Can a Rapper Change Italy’s Mind About Migrants?

In mid-March, weeks after a ship wrecked on Italy’s Calabrian coast, the waters of the Mediterranean Sea were still releasing ashore what remained: planks of wood, engine parts, children’s shoes, bodies. The season of drowning migrants had come early this year.

Two hundred and fifty miles away in Sicilian waters off Trapani, in preparation for the crossings and tragedies yet to come — which always come, and yet which rich countries greet each time as if they are new crises — people from all over Italy and beyond were volunteering their weekend to learn how to perform rescues at sea. At the training were first-timers and veterans, people who in their ordinary lives were teachers, paramedics, students, commercial sailors and even a chef.

On Sunday a special visitor joined them; he would have blended in, dressed like the others in the same royal blue helmet and windbreaker, except for the glances continually directed his way, some openly gawking — the price of being so famous in his native Italy, which knows him by his first and by now household name: Ghali, Arabic for “precious.”

The previous summer, Ghali, a rapper, donated to Mediterranea Saving Humans, the nonprofit group running this training exercise, an RHIB — a rigid-hull inflatable boat, the kind of orange dinghy that can be rapidly deployed to ride out to those imperiled at sea to transport them back to the mothership. Ghali, who was born in Milan to Tunisian parents, has repeatedly called his purchase of the boat “the most rap thing you can do.” He also says, repeatedly, “It’s not enough.”

He named it after a song on his most recent album, “Bayna” — “It is clear” in Arabic. Though Bayna was meant to be deployed in late September, it had yet to see a single mission, caught instead in the currents of Italian politics. Since last October, the country has been led by Giorgia Meloni, the head of the hard-right Brothers of Italy party (its logo includes the flame adopted by Mussolini’s supporters after his demise). Before becoming prime minister, she said that rescue ships, which she called “ferries” and likened to human traffickers, should be sunk. Her government has worked actively to limit the time at sea of the roughly 20 search-and-rescue ships patrolling the water. Mediterranea’s ship, the Mare Jonio, is the only one to sail under an Italian flag, subjecting it to Italian oversight.

The tragedy off Calabria — 94 bodies were recovered and 11 more are presumed dead — reignited debate around the country’s approach to migrant sea crossings. Ghali’s trip to Trapani to inaugurate Bayna was scheduled in hopes that the publicity might help galvanize public opinion and jump start the stalled recertification of the Mare Jonio so that it could be in the water by spring, when the crossings would resume in earnest.

After securing his life jacket, Ghali lowered himself into one of Mediterranea’s two older orange RHIBs, collapsing his 6-foot-4 frame to take a seat. The volunteers were split into two teams, with one boat assigned the role of desperation, the other salvation. Ghali was in the boat of those in need of rescue. The other sped away.

What they were about to rehearse — approach and first contact — can be extremely dangerous. It requires rescuers to establish trust with those on the other boat as quickly as possible while asserting authority firmly but nonthreateningly. After days at sea, often adrift, migrants can rush to get off their (often flimsy) vessel, potentially capsizing it.

Ghali, center, in March during rescue exercises carried out by a nonprofit group at the port of Trapani in Sicily.
Andrea Frazzetta for The New York Times

The volunteers on Ghali’s RHIB, who had been training all weekend, spotted the rescue RHIB approaching. On cue, they became agitated, shouting in English: “Hello! Hello! We are here!” A friendly “Hello!” was volleyed back from the rescue boat. “We are an Italian ship, we are here to help all of you,” said a volunteer named Gabriele Mantici, a professional skipper and a free diver. “But you have to stay calm.”

A chorus of “Come, come,” answered from Ghali’s boat, which began to bob with more force.

“Sit down,” Mantici said in an even tone. “We are here to rescue. We will bring you to that ship over there,” he said, gesturing to the Mare Jonio. “But you have to stay calm and sit down.”

“Please, please,” they interrupted, and Ghali, who had caught on, suddenly rose and waved his arms. Again the boat rocked.

