The Optician of Lampedusa (Emma Jane Kirby) – choosing to act, choosing to relate

Emma Jane Kirby’s book The Optician of Lampedusa takes us back to 3 October 2013 and an account of what happened when Carmine Menna, his wife Rosaria and six friends went for a pleasurable sail just off the coast of the island of Lampedusa at the end of the tourist season.

They found themselves first on the scene of a fishing boat that had capsized. The optician and his friends pulled 47 people from the water onto their 15m yacht. 108 others were saved that day. But tragically, at least 360 people drowned. The vessel had set sail from Libya to traffic people to Europe.

Kirby tells the story through the eyes of the unassuming optician, who is later shocked to hear that some hours before another boat had come across the disaster but sailed on.

It’s a book that speaks of ordinary people who chose to do the right thing, and took – what afterwards seems like – extraordinary action. And their action had consequences, in this case, nightmares and post traumatic distress. Yet it also built new and continuing relationships with some of those they rescued.

The book’s story felt very familiar.

It reminded me of being in Lampedusa visiting refugee projects with Mediterranean Hope back in April.

The explanation of how the caretaker of the island’s graveyard had given dignity in death to some of those who died offshore was the same one we heard when we tearfully walked past the graves.

On the Wednesday afternoon we walked along a path from the ridge that overlooked the registration centre where asylum seekers are held when they arrive on Lampedusa.

A local man stopped his car as he was pulling into his gate. At first I thought he was going to get out and berate us for parking near his house.

But he’d stopped because he recognised the Mediterranean Hope staff we were with. They explained that Constantine had been out in his boat between Rabbit Island and Lampedusa’s harbour when he’d come across a capsized boat. Smaller numbers were involved than the story of the optician in this book.

He showed us a photo on his phone, taken by someone else at the time, of his boat and the coastguard vessel beside it.

He’d pulled 11 people up onto his boat and was meant to be turning back towards land when he reached into the water just one last time and grabbed hold of a hand. The young woman who he dragged on board his small boat became like a daughter to him.

She lives in Sweden now, but they’re frequently in touch. She was coming back to Lampedusa this summer to be a guest at his son’s wedding. As family.

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