The Optician Of Lampedusa – Emma-Jane Kirby
The only optician on the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean is an ordinary man in his fifties, who used to be indifferent to the fate of the thousands of refugees landing on the coast of the Italian island. One day in the fall of 2013, the unimaginable scale of the tragedy became clear to him, and it changed him forever: as he was out boating with some friends, he encountered hundreds of men, women and children drowning in the aftermath of a shipwreck. The Optician and his seven friends managed to save 47 people (his boat was designed to hold ten people). All the others died. This is a poignant and unforgettable account about the awakening of conscience: more than that, it brings home the reality of an ongoing refugee crisis that has resulted in one of the most massive migrations in human history.
Review: If you’re like me, then you’ve never heard of Lampedusa. It’s a tiny island with a huge problem. Every year, thousands of refugees fleeing Africa wash up on its shores.
The Optician of Lampedusa is written by BBC reporter Emma Jane Kirby. She tells the true story of Lampedusa’s only optician and the day that changed his life forever. In October of 2013, the optician and seven of his friends were on a boating trip in the Mediterranean when they heard a strange noise. They steered their boat toward the noise and discovered hundreds of people drowning in the waves.
“I thought I'd heard seagulls screeching. Seagulls fighting over a lucky catch. Birds. Just birds.” - The Optician of Lampedusa
The strange noise was people screaming. A boat full of refugees had sunk. The optician and his friends managed to pull 47 people out of the ocean. Before this event, the optician had never given much thought to the refugee crisis, but after he pulled the people from the water, he became desperate to know what happens to the refugees after they leave Lampedusa.
This tiny book (fewer than 200 pages) is an important read, but it’s not an easy one. Aside from the graphic scenes of drowning, it’s difficult to read because the optician is so relatable. He sees refugees every day, but he doesn’t know much about them. They don’t impact his life. This book is a reminder that most of us tend to ignore the world’s problems until they show up on our doorstep. We don’t truly care about something until it impacts us. But, by the time we start paying attention to problems, it may be too late to solve them.
This book helps the reader see the scale of the refugee crisis. “Crisis” is not an overstatement. There were 500 refugees on the boat that sank. The Coast Guard and private citizens did whatever they could to rescue the refugees, but more than 360 of them drowned. That was just one boat. Boats full of refugees go past Lampedusa every day on their way to Europe.
“Thirteen thousand asylum-seekers had arrived in Italy so far this year—Gabriele had told them that when he'd come to fetch them in the car to take them to the aircraft hangar. Until now it had just been a random, meaningless figure, an empty statistic. Yet here they were before them, flesh and blood, bone and gristle, with the salt of their tears mingling with their own.” - The Optician of Lampedusa
I feel bad for criticizing anything about this book, but I wasn’t a fan of the writing. At first, I wondered if it was a translation (it isn’t) because the writing is stilted. There are also a few awkward scene transitions. It felt like it took me a few seconds too long to figure out where the characters are and who is in the scene.
If you’re interested in the world’s refugee problem, then this book is a must-read. It won’t take you very long to get through, and it’ll give you a lot to think about.
“He could not ignore the fact that the waving hands had always been visible to him. They had waved in the water, yes, but they had also waved from the reception centre, from the church steps and from the roadside where he had jogged past them, blindly. They had waved from the newspaper columns and from the television screens where he had filtered them out and switched them off. They had always been in his line of vision and he had chosen not to see them.” - The Optician of Lampedusa