Fabio Gianfrancesco, Mediterranea’s deputy rescue coordinator, who is by day a philosophy professor in Rome, took a moment to explain things to Ghali. “His position is important,” he said, indicating Mantici. “The one who is talking is standing tallest, with his foot on the edge. It gets those about to be rescued to focus on that person.”

“OK, I’m going to pass you a life jacket,” Mantici said. “You’re gonna wear the life jacket and close it with the belt,” he continued, miming passing around, slipping the jacket overhead and clicking the belt closed. “When all of you have the life jacket, we’re gonna bring you one by one aboard. But you have to stay calm.”

Gianfrancesco leaned over and quietly interjected, “Communication by gesture is the only way to be sure to get meaning across.”

The “migrants” surged to grab for the life jackets, and the RHIB, even in these easy waters, jolted.

“Go back, go back,” Mantici told his crew, and their RHIB retreated. To Ghali’s group, he said: “If you do that, we cannot help. OK? You have to stay calm and listen. OK?”

Ghali’s RHIB settled, and the rescue RHIB approached close enough to distribute the life vests. Once everyone had secured the belt, the transfer began.

Back on board the Mare Jonio after the drill, Ghali saw that Bayna had been inflated. The idea to donate it had been hatched more than a year earlier. Now, finally in its presence, he ran his hand across it and declared, “Che bomba!”

Barely anyone came to the uppermost deck to watch Ghali inscribe “Bayna” on its hull. People were heading back to their regular lives; there were flights to catch. But those who were there applauded. Ghali himself seemed lost in thought.

When asked who he imagines will be saved, he responded: “These volunteers are saving my friends, their families, my siblings. I feel gratitude. My siblings that save my other siblings.” He went on, “They are saving me.”

Andrea Frazzetta for The New York Times

In the Chorus of one of Ghali’s biggest hits, “Cara Italia” (“Dear Italy”), he sings: “When they say to me ‘Go home,’ I answer, ‘I’m already here.’ I love you dear Italy.”

It’s not only xenophobic Italians who are unable to grasp that Italy is home for someone like Ghali. Fans who profess their love for him still ask, “When did you come to Italy?” The persistent perception of Ghali as foreign stems in part from how Italy understands itself: as a country of epic emigration — its diaspora is spread throughout the Americas, Europe and Australia — not immigration.

Ghali has upended that insular national self-image by narrating his reality as the son of Tunisian immigrants, in songs so wildly popular they have been heard in advertisements for BMW, McDonald’s and Oreo; “Cara Italia” was used in a ubiquitous Vodafone campaign.

Though Ghali was born in Italy, he didn’t become a citizen until he was 18, after what he describes as a complicated process, made so by Italy’s now decades-old citizenship law, which was meant to keep the diaspora connected to Italy, not to integrate newcomers. Italy recognizes Italian heritage as grounds for citizenship even if an individual’s family has not lived in Italy for generations. But in contrast to the United States, for example, there is no automatic citizenship granted to those born in Italy to parents who are not Italian. This is the difference between ius sanguinis and ius soli: belonging by blood versus belonging by territory (of birth).

In Ghali’s song “Flashback,” he says: “Interviewers ask me, ‘Ius soli?’ I just think we’re more soli,” playing on how while in Latin “soli” means soil, in Italian it means alone.

Those born in Italy to stranieri — or foreign — parents are known as the seconda generazione, as in second-generation immigrants. (Children born of immigrant parents in the United States are considered “first generation” Americans.) In a looser definition, it also refers to individuals who arrived younger than 18, as well as those who, like Ghali, have gained Italian citizenship. As of 2018, Italy had roughly 1.3 million second-generation minors in that broader sense, three-quarters of whom were born in Italy. They made up 13 percent of Italy’s under-18 population.

Ghali’s mother left Tunisia at 20. As Ghali tells the story, his father came years later and, after becoming a drug trafficker, was in and out of prison and Ghali’s life until he was gone altogether, back to Tunisia. With his father’s second arrest and the end of what Ghali calls haram flus — ill-gotten money — his mother took work as a janitor, cleaning hospitals and houses. It was Ghali and his mother against the world or, as he sings in “Flashback,” “in the guerrilla” together.

