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Pressing Pause

October 20, 2017
Photo: Peter Turek

"An Americano please. To go. ...You know? Take away."

I tried the walking man gesture using two fingers. I was a Canadian man in Lampedusa, Italy. The small island of Lampedusa made headlines in the past few years for unfortunate reasons. It is the first European port for many refugees trying to find a safer, more peaceful life. Sadly many of the boats do not make it all the way across. Thousands have died in the Mediterranean Sea's embrace and the western world often looked the other way.

Pope Francis does not look the other way.

Shortly after taking office, he was very eager to visit the island in 2013 and pushed his staff to arrange a trip as soon as possible. He was there and he made the world look. A few months later an even bigger tragedy occurred when over 350 people lost their lives just minutes away from the shores of the island.
Exactly four years later, I was there on one of the main streets, trying to order a coffee to go. My friend Matteo Ciofi, an Italian correspondent for Salt and Light based in Rome, came to my rescue. "They think you want to sit outside by the tables there. You see, people here don't order coffee to go. They sit down for five minutes and enjoy it."
This was the difference between our worlds. Toronto, where you down your large Tim Hortons bucket in the middle of a traffic jam, timing the 85 minute daily race down to every turn, every lane change, and Lampedusa, where you take in the yellow sun and the sharp blue skies, deaf to the mosquito-like scooters buzzing by. The landscape I painted in my imagination disappeared the moment I got here. The sea's natural beauty as it meets the rocky shores of the island. The houses flowing downhill, like tears. Clotheslines like spiderwebs, with shirts flapping in the wind, connecting the narrow streets. Moms yelling at their kids and the kids giving melodious explanations to get out of trouble, like in Fellini's old films.
Photo: Sebastian Gomes
"I could stay here for a few months," I assured the guys on the first day. Putting one's life on pause in today's world is a luxury not many get to experience. Yet we were there to examine the dark side. To turn everyone's attention to the dark side and the light that emerged. We were working on a new documentary titled The Francis Impact, produced by Sebastian Gomes. I had the privilege to be behind the lens and try to paint a picture of the island, the tragedies and more importantly, the response by the locals.
I did not yet know that two hours later I would be on a patrol boat with the Carabinieri, making our way to the exact spot where the tragedy occurred four years before. On the boat next to us, I could see some of the survivors and family members of the victims. I was not quite prepared for the violent up and down motion. It was a windy, colourless day. Suddenly the Mediterranean showed a side I have never seen before. It was not the familiar aqua blue but a ghostly grey.
We held on with both hands. When I took shots I was held by an officer on one side and Matteo on the other. Looking through the lens at other boats, it was difficult to interpret balance and motion. I thought back and tried to recreate the panic that must have taken place four years prior. They deserved better. I breathed in the salty air and tried not to panic. Suddenly the boats created a circle and turned on all the sirens. Small figures on the other boat threw a wreath of yellow flowers into the sea. I looked through my long lens to see the faces and bodies breaking down in tears and sadness. Broken people propped up by others, surviving. Embraced through the emotional and physical storm. I could never imagine what they felt at that moment. I was lucky that way.
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