The stance on the refugee is quite simply twofold: he is to be pitied, taken in and given a chance to start anew or he is to be scoffed at and disgusted by in his lack of shame, his beggarly nature. Antonio LaAcqua once believed in the first stance. He hailed from an affluent family of tapestry makers in northern Italy, and therefore did not have the same level of experience with the influx of refugees as southern Italians. He hadn’t been jaded, in short, nor given to the same protective layer of racism, a mentality that acted as defense mechanism more than outright narrow-mindedness among Europeans wary of M.I.A.-championed refugees. But when LaAcqua finally took a journey down to Sicily from Milan to make good on the hospitality offer of a distant relation, he experienced a new intensity of desperation emanating from the refugees that he had never before experienced.
In his thirty-three years, he had always remained sequestered, he realized, from just how close in proximity Africa is to Italy. He had been blind, naive. It’s easy to support noble causes from afar, using only words to do so, he discovered after frequenting Pasticceria Savia each morning, only to be accosted by myriad different refugees either waiting outside or feeling emboldened enough to walk right in and demand what they felt was their due. For the first few mornings, Antonio was able to steel his will and ignore the bleeding hearts gushing next to him. But at last, on the fourth morning, he could take it no more when an emaciated Somalian woman ambled in and mumbled in broken Italian that she just needed one more euro for a sfogliatella. He knew that because she was a woman, his weakness—for sympathy is ultimately a weakness in the world of basic human survival—would get the better of him. Then, maybe it was his own fault for innately viewing females as the more helpless sex. Thus, he gave her the only fifty centessimi he had to spare while still being able to pay for his own order.
The proprietor of the pasticceria, a gray and bearded man with rosy cheeks and a round belly who therefore looked naturally jolly, managed to somehow defy his congenital jolliness with a look of disappointment that seemed to say: you don’t know what you’ve just done. And it was true, giving one cent to refugees in this town opened a Pandora’s box of liberties with soliciting. This proved an accurate stereotype, it appeared, as she persisted in sticking her hand out and greedily asking for more, insisting it wasn’t enough in her broken Italian. The woman, whose name he would never know—he among the legions who never would, for she was a cipher with no country and no bank account, and that was all that counted in the post-Neanderthal society—now came across as angry, insulted even, by the low amount she was bequeathed. It was as though she transformed into the living, breathing manifestation of giving someone an inch and the other taking a mile. And why not? What did she have to lose with her stamina for humiliation? It’s not as though “dignity” from a Western standpoint had ever been a word in her vocabulary. Antonio had no other money or tenderness to extend to her, however, for it had only been a momentary lapse in judgment for him to pay attention to her in the first place. And, maybe, in this sense, it was his attention that sparked her craving not just for more monetary respect, but for more human respect.
She stood there and stared at him, even as he looked straight ahead pretending to ignore her. But she couldn’t be ignored, wouldn’t be—not any longer, not after the slightest crumb of acknowledgement. She shook her hand at him and continued to insist on receiving another euro for what she needed to procure, which, he imagined, wasn’t really for a sfogliatella, but for some other form of sweet satisfaction. It felt like hours passed as she stood firmly in her place drilling a hole into the side of his cheek with her gaze. That fucking pitiful gaze. He rued the instant he had waffled in his instinctual notion to ignore her, as he had ignored all the other refugees while pretending to feel bad for them, to truly care about their problems. Problems he, of course, would never and could never understand. And now, with this wisp of a woman persisting to break into his personal space, he came to terms with the fact that he didn’t want to understand.
This is when he finally apprehended how right-wing extremists could get elected so easily into government. The people that voted for them had probably experienced the same level of discomfort with a refugee that he was at this very moment. He almost felt as though the jolly proprietor was purposely taking his time in delivering him his coffee and pastry, taking it upon himself to torture Antonio for the mistake he had made. At long last, though, he passed him the goods and handed him his change, which the refugee pounced upon, assuming that Antonio would just give it to her anyway out of the guilt she had spent the past few minutes radiating onto him.
But he didn’t want to give her his change. It was the last thing he wanted to do after all she had put him through. She’s a fucking cunt, he thought to himself uncontrollably—all his years of donating to charities like UNICEF disappearing down the drain and replacing said compassion portal with the embers of his stoked prejudice. And now, of all times, when he could deliver his money right to the source. Instead, he ripped the change from her bony hand and ran out of the pasticceria, to which he would not be returning for the remainder of his stay, opting instead to hole up safely within the confines of his second cousin’s home where no vulture could peck at his funds.
The day after the incident, Antonio turned on the TV to learn that Marine Le Pen was voted in as the French president.