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'Tears of Salt' is a deeply moving, first-hand response to Italy's refugee crisis

As a doctor on Italy's southernmost island, Pietro Bartolo has a front-row seat to one of the world's most horrifying spectacles.

Tears of Salt By Pietro Bartolo and Lidia Tilotta W.W. Norton & Co. 203 pp.

Pietro Bartolo has seen and experienced things that no human being should have to witness.

As a doctor working on Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island, he has been on the front line of the refugee crisis for more than 20 years. He has seen boats of refugees arriving from Africa, sometimes on a daily basis, crammed with people who are starving, dehydrated, and terrified. And these, he points out, are the fortunate ones – they are still alive.

He has seen desperate children separated from their parents and dying parents frantic to entrust their children to anyone who can help. He has seen young people who left home full of hope, only to arrive in Italy so frightened that they can no longer speak. He has seen the now infamous Favaloro Pier, his island’s main landing point, piled with corpses.

You would think that this would make Bartolo’s brief memoir, Tears of Salt (written with Lidia Tilotta), almost unreadable and, in fact, there is much in this book that is hard to process. Yet I would argue that it’s a work not to be missed.

Not only does Bartolo shake the world’s complacency (“Libyan prisons are the new concentration camps,” he writes. “The conditions under which migrants travel across desert and sea are not dissimilar from those of the death trains that transported victims of the Holocaust”), but he also limns his narrative with great compassion and humanity.

Bartolo is rightly angry about the conditions that created the suffering he encounters, but he is also deeply impressed by the courage and determination of many of the migrants, even as he is touched by the generosity of many of his fellow citizens.

There is the young Somalian migrant, Hassan, who refused to abandon his disabled brother and so carried him on his back all the way across the desert to Libya. There is Anuar, the 10-year-old Nigerian who left home on his own to find a way to make money to support his mother and younger brothers.

There is also an Italian woman who rescued the beloved pet cat of a Sudanese refugee child and then flew with the animal to Germany (at her own expense) to personally restore him to his yearning owner. And there are the Italian schoolchildren in Pisa who used prize money to buy toys for the refugee children.

There is also a tiny Nigerian orphan named Favour – a baby girl with a smile so brave and beautiful that Bartolo begs his wife to agree to adopt her.
Told in alternating chapters with such vignettes is Bartolo’s own story. He was born into a loving Lampedusa fishing family and grew up cherishing the salt air and rustic lifestyle of an island closer to Tunisia than it is to Italy. Bartolo was educated on the mainland and ultimately persuaded his wife, Rita – a mainlander and also a medical doctor – to move to Lampedusa.

At the time, agreeing to life on Lampedusa was already a difficult choice for Rita. The island was isolated and life there was raw. But that was before the arrival of migrants became a crisis. In the beginning, Bartolo writes, there were just a handful. “At this time it was a new phenomenon and they were few in number,” he writes. “But all at once, everything changed: many more refugees arrived, with many more reasons for fleeing home.”

Bartolo’s job becomes difficult in ways he could never have imagined, and at times it seems close to destroying him. But he draws support, he says, from his fellow Lampedusans, so many of whom extended compassion and charity to arrivals.

In 2014, Bartolo meets Italian director Gianfranco Rosi, who came to Lampedusa to make a documentary about the refugees. That film becomes the 2016 Oscar-nominated “Fire at Sea.” The movie gives Bartolo great joy. “I had wanted this so badly,” he writes, “a raw, unequivocally clear message that would shatter all the lies and prejudice surrounding this issue, waken the public conscience, and open people’s eyes.”

To Bartolo’s great sadness, however, shortly after the film’s release, borders were tightened throughout Europe and more doors were closed to refugees.
Bartolo writes that what he has seen has never caused him to lose faith in God. But he says he has become profoundly discouraged by “greedy, ruthless human beings who put their trust in money and power.” In this category he puts not only the human traffickers but also the politicians and ordinary citizens who have seen the suffering of the migrants but have not felt moved to help.

And yet Bartolo’s book serves as a powerful reminder of a very different kind of human response. His passionate advocacy on behalf of the flood of strangers continually showing up on his shores is deeply moving. One can only hope that it will prove contagious.

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