Over the last couple of days in church as we’ve sung familiar carols about the birth of Christ, my mind has wandered back to Scicli on the island of Sicily, off the coast of Italy. And I’ve wondered about Esther*, a young woman who will be spending her first Christmas as the mother of a young infant.
The seventeen year old sat down at a table in Casa delle Culture and told eight of us about her reasons for setting off with a friend from Nigeria and heading to Europe. She spoke about her Christian faith. She explained how she had saved up money and left it for her grandmother to look after her orphaned brothers. She talked about the inequality of opportunity as a woman, denied education because becoming a wife was the only prospect in her career path.
Esther very calmly recounted how her friend’s boyfriend drove the pair to the Nigeria/Niger border and sold them to a smuggler, an experience of being trafficked that would repeat many times over the next year. Each new owner either extorted money or work in order to be released into the hands of another who might bring them closer to Europe.
She was forced to endure six months of prostitution to clear her ‘debt’ with one captor, Esther was able to move on with the help of a Libyan lad she had met. However, shortly afterwards she was raped and by the time she reached the Libyan coast she was five months pregnant.
While able to make contact with her grandmother and brothers back in Nigeria, she felt they would be ashamed of her pregnancy and that prevented her turning round to return home. So she continued to travel towards Europe. By coincidence Esther was reunited with the young woman with whom she had fled from Nigeria. Tragically, only one of them would survive the boat journey to Italy.
I met Esther in the Mediterranean Hope centre in Scicli. This initiative of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy (FCEI) offers short term accommodation and support for pregnant girls like Esther as well as unaccompanied children while waiting placement in programmes that can look after them.
As she related her experiences, Esther frequently referred to God being with her. That was certainly true when I looked around and witnessed the warmth and friendship offered by the staff and other residents at Casa delle Culture.
Esther’s baby is probably six months old. The freedom that Esther was expecting to find in Europe has been marred by the abuses, suffering and loss she experienced on her journey through Niger, Libya and across the Mediterranean to reach Italy.
I don’t know where Esther is now living, or what her situation is.
But my prayer is that the teenager who so generously shared her story with us on that wet morning in Scicli will have found peace and love this Christmas. And I pray that she and her child will continue to be surrounded by loving and caring people who will support and encourage her in the months and years ahead as she nurtures her infant and rebuilds her life.
May God continue to go with her.
And may God continue to inspire Christians in Italy who invest in the meaningful support of women and children like Esther.
* name changed
Alan Meban coordinates the Focus on Refugees website for CTBI and co-led a delegation of eight young men to visit Mediterranean Hope refugee projects in Italy in April 2017.