She was the one who took him, in 2003, to see the American film “8 Mile,” featuring the rapper Eminem. He was instantly smitten with this “American thing,” rap. An older Tunisian boy soon introduced Ghali to the work of Joe Cassano, a rapper who died young in 1999, and gave Ghali a mix CD of Italian rap. He devoured it whole. To learn that rap could be done in Italian too — a language he loved — was a revelation.

Ghali came to Italian rap at a time when, like Eminem, emerging Italian rappers were embracing the genre to narrate their own personal struggles, often as societal outsiders. Andrea Bertolucci, a journalist who covers Italian rap, contrasts that approach to an earlier period in the 1980s and ’90s, when rap in Italy was adopted by members of leftist movements, their lyrics expressing broader political ideas. Cassano, Bertolucci says, was “a real lyricist and pioneer” in that he spoke about himself with great introspection. But in both phases, he says, “because major record labels weren’t paying attention, rap had no censorship; it was a subversive genre, a free genre.”

And Ghali, who spent childhood summers in Tunisia, then under the rule of a repressive regime that took power in 1987, felt that freedom viscerally. He would be reminded, listening to American and Italian rappers fearlessly denouncing the police, that in Tunisia the same act could lead to jail.

The year that Ghali discovered rap, he and his mother moved into public housing in Baggio, on the periphery of Milan. Rap became his entrée with his peers; to this day, his inner circle is largely made up of people he met in Baggio. “Even before becoming famous, Ghali was famous for us,” says his friend Nathan Bonaiuti, whose mother immigrated from Eritrea. Soon Ghali was quietly recording tracks in his room, so his mom wouldn’t hear the bad words, and passing out demo CDs around Baggio. “Rap gave sense to it all,” he says. “No one could stop me from saying what I think.”

The freedom he found in rap, though, contrasted with his reality. Ghali says he always felt Italian: “In kindergarten, with the nuns, I prayed Ave Maria!” But his ID document was clearly different from a regular Italian ID card, an effective reminder that they were “guests.” That rejection was compounded by the media. “There was never a moment the TV news said ‘Tunisian’ as a positive thing,” he says. “Only ‘a Tunisian raped.’ ‘A Tunisian arrested.’ ‘ISIS members were three guys of Tunisian origins.’ I was even ashamed of my name.”

While still a teenager, Ghali became the hype man onstage for some of Italy’s biggest rap acts. “It was swag to have an Arab,” he says. Eventually, he went solo, certain that he could succeed. “I was telling a story that hadn’t been told, and I knew that there were other people like me,” he says. “I fell in love with Italian rap but didn’t feel represented; they weren’t talking specifically about me. And I knew that the children of immigrants were starting to exist in Italy but that no one was telling their story.”

Sergione Infuso/Corbis, via Getty Images

And so he told his own story, using the mix of languages that are his daily vernacular. In Ghali’s lyrics, a single sentence’s subject, verb, objects and adjectives might all be in different languages. He deployed irony more than aggression. Of course he was angry about a lot, but, he says: “If I said these things, I wouldn’t have found a chance. I was already penalized for being Arab; I had to be liked. I didn’t want to be accepted only by ‘kids who hang in the street’; I wanted to be accepted by Italian families. I wanted to be recognized as a national artist.”

His exaltation of his own mother likely helped win over many an Italian mamma, a perhaps unexpected demographic for a rapper. (In “Wily Wily,” he calls himself “son of Ma and her sacrifices.”) In 2018, his sold-out show at the Mediolanum Forum in Assago was broadcast live. The camera panned the crowd singing along even as Ghali moved between languages. The audience went into true rapture when he brought his mother, carrying the Italian flag, up onstage.

