April 07, 2022
An attack to your identity is an attack to your mental health
The voice of Hilal Beraki interviewed by Sara Manisera, FADA Collective
Blackn[è]ss fest is the first festival in Italy which presents a re-elaborated version of the African lineage universe. Events and roundtables are organized both to think about the concept of being black, following a path of decolonization of the language, and to discuss topics such as mental health issues linked to racial profiling, discrimination, racism, and also music, cinema, media and representation of black people .
Voice Over Foundation chose to accompany the festival in this path and it decided to tell stories about it through the protagonists' voices during the whole year.
Interview with Hilal Alexander Beraki, cultural mediator, educator of a juvenile centre and mental health expert.
Q: Could you introduce yourself? Who are you and what do you do?
A: I am Hilal Alexander Beraki, I am Sicilian, I was born in Catania, and my parents are Eritrean. They arrived in Italy at the end of the '70s. My academic path regarded the media and communication, but later I took up a different career. I started a course to become a cultural mediator, and later I started to work with Emergency. This was an amazing experience, despite it being really hard: my role concerned the first reception, and therefore I worked closely with the newly arrived migrants. After that, I joined an organisation of the United Nations, the IOM, and finally the Valdesi, where I coordinated a special reception centre for the Sub-Saharan migrants. I am currently an educator of a juvenile centre, and I think this job gives you a lot of enthusiasm, given the progress margin: it rewards you a lot.
Q: I read you founded an association. Could you tell me when you did it, why and what was the vision which brought to its foundation?
A: The association, called "La seconda generazione" (The second generation), was created in 2009 by me and Elvira, an adopted girl of Philippine origins. At the time, we were struggling with the law for the Italian citizenship reform in Sicily. The association also worked with other organizations. Indeed, there were those of the activism, the political and working ones, and that of the university... What all the participants shared was the fact that we all were second generation people, despite we being of different nationalities. Elvira, for example, was Asian, others were from the Eastern Europe or South America. Our common goal was to sensitise the Sicilian area to the necessities of a citizenry which was not exactly a citizenry: as a matter of fact, we were a citizenry only physically, but not on paper. Therefore, we fought for different initiatives, which aimed to sensitise people on the difficulties foreigners had. For example, job hunting is extremely complicated for second generation young people. Our initiatives targeted especially the territorial companies, and our aim was to let them understand how the citizenship issue created serious limits to the working world. With no doubts, firms are reluctant to contractualized who has no citizenship or is a foreigner: we tried to demolish that wall of prejudice against people with no Italian passport.
Q: Which is the correlation between reception, migration and mental health? Which are the criticalities linked to this correlation in Italy, nowadays?
A: Let's say that this pandemic showed how mental health is a central topic today. Everyone's mental health suffered from the Covid crisis. I usually invite people to reason: let's consider the pandemic and let's imagine instead a journey where you had to face torture, or the fear of sinking in the middle of the sea. So, take into consideration the pandemic and amplify for ten the concerns it gave us. The magnitude of certain events is far more serious than others. This should be taken into consideration when we talk about the presence of psychologists within organisations which deal with first reception situations. I have been talking about this for years: I think that migrants and professionals do not have enough support. Today we still have not understood that mental health is like any other kind of health, it is essential. Who arrives here needs support, needs that someone show him how to normalise with this new normality. We have to normalise mental health and understand that is an unavoidable fact, and we must not save up on it. Instead, since the Decreto Salvini, they drastically cut on the reception budget, and mental health has wrongly been considered unnecessary. For example, many Eritrean people do not go to the doctor, because in their previous life it was several kilometres away on foot. And therefore, if there was any problem, they used to wait for it to pass on its own. Instead, going to the doctor is a new habit which has to be normalised. Also the mental health of many professionals is affected: some of them decide to quit because they arrive in a burnout situation, not only for the stress due to the workload, but also for the emotional one. Luckily, in the juvenile sphere, there is the right amount of investment. It would be nice if this attention was extended to the whole reception world, allocating more funds to what concerns mental health. Many people are determined, they arrive in Italy, they learn the language, they look for a job and they are fully focused on their goal. However, not everyone is like that, and they need some more motivation. There are different kinds of necessities and not everyone starts from the same starting block.
Q: Which are the medium-long term impacts of undervaluing mental health, both for migrants and professionals?
A: Sadly, the long-term effects are tragic. There is an high suicide rate among people who live so far away from their homecountry, because they are not able to learn such a difficult language as the Italian one. A mental health path would avoid these people to feel at fault. Moreover, sometimes a vicious circle is generated: migrants spend a limited time within the reception centre, and when they are desperate, they feel like they can choose only between two paths. One is suicide, the other is relying on people who push them to commit some sort of crime. And this allows a certain political group to mention that there is a security issue within our country. The real despair comes from the breakdown of our mental stability, and the human mind is so fascinating and rich in resources that sometimes it makes you take the wrong decision. The mental health discourse helps us to understand which are the paths our mind should follow, both for a better knowledge of ourselves and for a more varied range of possibilities, wider than having just the suicide or the criminal choice. Similarly, the professional should follow a parallel path. He receives daily stories and emotional flows which are excessive and emotionally draining. I noticed that mental health is also a problem of lost in translation: there are few well-prepared cultural mediators, often they just know the language. Cultural mediators cannot be only translators, they must also be intercultural mediators, the bridge between two cultures. We need better prepared and better paid mediators, especially in the public structures.
Q: I would like to ask one last question on Blackness. What do you think about this festival? Do you think it is important? How do you see it in the future?
A: Blackness has been an amazing initiative, the first edition was very well organised. Why is it important to have this kind of initiatives in our territory? Because today we live in a situation of language malfunction. There are people deeply attached to an archaic language, but, in the meanwhile, Italy has changed and now we need a new code. And who better than the black people who live in this country could teach or codify a new language, and therefore manage to ferry the citizenship towards a more inclusive language, which would respect every reality? What I liked most of Blackness was the presence of many different voices, coming from the performance, art, reception and mental health worlds. It gave the chance to all the black realities to express themselves on a stage. I come from the Catanese reality, where I was subject of micro-aggressions and racism. This was not dramatic, because the Sicilian white ordinary man has always seen the black Sicilian in a subordination perspective, and therefore there was not a racist aggression, but you could see a person who interacted with someone not considered at the same level. This can be changed with a new language setting, and respecting the diversities or similarities which are shared by two people born in the same area. It is important to create this bridge, in order to normalise or exclude a certain kind of language. Every single reality needs to protect its own identity, and identity is closely related to mental health. Often micro-aggressions are an attack to one's identity, and therefore, to his/her mental health. For example, the first times ladies used to keep their begs closer to them as I passed... I used to get so angry. Now it seems normal to me, but it shouldn't be like that. A normalisation of our presence on this territory is needed to educate people and to stop receiving attacks to our mental health. Therefore, Blackness is functional to make it known what we live daily. We do not organise it for ourselves, but for the future generations. Maybe, when our children or grand-children will be here, we will not need Blackness as much as now. Or maybe it will just be a way to tell our stories.
Photo credits: Michael Yohanes