BY BRE LEGAN ’18
Born and raised in the rural farming community of Conway, Missouri, I came to Drury University in 2014 to study writing, photography and graphic design. I’ve always had an interest in travel, and have been afforded opportunities to volunteer in Guatemala and intern in India with a global non-profit, Cross-Cultural Solutions. Working with diverse populations and investigating the human aspect of stories we tell is a driving force for me and a passion I hope to explore throughout my life.
In August 2016, I found myself hopping on a plane for a year abroad in Florence, Italy at Santa Reparata International School of Art. Spoken from a position of privilege, I naively expected to leave behind growing issues of race, socioeconomics and systemic oppression in the States, but found myself in a land experiencing very similar problems, though perhaps more visible in very different ways.
Italy and Europe as a whole have, in recent years, been faced with an influx of refugee and asylum seekers, predominantly from Northern Africa and the Middle East. Similar to the United States, these populations are often marginalized within the communities they inhabit.
This is the story of my first interaction with Stefan, a man who helped give me a broader and richer picture of the issues at hand. I’d go back to our meeting point many more times over the year, getting to know the human side of this community.
This is for them and for us.
“Bella, Bella, look at this, Bella!” I hear as I sidestep a pigeon strutting in front of me. “Bella, please!” I look down at the pigeon as it takes o after being shooed away by a grumpy old Italian man. “For you, Bella, good price!”
I shift my gaze to the owners of the voices, a group of brightly clad men donning tunics of their homelands, advertising necklaces, selfie sticks, knock-off handbags and an array of other trinkets. Armed with my Midwestern manners, I politely mutter a “non grazie” before scurrying away, somewhat annoyed but sympathetic, the men and pigeons cooing behind me.
I stopped running away from the salespeople whenever I found a little nook to spend my evenings—Ponte Santa Trinita, the lesser-known bridge to the west of Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy.
When I first started coming to Ponte Santa Trinita to sketch, write, photograph or simply contemplate life, I was bombarded by salespeople. They’d loop bracelets onto my wrists and try to get me to buy cheap voltage converters, but I held strong. I’d talk to them while I watched the sunset, and sometimes they’d talk back.
It wasn’t until Stefan finally introduced himself that I realized I had transcended the tourist label.
Stefan was a small man, his dark hands rough and calloused from work as a miner back in Côte d’Ivoire. I’d seen him pestering other people on the bridge before, but he’d never once approached me. This particular evening, I had just finished talking to Marieme, a funny girl from Senegal with a collection of leather and shell bracelets, when a man hopped up on the bridge railing beside me, sighing as he took out a sandwich and began chowing down.
“Ciao,” he said between bites.
“Ciao,” I responded as I took out my camera to photograph Jamba, a young Kenyan who sold sunglasses, playing peek-a-boo with a baby while its parents were taking selfies.
“You are not like the others,” he said, almost a whisper. “You are simpatica.”
My finger faltered on the shutter. “Oh?”
“Day after day, you are so natural, so kind.” He tossed a piece of bread towards a pigeon that tentatively pecked at it.
“Oh, thank you,” I stuttered caught off guard by his compliment.
“It is true, I see it,” he declared, tossing another piece of bread out. “It is in your smile and your eyes. You are good.”
I tried to think of a response to this when a group of teenagers sauntered up the bridge, rampaging through the flock of feasting pigeons. They stomped and kicked, laughing and shouting, causing the pigeons to panic.
Stefan and I simultaneously jumped up and shouted at the boys to stop, and they ran. The pigeons nervously cooed nearby, and we returned to our perch on the railing.
After a few moments of silence, Stefan whispered, “We are the pigeons. My brothers and sisters here, we are the pigeons.”
I blinked at this sudden revelation, the weight and implications of these four simple words sinking in.
“They are in the same family as doves, but they are hated vermin. We try and try to get by, but in the end, no one will give us a chance. We are hated.”
Stefan threw the rest of his sandwich at the pigeons and spent the next few hours telling me all about his life, from fleeing Côte d’Ivoire in 2011 after the Ivorian Crisis, his country’s second civil war in recent years, to saving enough money to send his wife and children to France, where they could be with family already there.
He ran his stubby fingers along a worn photograph of two young children and a beautiful woman. “You know, I do this all for them.”
I nodded, unaware of just how much this interaction would impact my life.
Living in today’s world of increasing tensions among various ethnic and racial groups, it is important to remember to see the good in people. Living in Florence has opened my eyes to a vibrant international community, one that is sometimes not respected as it should be.
Legal immigrants in Italy make up 8.2% of the population, and illegal immigration pushes this number much, much higher. Its strategic placement in the Mediterranean Sea makes Italy the hub for immigration from Africa, complicating an ever-evolving immigration policies in Italy and the European Union.
It is important to recognize that we are all fighting for something and all deserve to be here. In the end, we’re all just pigeons.