His love for Italy, meanwhile, has sometimes blinded Italians to his criticism of it. Many Italians seem to interpret the song “Cara Italia,” whose official video has more than 100 million views on YouTube (Italy’s population is roughly 60 million), as a pure love letter, when it is actually a critique:

But what kind of politics is this?
What is the difference between left and right?
They change the ministers, but not the soup
The toilet is here on the left, the bathroom is at the bottom on the right. …
Some people are closed-minded and left behind, like the Middle Ages
The newspaper abuses it, talks about the foreigner as if he were an alien
Without a passport, looking only for money.

“They say: ‘Look at him, how much he loves Italy. He wrote a song for Italy,’” Ghali says with frustration. “ ‘What a good boy. What a good foreigner! Foreigner but he’s good.’ I’m neither good nor a foreigner.”

But it’s not only his own belonging that he is asserting. As Italy debates whether to embrace or somehow reverse its burgeoning multiculturalism, second generationers are mostly excluded from the national conversation. Yet in his music, Bertolucci says, Ghali “gave voice finally to a community that never had political, social, religious or even linguistic representation.” Bertolucci points to how, in addition to using cultural references common to many second-generation youth, Ghali’s groundbreaking mixing — or even “contaminating” — the Italian language with Arabic, French, Spanish and English “created a territory of linguistic claim for those who, like him, felt excluded from the rights of citizenship and integration.”

But with its references to universal emotions and a ’90s and ’00s adolescence — Justins Timberlake and Bieber, Pixar and Pokémon — Ghali’s music is also what Bertolucci calls “an engine of cultural approach” for all Italians.

As Ghali sings in “Bayna”: “You dream America, I dream Italy. The new Italy.”

Andrea Frazzetta for The New York Times

In Ghali’s life and music, the Mediterranean Sea is eternally present — an acknowledgment that it both binds and separates the fortunes of those on either side of it. During his many summers in Tunis visiting family, Ghali was constantly aware of its siren appeal. Many Tunisians leave Tunisia in search of a better life, but for those who cannot obtain legal visas to seek opportunities elsewhere, there has always been the crossing, an option both expensive and perilous. Ghali often overheard adults in the parlor crying because someone — friends or relatives — had drowned trying to make it to Italy. “It was there, always, always, each year,” he says.

In Tunisia and other North African countries, those who make the journey are known as harraga, or “burners,” because when they reach the other side, they have been known to set their identifying documents alight so that European authorities cannot know who they are nor where to deport them to. An entire body of music exists about the harga, the crossing. The songs revolve around recurring themes: the desire to leave; the dangers of the crossing; the suffering of the exiled and the family left behind; the acceptance of divine will. Those on the boats seeking to calm their nerves in rough waters sometimes sing the songs together. Ghali eventually wrote one himself.

One summer vacation, when he was 16, Ghali arrived from Italy and began talking up life in Milan to his Tunisian cousin. Shortly after that, the cousin, only a few years older than Ghali, disappeared. The family looked for him for hours. He finally returned late at night, covered in engine grease. He had been caught trying to stow away on a boat to Italy.

For years, Ghali carried guilt that his youthful boasting could have cost his cousin his life. He wrote the words to the song “Mamma” based on the experience. In the video, a young Tunisian in an Italian national soccer team jacket plans to take off in the middle of the night. Ghali sings:

He looks at me, my Nike Airs, and thinks that
It’s easy to make cash but he doesn’t know it’s not like that
And he will end up like the others doing wesh wesh, bang bang

But Ghali knows he won’t convince him, because Ghali knows that had he too been born in Tunisia, he would make the same choice to leave. He instead addresses the sea:

Sea o sea, don’t become rough
Please, take him to safety
Sea o sea, please don’t become rough or I’ll drown
Make sure he arrives, take him safely to shore

If Ghali was acutely aware of the crossings and drownings, that generally wasn’t the case for Italians, let alone Europeans in countries farther from the Mediterranean. But then the crossings, which include refugees fleeing war and persecution as well as economic migrants, more than tripled in 2014, partly because of the Arab Spring. The large influxes caught Europe off guard, as if it had forgotten that many of these countries were just across the Mediterranean. Eventually, the sea would become both a political battleground and a graveyard. Since 2014, more than 27,000 people have died or gone missing attempting to cross, in large part because Europe has seen the Mediterranean as a border to be enforced, not a search-and-rescue zone to be actively patrolled, a vacuum that ships like the Mare Jonio try to fill.

