“Having visited Lampedusa and heard people’s stories, I’m shocked by the horror of what they have experiences on their journeys over. I’m left feeling I must do more. We must do more.”
That was the reaction of Sam Donaldson, a Quaker from Hull who was one of the seven young men from churches across Britain and Ireland visited refugee projects with Mediterranean Hope in Italy last week (3-8 April) to hear first hand testimony from refugees and support workers on the islands of Sicily and Lampedusa, the ‘door of Europe’.
The gender of this fact-finding trip organised by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) was deliberate and followed on from a delegation of twelve women who visited refugee women and families mainland of Greece and one of the islands in May last year.
On Lampedusa, the delegation:
- heard from the staff at Mediterranean Hope’s ‘Observatory’ who greet people disembarking the search and rescue boats in Lampedusa harbour with warm sweet tea and blankets;
- talked on the quayside to recently arrived young men from Nigerian, The Gambia and Senegal who were waiting to be transferred to Sicily where they could claim asylum;
- observed the refugee ‘hot-spot’ which was built in an out-of-sight natural valley outside the main residential area and houses hundreds of men, women and children who make the journey across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya;
- visited the Porto M collection of objects – holy books, shoes, clothes, pots and pans, toys and baby bottles – recovered from boats used to transport migrants to Lampedusa;
- spent time in the Lampedusa cemetery which is the final resting place of refugees who died on the way to Lampedusa – a number of previously unmarked migrant graves have recently been marked;
- spoke with the local Catholic priest Don Carmelo La Magra who opens up his church for prayer each day and welcomes refugees to participate in its regular services;
- prayed at the ‘Door of Europe’ monument which was erected in 2008 in memory of migrants who lost their lives at sea while trying to reach Europe.
On Sicily, the group:
- met Mediterranean Hope staff and volunteers in Scicli’s Casa delle Culture (House of Culture) – which offers short-term accommodation to vulnerable refugees (often children, pregnant women and young mothers) – and shared a meal with its residents;
- found out about the Humanitarian Corridor initiative which will bring 1,000 vulnerable refugees from Lebanon and Morocco to Italy under humanitarian visas during 2016 and 2017 with the agreement of the Italian Government and funding from the Federation of the Evangelical Churches in Italy and the Community of Sant’Egidio.
Alan Meban co-led the ecumenical delegation and reflected on the visit:
“We went to Sicily and Lampedusa to encounter, to listen and to reflect with refugees – and in particular the young men – who are making the perilous journey to safety in Italy safety.
“Our visit brought men, mostly in their twenties, to meet the similarly aged men making the journey by sea to Europe. This is a key demographic who are often misrepresented and demonised.
“It was clear from the stories that we heard that no one had a smooth journey from their homes in Nigerian, Gambia and Senegal. Women spoke of being forced into prostitution to pay back smugglers. Pregnancy through rape was not unusual. Men were kidnapped and forced to work in Libya for months on end before being able to board flimsy boats.
“Residents of Lampedusa have been welcoming guests arriving on their shores by sea for a thousand years. We saw how organisations like Mediterranean Hope inject dignity and humanity into the arrival of people at Lampedusa as well as those transferred to their facilities in Sicily. The stories were harrowing. But there was hope for the future.
“We went to show solidarity with those whom fear, danger, increasing poverty and despair have led them to embark on dangerous journeys with no guaranteed outcome. And with our presence we wanted to support the churches, NGOs, volunteers and local people who have responded, often where governments cannot or will not, and often at cost to themselves, with generosity, humanity and compassion.
“Now that we have returned home, we will act as ‘living letters’ to our churches and communities, seeking to make visible what is currently invisible, and to amplify the testimony of those who do not have our privileges of voice and access.”
Mediterranean Hope is a project of the Federation of the Evangelical Churches in Italy (FCEI) and funded by the Union of Waldensian and Methodist Churches.
You’ll be able to read the reflections of the group – which included members from the Church of England, Chemin Neuf Community, Church of Scotland, Quaker, United Reformed Church and Presbyterian Church in Ireland – on the Focus on Refugees website over the coming days and weeks as well as following them on Facebook and Twitter.