A Stranger in the Family Tomb

When Dresden journalist Heidrun Hannusch, organizer of her city’s annual peace prize, traveled to meet the mayor of the small southern Italian town receiving this year’s award for its years of welcoming and integrating refugees, she happened to meet the Gelardi family of nearby Agrigento. Here, the story of her moving encounter with a family who welcomed an African refugee into perhaps the most private place of all.

The Dresden Peace Prize will be awarded on Feb. 12-to Mayor Domenico Lucano of the Calabrian town of Riace, and to the Gelardis-to honor their region’s great work in accepting and accommodating migrants. Last year more than 5,000 refugees drowned crossing the Mediterranean, many of them trying to reach Italy.

The Last Supper as a grave ornament: a life size stone bas-relief of Da Vinci’s painting dominates a vast tomb in the Bonamorone cemetery in Agrigento, Sicily, amid a profusion of pine and palm trees.

A few yards away, opulent frescoes, powerfully sculpted angels, mausoleums that resemble small or large churches. These tombs project wealth and tradition. Family tradition: but even family tradition can be rewritten.

The Gelardis’ tomb is simpler and yet more impressive than all the almost obscenely lavish, glistening marble structures surrounding it.

It is located at a fork in the path towards the middle of the cemetery. A bit farther on, where the path ends, you can see the sea. Somewhere on the horizon is Lampedusa.

On the memorial slab, two photographs side by side: a man, a woman. The man was a member of the family, the woman was not.

No one in the Gelardi family ever met her in life. They never knew her name. Kiflay Weghata arrived here from Eritrea.

In the photo she is young and beautiful. The number 47 stamped on the photo is intrusive; it is not her age. It is a registration number. Among the 368 refugees who drowned on October 3 2013, off Lampedusa, hers was the 47th body to be pulled from the sea. And then, the Gelardis took the seventeen-year old girl into their family tomb.

“But it’s completely normal,” is one of the first sentences uttered by Giuseppe Gelardi, a 74 year old retiree. It sounds almost harsh, the way he says it. As if he doesn’t understand how anyone could made a fuss about the altogether ordinary gesture of taking an unknown woman into the family tomb. Amalia Vullo Gelardi, small, slight, seems nervous to begin with. She keeps readjusting her scarf, as if she won’t feel safe until she gets it right. This office worker wasn’t counting on publicity and interviews, when she chose what turned out to be a highly unusual course of action.

Agrigento is on the west coast of Sicily. From the harbor at Porto Empedocle, the ferry goes to Lampedusa. It’s the shortest sea route to the island that just a few years ago was known only for its beauty and its almost African climate, that makes you feel like swimming in November. But the tourist boats have emptied out and not everyone is keen to bathe in the Mediterranean these days. The ships arriving in the harbor carry coffins and the refugees who could be rescued off the coast of Lampedusa. Some try to stay put on the island and make a go of it there.

Shortly after our meeting with the Gelardis it begins to rain, the kind of unexpected, unexpectedly heavy rain you sometimes get in coastal zones. And just as sudden as the rain, there arrives, running from nearby streets, a cohort of a dozen dark umbrella salesmen. And the startled tourists are grateful for their foresighted, unexploitive business model: their umbrellas go for five euros.

In Agrigento no one can ignore the drama of the hundreds of thousands of refugees, that has been going on for much longer than what we’ve seen at the German border. The Gelardis had an immediate experience of it. They have a summer house on Lampedusa where they go several times a year. For two decades they were close to the tragedy of Lampedusa, and then they reacted.

When we flew from Palermo to Lampedusa in November, the plane was only half full and 2/3 of the passengers were wearing guns in holsters. Police and soldiers are the new tourists. The island is small and the airport runway is short. The plane sinks low over the sea, the water is very close, too close to avoid wondering, at every changing glint on the surface, what’s swimming out there. Or who.

The guide knows what new visitors, most of them reporters, have come to see. In the picturesque harbor he points out a great dark old ship at the end of the bay. There, where access is barred and police
frown when you approach. Two days ago 700 came on this ship and now it is being searched, the guide explains. Perhaps there’ll be some trace of the smugglers, or perhaps not. Nearby stranded refugee boats are piled in heaps. Arabic lettering in the bow, peeling paint and rust that must have been there long before they set out on their journey. Frail craft, where only those embark, who have no choice.

Amalia Gelardi tells of a sight that shook her up. She was in Lampedusa harbor and saw refugees being led from a coast guard ship; they had been rescued from a boat that sank. Many of men wore jackets, ties and white shirts. It was as if they thought they were on their way to a party.

At the southern tip of Lampedusa, high above the cliff that runs to the beach, there stands, since 2008, the Gateway to Europe, a monument to those who died fleeing poverty and war. In July 2013 not far from here Pope Francis threw a wreath into the sea. It was the first journey Francis made after he was elected Pope. Amalia Gelardi and her husband Giuseppe were there to hear the speech of the pontiff. Even without that, they would have been wondering what they could do to help. But would they have reached the same conclusion? The Pope said, “We have become accustomed to other people’s suffering. It doesn’t touch us, it doesn’t interest us, it doesn’t concern us.”

Just three months after the Pope’s visit something happened in Lampedusa that forced the world to take notice. October 3 2013, a boat sank just a couple of miles from the island, with 500 refugees aboard. 368 died. The Gelardis were stricken, like everyone else, but reacted in a practical manner. “It came to us spontaneously. It was a matter of burying the dead with dignity,” Amalia Gelardi explained. The Lampedusa cemetery was already full. The bodies were brought to Agrigento where autopsies were performed in an attempt to identify at least some of the victims.

The Gelardis contacted the authorities. They asked if they could take a refugee, one of those who had perished, into their family tomb. Before the couple made their decision, they spoke to their two children.

They were immediately in favor. It never occurred to them to set conditions. For example, that the victim should be a Christian. Everyone buried in the Gelardis tomb from around 1900 on, were Catholics. “The religion of the dead person was irrelevant,” Amalia Gelardi told me. Many townspeople attended the burial of the Eritrean woman. The mayor was there.

The Gelardis’ spontaneous gesture became known. How was it then? Were they criticized? Attacked? Nothing of the sort. Amalia takes out her iphone and flips through a group of photos of two young men with wives and children and officials. With the help of a reporter from Italian television, they located Kiflay’s two brothers, who were on the boat with her on October 3, but survived. They live in Norway now.

One photo showed their naturalization ceremony. The Gelardis have met one of the two brothers. “We couldnt stop hugging one another,” Amalia says. A moment of powerful emotions. The children of the Agrigento family keep in touch with the brothers from Eritrea…on Facebook of course.

Back to the cemetery. Are the remains of the deceased removed from the tomb after a few decades? What about Kiflay? “No,” says Amalia, “she stays here with us, for good.”

See the Gelardi family tomb and Kiflay Wegahta here. Dresden Peace Prize organizers opened a display of photographs of drowned refugees on a public square this week. Far-right groups have threatened to attack the exhibit.

Heidrun Hannusch Translated from German by Suzanne Ruta for International Boulevard