To pre-empt the arrivals, the European Union has focused on stopping departures from the jumping-off points, essentially turning off the faucet, while the pipeline remains. To do so, it has effectively outsourced some of its border enforcement to countries with much less stringent human rights standards on the other side of the sea. The E.U. pioneered this approach following the 2015 migrant crisis, when nearly a million people — roughly 80 percent of them fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq — arrived in Europe by sea. Most had departed from Turkey, but after a 2016 deal with the E.U. for six billion euros, Turkey stopped people from leaving its shores in large numbers. (The deal also simultaneously strengthened the hand — domestically and internationally — of Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.)

The following year, Italy signed an E.U.-sponsored deal with Libya, its former colony, to reduce sea crossings originating there. Human rights groups continue to denounce the deal, having documented the use of murder, enforced disappearance, torture, enslavement, sexual violence and other acts committed by the Libyans against people who sought to make the crossing to Italy.

While the center-left Democratic Party concluded the Libya deal, the Italian politician most associated with anti-migrant sentiment is Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League party. In June 2018, Salvini, who is bombastic and media-relishing, became both deputy prime minister and interior minister. During his 14-month tenure, he decreed a series of hard-line measures that abolished key protections for migrants, making it easier for them to be deported, and closed Italian ports to rescue ships. He argued (as Meloni does today) that these ships are a “pull” factor compelling people to cross, more so than the “push” factors of the situations they are leaving. He refused docking permission to more than one rescue ship, stranding them at sea. Salvini is currently on trial for his actions in one such case, with prosecution witnesses including the actor Richard Gere, who visited the migrants onboard.

On a July 2019 remix of the British rapper Stormzy’s “Vossi Bop,” Ghali took aim at Salvini, painting him as a “fascist politician” who says that “those who arrived by rubber raft cannot stay.” Ghali imagined a scene at an AC Milan soccer match (both Ghali and Salvini are Milanisti, fans of AC Milan) and rapped about Salvini’s presence there ruining the vibe. “I am an artist, and politics is not necessarily my job,” Ghali said in an interview published the day the track was released. “My music tells my story, and rap, which began as a social complaint and has always been my bread and butter, was the best medium to fulfill my need to take a stand against those who exploit fear to create an enemy.”

Salvini, perhaps the most powerful man in Italy at the time, took to Twitter to spar with the rapper. Linking to a VICE Italy article with the headline “Ghali Attacking Salvini in a Song With Stormzy Is Pure Joy,” he quoted Ghali’s lyrics before adding, “He insults me but I don’t mind his music, is that bad???” with the cool sunglasses emoji.

The next month, Salvini overplayed his hand attempting to become prime minister. Instead, the ruling coalition changed, and the new government stopped enforcing Salvini’s decrees.

Around the corner was the pandemic, and as the world went into lockdown and travel plummeted, the sea crossings dropped as well. Italy, particularly in the north, was hard hit by Covid. Salvini railed against mask requirements and other restrictions. The mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, later recruited Ghali to pen the words for the video accompanying the city’s post-lockdown campaign. “We wanted to give a face and a voice to the city that would be able to represent a new generation of Milanese, an emblem of an intercultural and engaged society,” Sala says. “Ghali found the words to speak to everyone.”

One Friday night at the restaurant Bice, a Milan institution frequented by professionals and bourgeois families, a skirt-suited woman who looked to be approaching 60 was walking out as Ghali walked in. She immediately recognized him. “I thought you were in Morocco,” she said, genuinely surprised. His most recent Instagram post was indeed from Marrakesh.

Ghali had no reservation, and the restaurant was crowded. He looked ready to wait, but the hostess excitedly found him a table in the corner. Bice is in the quadrilatero della moda, the heart of the Italian fashion world, which has embraced Ghali. Whether the other diners knew who he was or not, they likely understood he was someone famous. Whether they understood him to be Italian is another thing.


