shown by the phrase “Here we are in Italy”, hinting to the fact that the Somali girl should adapt to the culture of the country where she is being hosted, and therefore stop requesting privileges related to her religious belief.
7. Does the situation highlight any problem concerning the professional practice, or in general about the respect of cultural differences in intercultural situations?
It is complicated and exhausting to try and solve the situation or to put aside the divergences in order to avoid hindering work and to make sure that the beneficiaries do not face the consequences of prejudices or lack of professionalism. A solution might be to organise a more complete training course for all people working in these contexts. In this way, there would be more knowledge about other cultures, including through a share of information between colleagues. The incident actually reflects the need for professionalisation of the volunteering efforts, especially for the creation of professional attitudes towards variety of cultural-religious aspirations and requirements. It is also important to be aware of the experience that “a helping mind” is not enough for volunteering work. Intercultural understanding and communication is also needed in order to fulfill the job.