At a recent conference in Livorno on cities of the Mediterranean, held by the Community of Saint Egidio, two elderly women testified to their experiences in two frontier Italian towns.

One city, Trieste, is a gate that seeks to keep out people who have walked across fields by day and cities by night, up mountains and down valleys, through Greece, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, to make their way through Italy and some final destination in Europe.

By the time they reach the hills overlooking their next stop on their journey, their shoes have worn off. There’s nothing now separating their feet from the ravages of earth. They are torn, frozen, bitten, cut. Their wounds swell, fester, bleed and ooze.

Lorena Fornasir is now retired. Together with her husband, she waits for the dozens of children, women and men who climb down the hills around Trieste and land in the middle of the night on the glorious square between that city’s train station and its legendary harbour.

At law, the new arrivals are ‘illegals’, criminals who have entered Europe and Italy in breach of every rule on travel. Their documents would deny them entry in any ordinary way. These people cannot travel by bus or by plane, by train or by car. Instead, they walk across the roughest wilderness of Europe, avoiding the lights of roads and the glare of the streets where people live.

They march with the wolves, carrying all they have left in the world on their shoulders, throwing it away when their children no longer bear to walk. Their feet bleed. At dusk, on the last day of their walk, they scramble down to the Piazza della Libertà. They don’t know that’s what it’s called. They know that, before sunrise, they’ll be able to catch a train towards some relatives they have, somewhere in Europe.

As they wait, Lorena and her husband tend to their feet. Their wounds are treated, the dirt is rinsed off, their sores are bandaged. She cuts up some fruit for them. Some cry at the taste of the sweetness, a sensation their body had forgotten in the bitterness of sleeping rough. Lorena hugs the crying men, many times her size. Their clothes are torn, the mud caked through them into their skin, mixed with the scratches and the blood, theirs and of the people they carried.

A mother’s touch reminds them they are human, though they migrated like animals in the wild. Before they stand up again to catch their early train, they are given shoes, worn by others, warm and closed; a fresh, welcome pain, a new discomfort that gives them decency if not dignity.

It should be unlawful to deny people the right to seek out better lives for themselves and their families- Manuel Delia

Delia Buonomo is also retired. (She was just as amused as I was that her first name is my last. Delightfully her daughter is called Emanuela.)

Delia used to own a bar in Ventimiglia, the last Italian stop on the way to France; for some, just another spot on the riviera, for others, a gate they must overleap on their march towards family, friends and maybe a new home.

Delia’s bar is not too far from the road tunnel that shortens the car journey over the mountain pass. One day, a black man, stinking of sweat, his eyes mad with hunger, stepped in, begging to be allowed to plug in his phone and to wait outside while it charged.

Not all the men who brave the car tunnel make it to the other side. Those who do want to have a phone to reassure their loved ones they made it out alive.

Delia let the black man into her bar. She plugged in his phone. And, like a good Italian, she made him a plate of pasta. Her regular clientele was shocked. Disgusted is the right word.

Word went around that you could charge your phone at Delia’s bar and get a warm meal. Just what you need before hugging the walls of a dark tunnel while trucks and cars speed by, inches away from you.

Word went around that Delia’s bar was a refuge for black people. It wasn’t a place to go to anymore. Until the police came. And the tax investigators. And the immigration authorities. And the carabinieri. They raided her bar repeatedly, ostensibly looking for evidence of serious crimes, warning her every time that she would pay dearly for feeding the hungry.

Lorena and Delia sat next to each other in Livorno and told their stories, the testimonies of women who gave water to a bleeding, thirsty man undergoing an ordeal sanctioned by law which they could not understand.

And, then, they cried together before they spoke defiantly again. They saw nothing illegal in the children, women, and men they fed and healed and hugged. If laws were just, hunger, pain, fear and human need would never be unlawful. It cannot be wrong merely to be human and it is only human to want to live.

It should be unlawful, however, to come in the way of the emancipation of people. It should be unlawful to deny people the right to seek out better lives for themselves and their families. It should be unlawful to separate families and to erect gates to prevent the reunification of loved ones kept apart.

It is borders that should be illegal, not the feet who climb over the gates that guard them.

It’s not for me to remind people of their faith when I have none. But I too am moved by bleeding feet.

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