That quality of Ghali’s — the sense that he could be from many places — is what drew Italian fashion to him, says Federico Sarica, head of content at GQ Italy, who put Ghali on the magazine’s cover for a second time, in May 2022. “The industry liked Ghali right away because he was the Italian artist that looked most like the rest of the world,” Sarica says. The reason this gap existed for Ghali to fill is simple, he says: “Italy is always very behind.”

It only made it easier that Ghali is handsome and tall and wears clothes well. The United Colors of Benetton chose him as its 2021 brand ambassador because “he embodies its founding values of multiculturalism and integration,” calling him “one of the most influential artists of his generation.” He designed a collection for them for the fall of 2021, which included hijabs for men and clothing with Arabic writing on them.

“Ghali was absolutely new for Italy,” says Roberto Saviano, the journalist and essayist perhaps best known outside Italy as the author of “Gomorrah.” For Saviano, Ghali comes across as utterly Italian — “He’s a Milanista!” — while also never hiding his Tunisian origins. That easy synthesis, he says, allows Ghali both to normalize the second generation and to humanize those taking to the sea. Saviano cites the song “Mamma,” saying that it “relayed the drama of the sea departures far more than any news story, book or film, because it tells about how and why a boy decides to leave and does not hide the contradictions.”

Karima Moual is a Morocco-born Italian journalist who writes about those contradictions — including the ongoing obstacles to integration and opportunity — for national publications like La Stampa and La Repubblica and as a pundit for Mediaset, the country’s largest commercial broadcaster. Despite these very Italian credentials, she says, “I forever remain ‘the journalist of Moroccan origins.’” For her, there is a failure to “take this step forward, of recognizing that there is a generation, fully Italian, that has a migration background but is integrated, doesn’t want to ‘return’ — who sees its future here.” Speaking of Ghali, she says: “Finally, there is a second generationer, a ‘straniero,’ who transcends. He is no longer ‘the Tunisian.’ Ghali is Ghali.”

Sarica, at GQ, cautions against making Ghali into a symbol or thinking that Italy “looks more like Ghali than Meloni.” Moual is measured on that question. “Today belongs to Meloni,” she says, simply because Meloni is prime minister. But what won the election, Moual says, was fear, as well as the desire to deny the existence of a generation that “for all intents and purposes is Italian.” It’s a vision that is, she says, “untied to reality — and that reality is Ghali’s.”

For those living that reality, rap music remains one of the few avenues to share their version of it. In doing so, a new wave of rappers — for whom Ghali paved the way, and some of whom he signed to his label, Sto Records — are confronting, often angrily, an Italy that remains unable to reconcile with its demographic future.

In Summer 2021, the number of people coming across the sea began to climb again. In November of that year, Ghali’s earlier rapped scenario came to life: He and Salvini were both at San Siro Stadium cheering for AC Milan, seated near each other. When a Black player on their team scored, Salvini began to cheer. In a video that went viral, Ghali is seen yelling at Salvini, as Ghali’s friends restrain him. “Murderer!” he shouted. “Why the [expletive] are you rejoicing? A Black guy scored, a Black guy like me, like many, and like many of those you decide to make die at sea! Shame on you!”

Soon after that, Ghali began to discuss with Mediterranea supporting their work beyond the small donations he had already made. On July 19, 2022, Ghali announced on Instagram, “I bought myself a boat.” The post’s photo carousel included a video clip from “Mamma” and excerpts from songs across his career in which he referenced or narrated the crossings, the last being from “Bayna.”

As it happens, the next day Italy’s government unraveled; national elections were scheduled for September. Meloni made migration, which she had in the past likened to racial replacement, a key issue in her campaign, promising a naval blockade. On election day, Ghali voted at his old school in Baggio, posting pictures of his ballots and Italian passport on Instagram with this message: “Your distrust of Italian politics and your right to vote are two separate things. The right to vote is one of the most important forms of individual freedom we have, and there are those before us who have fought a lifetime to get it. Don’t be lazy and don’t make excuses.”

