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Summer Reading: Notes on a Shipwreck

By David Benson | Published: July 16, 2019

Book: Notes on a Shipwreck: A Story of Refugees, Borders, and Hope
Author: Davide Enia
Countries: Italy

We are currently in the midst of the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. An overwhelming close-to-68.5 million forcibly displaced persons exist in the world. A barrage of powerful images monopolizes the news: Omran Daqneesh in the ambulance and young Aylan Kurdi, who lost his life crossing the Mediterranean. We’ve seen children separated from parents and a surge in asylum seekers. Yet, the USA has experienced a dramatic decrease in the number of admitted refugees, having dropped to a tenth of what it was in 1980.

For anyone trying to wrap their head and heart around this crisis, a powerful new book has come out by Italian author Davide Enia: Notes on a Shipwreck: A Story of Refugees, Borders, and Hope. He explores the refugee crisis from the unique perspective of a Sicilian connected to the island of Lampedusa, a site of tragedy and disaster that experienced a 2013 shipwreck in which more than 360 people drowned. By 2016, as many as 180,000 refugees attempted the dangerous crossing from North Africa. In just May 2016, 1,379 people drowned while attempting the crossing. In 2018 (considered one of the less deadly years in recent history), 2,262 refugees died attempting the swim. These numbers are critical for us to grasp the full impact of this human catastrophe.

One of the rescuers that Enia interviews pleads that “too often we talk about human beings as numbers or statistics, instead people are much more than that, they have their hopes and prayers, their worries and torments.” For each person rescued, countless others were swallowed by the darkness of the Mediterranean. In one scene, Enia interviews a rescuer who struggled for hours to help as many people as possible, only to learn that the sinking boat was part of a flotilla of three—with the other two long gone. How does this horror continue today? An estimated 350 people have already died trying to cross this summer. Many aren’t aware that NGO rescue boats were banned from the area; moreover, this coming summer might be one of the deadliest on record.

Enia’s unforgettable book proves an important antidote to the rising indifference the world shows these migrants. He admits that he cannot tell the story of the migrants from their perspective, instead focusing on the Lampedusans who work tirelessly to rescue them. Enia masterfully intertwines this story with his own personal tragedy as he attempts to improve the relationship with his father and say goodbye to his beloved uncle dying from cancer.

Wanting to get a glimpse inside the hopes, and fears of the refugees themselves, I was skeptical at first of the unique focus of this book. Nevertheless, Enia’s ability to convey stories of his interviews of this modern-day tragedy creates a gripping narrative that clarifies the powerful connections we can feel between our own life crises and those in the greater world. Our own problems, heartaches, and daily struggles can actually lead us towards greater empathy and understanding as we attempt to make sense of the crises humanity faces together.

A headshot of Dahveed Benson

David Dahveed Benson, dean of Les VoyageursI chose Notes on a Shipwreck because I found myself with two layers of connections to the book. I am very interested in teaching to raise awareness about the refugee crisis, both current and historical, and I teach about refugee issues in all of my classes at the Colorado Springs School. As the descendant of Jews who managed to escape persecution in Eastern Europe in the early 1900's, I feel a deep personal connection to these issues. The second layer comes from my love of water, boats and paddling. As someone with a deep love of the water and travelling by water, I find myself spiritually connected to the masses of desperate migrants trying to make it across the Mediterranean Sea in tiny boats that are unseaworthy. Having lived through some challenging and dangerous situations on personal expeditions, I know how hard a journey by boat can be. Every time I paddle in high seas and big wind, I feel a deep sense of kinship to all those who try to cross the sea in search of a better life. 

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