When Emad Shuman arrived in Italy for the first time, he was only 20 years old. It was the end of the 1980s and he was fleeing civil war in Lebanon, together with 12,000 other Lebanese people who are now spread throughout the world.
Today, Emad is 53, with a diploma as a laboratory technician. He lives in Siena in central Italy, where he works for the NGO Oxfam Italy as a cultural mediator for migrants who arrive in Tuscany from Sicily.
"I'm a migrant, and the son of a migrant. My father moved to Sierra Leone when he was little, and my mother was born in Dakar. My life has always been a journey, and now I want to devote it to those who dream of a better life," Emad told Infomigrants.
Emad also created the Italo-Lebanese group Kabila to foster dialogue between the two cultures in Siena, through concerts and fundraising dinners for countries at war.
Emad returned to Sicily after 14 years to bring his story as a refugee in Palermo, on the streets of the Ballarò neighbourhood, with the project "Culture Against Fear", sponsored by Coopculture. Together with 35 musicians from the Arezzo Symphony Orchestra, he sang in the streets of the historic Palermo market.
"Racism isn't a new phenomenon, but the wrong policies of the present are, and they have brought us to hate. But there are those like me who fight for reception. Sicily is an important example of it," he said. "When people ask me if I feel Italian, I tell them that I'm African-Tuscan-Lebanese. I don't deny my homeland, but I share Italy's respect for human rights, which absolutely must not be violated, against all racist drift," he said.
'I still remember the fear I felt'
"In Lebanon I dreamed of studying to become a doctor. But I found war," Emad said. At 19, he nearly lost his life walking near a minefield. He managed to flee the country, boarding a merchant ship that departed from Tyre and brought him to Cyprus.
"I still remember the fear I felt, the Israeli helicopters that were surveilling the ship to check if there were illegal immigrants," Emad said. "And then - freedom. Once I arrived on Cyprus, I took a flight with a European passport to Paris, until I got to Rome." Emad then moved to the historic central Italian city of Perugia to study Italian at the School for Foreigners. After that, he graduated in Arezzo, an hour north of Perugia, as a medical lab technician, while he worked evenings in a pizzeria.
He then went back to Sierra Leone to bring his mother to Italy after she was widowed.
A refugee between two wars
"In Sierra Leone in the Nineties, I found war again. The rebels beat me. [...] It was difficult to come back to Italy. The soldiers were even shooting at ambulances, without any respect for civilians," he said.
It was during that particular journey that Emad knew what he wanted to make his life's work. "I quit my job as a laboratory technician and I enrolled at university. I wanted to help migrants like me," he said. He was hired to work for Oxfam Italy, and has been there for more than 10 years.
"I support and guide those in the Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugee. Many are of African nationality, from Nigeria and Darfur. I communicate with them in pidgin, typical of West Africa; not many people know it. I chose to have a precarious work life forever. But I'm happy, because in addition to helping others, I'm also helping my country," he said.
Emad is also a musician. It started in 1997 in Tuscany just for fun,
but then his passion became a mission. Since 2007, he has been a member of the Arezzo Multiethnic Orchestra, sponsored by the social cooperative Officine della Cultura, which works for integration and social development. His voice has made people all over the world dance. He performed two years ago at the Lebanese juvenile prison in Roumieh, for a project sponsored by the Italian Agency for Cooperation in Development (AICS). He performed last week in Sicily together with the Arezzo Multiethnic Orchestra, in which he participates as a singer, during a concert by Calabrian singer-songwriter Brunori Sas.
He has opened concerts for the group Almamegretta; for Cisco, a former singer with the Modena City Ramblers; and Brunori's last tour, where he got the audience from Agrigento and Palermo to dance to his songs in Arabic and Italian.
"I can never forget my band's experiences in Lebanon, above all those in the prison in Roumieh, where, together with the sound of the music were the hopes of the detainees, who were free together at least for one day," he said.
After 30 years, Emad has decided to apply for Italian citizenship. "Have faith in the future, and don't be afraid. Being received in a new country isn't a utopia. There must be dialogue and cultural opening that always keeps the other in mind," he said.