Meloni won with 26 percent of the vote, forming a governing coalition with parties led by Salvini and the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (who died in June 2023). As the new year arrived, she kept her focus on the sea crossings, issuing decree 1/2023, aimed at minimizing rescue ships’ time at sea. At the end of January, she presided over the signing of an $8 billion gas deal with Libya that included the pledge of an additional five boats to stop attempted crossings.

Ghali responded on Instagram: “It is absurd to think that a portion of the taxes we pay as Italian citizens is given to Libyan coast guards to imprison, torture, enslave and deprive of all human rights thousands and thousands of refugees in Libyan concentration camps. … [They say] that they don’t know what happens in Libya once we send back these people. All lies, they have known everything all along and continue doing it.”

Meloni was also pursuing a similar deal with Tunisia. She had an opening for such a deal because Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, who in 2021 dismissed the country’s prime minister and later dissolved Parliament, was able to act more unilaterally.

Then, on Feb. 21, Saied gave a speech offering his version of racial-replacement theory: that there is a conspiracy to replace Tunisians with sub-Saharan Black migrants, whom he called “hordes” bringing crime. The violence his speech unleashed set off panicked departures. Business boomed for the traffickers.

“I am ashamed of him as I am ashamed of Salvini,” Ghali says.

Despite the cold winter sea, a smuggler’s boat set out from Turkey on Feb. 22. Each of the at least 185 people on board — mostly Afghans, but Iranians, Syrians, Pakistanis and Iraqis as well — had paid about 8,000 euros. (A one-way flight from Istanbul to Rome would have cost around 200 euros.) Meloni’s new laws targeting search-and-rescue ships went into effect the next day, and Italian authorities impounded a ship operated by Médecins Sans Frontières. The Mare Jonio, with Bayna onboard, was still confined to a dock in Trapani.

By the night of Feb. 25, Frontex, the E.U. border-control agency, alerted Italy that the boat from Turkey was on course for the Calabrian coast. But before dawn, within sight of shore, it broke apart. Fishermen saw its passengers signaling with their cellphone lights and ran to help. They found bodies already splayed on the sand.

These were the beaches of Steccato di Cutro, a modest village of 450 in the off season. Its streets are named for far-flung cities and countries — Via Oslo and Via Zurigo, vias Atene, Dublino, Praga, Barcellona, Tibilisi, Tirana, Niger, Etiopia — as if calling out to tourists around the globe. The world’s problems washed up instead.

Andrea Frazzetta for The New York Times

The tragedy sparked an outpouring of grief. In nearby Crotone, a city of 60,000, where survivors and the dead had been transferred, Italians paid their respects, filing through a gymnasium where donated coffins were laid out, leaving offerings of stuffed animals at the ones sized for babies and toddlers. Family members who had come from other European countries draped themselves across caskets. Anguish mixed with anger as news emerged that Italian authorities knew of the boat’s imminent arrival and sent out the Financial Police instead of the Coast Guard, treating the ship as a law-enforcement matter rather than a rescue. Because of the rough seas, the police returned to shore, and Italy took no further action.

Instead of saving lives, local, regional and national agencies were marshaled by sea, air and land in a much larger and more expensive operation to recover the bodies still missing. On the beach, near a memorial made of shipwreck detritus, cadaver tents were set up, and helicopters hovered above the waves, looking.

Speaking nearly a month after the wreck, the mayor of Crotone, Vincenzo Voce, said of those involved in the operation, “Everyone is asking for psychological support.” He added, “It’s not easy to go and retrieve the remains of a body that’s now been in water for days.”

When what to do with those remains became an issue, the mayor and town council of the tiny municipality of Marcellinara realized that even if families wanted their relatives buried in Calabria, there were no cemeteries that provided Muslim rites. They set aside part of the town cemetery for Muslim burial. Vittorio Scerbo, the mayor, called it “a small act.” Repeating what has become a motto among the Marcellinara leadership, he said, “We did it for the dead; we can do it for the living.”

Meloni blamed the loss of life on smugglers. She vowed to end such tragedies by ending departures, and said she would do so “by demanding maximum cooperation from the departure and origin states.” She concluded a deal on border enforcement with Tunisia in April.

Her government also signed off on an emergency decree proposing measures that included establishing harsher punishments for smugglers and traffickers, curbing integration programs and creating more detention facilities and new migrant centers to house those waiting on asylum applications (which can take up to two years). The proposal became law in May.

Ghali’s trip to Trapani in the wake of Cutro generated some buzz for Mediterranea, but the Mare Jonio was no closer to conducting rescues. For Laura Marmorale, the president of Mediterranea, Ghali’s advocacy is nonetheless remarkable. “Not many public figures have come forward in support of civil-rescue operations, addressing difficult and divisive topics such as immigration or sea rescue,” she says. “When someone does, they are then the target of hate comments and insults online and attack articles in the right-wing press. Putting himself out there for us means putting his career on the line too.”

Ghali acknowledges the backlash but says he accepts it as inevitable. What disappoints him, he says, is that he hasn’t found much support for his backing of Mediterranea among those he calls influential Italians. When he donated Bayna, he also set up a crowdfunding campaign to buy a second boat. Those who contributed generously and those who have amplified his message on social media, he says, are “only people like me — children of immigrants. That’s what’s most troubling. What I ask myself is: Do you have to live this in your own skin to be able to see it?”

As summer approached, the crossings, rescues and drownings resumed; in June, the migrant ship Adriana capsized and sank off the coast of Greece, killing more than 600 of the roughly 750 people onboard. So, too, returned the debates, recriminations and ultimately inadequate solutions. In mid July, Meloni, Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands traveled to Tunisia to announce with Saied yet another deal in which the E.U. will essentially pay Tunisia to prevent migrants from setting to sea, amid ongoing reports documenting Tunisian authorities’ abuses of Black migrants.

The Mare Jonio had yet to return to sea.

Ghali recently turned 30 and has, he says, been using 2023 to recalibrate. In “Pare,” he sings, “Sometimes you have to be reborn, to leave behind things that I then destroy because they don’t destroy me.” He is deepening his knowledge about Islam and during Ramadan traveled to Saudi Arabia for the first time, making Umrah with his mother; he included Mediterranea in his prayers.

He is quick to note, though, that he has always believed in God. What is different is that after feeling for years he had to “suffocate my origins, traditions, beliefs to integrate into a society that does not accept you for who you are,” he is sharing them much more publicly. He wishes there had been even a single famous Italian doing the same when he was a child: “Some days would have been much better.”

In July, he traveled to Tunisia for the first time since the start of the pandemic. In the early-morning hours before he left, still awake after performing at another rapper’s concert in Milan, he scrolled through his long-ignored direct messages on Instagram. He was stunned at all the messages he had received over the previous several months from Tunisians begging for his help to fund the crossing. In a surreal twist, among the DMs was one from the young man who played the protagonist in the video for “Mamma.”

Speaking from a cafe in Tunisia perched above the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, Ghali said, “Despite all the bad news that comes, despite how dangerous it is, people are crossing more and more and are asking me to help them.”

Ghali said the argument he hears all the time — that, because they are not fleeing war, North Africans have no legitimate reason to leave — misses the point entirely.

“In Tunisia, you learn at a very young age that you can’t dream,” he said. “They disabuse you of dreaming right away. What does a person do, a person who is resigned to have no more dreams here, who maybe even stops dreaming? If in Italy, you can dream, then for a young Tunisian who wants to do something in life, they leave to at least dream, to have the right to dream.”

Alia Malek is the author of “The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria.” She directs the international-reporting program at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Andrea Frazzetta is a photographer from Milan. He has worked on many of the magazine’s Voyages Issues, documenting places like the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia and the first long-distance hiking trail in Kurdistan.

This post was originally published on this site