Humanity is being questioned on Lampedusa

Bartłomiej Bozek is a member of the Chemin Neuf Community and travelled to Italy to visit Mediterranean Hope projects in April with the delegation of young men organised by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

Lampedusa is a small island in the Mediterranean Sea. You can either get there by boat or by plane. Both ways tend to involve setting off from Sicily. Once there on the island inhabited by 6,000 people, you pick the atmosphere of the area. At least you pick up the shallow one.

One of the first impressions that I had concerned the amount of coffee consumed on Lampedusa. Coffee seemed to be as important to Italians as tea is to the English. I have never before drunk that much coffee in a single week. Though when I mentioned it to one of the staff members at Mediterranean Hope’s Observatory they assured me that an Italian espresso is tiny and has very little water in it which lessens the impact that a more watery coffee would have.

Lampedusa is really beautiful. It’s clearly a great place to go on holiday. Restaurants serve delicious sea food freshly caught by local fishermen. Grilled sword fish prepared à l’italienne served with tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. Simply marvellous. For the size of the island there are a lot of pubs and bars in the town centre, along with good quality hotels. We were told that during the summer Lampedusa overflows with holidaymakers, mainly from northern parts of Italy.

I knew that I would shortly get to know another side of Lampedusa. I was prepared for that. We have spent a day and a half on Sicily beforehand and visited the Mediterranean Hope project in town called Scicli. We heard some frightening first hand testimonies of the situation on the sea between Europe and Africa. On our second day in Lampedusa we were told some more unbelievable stories.

Lampedusa is a place where two different worlds are combined. Underneath all its beauty, there is another world hidden away in the midst of its buildings that almost seem burned with an African wild sun.

We stood on the quayside where all refugees from Africa set foot when they step onto European land for the first time. They are anticipating somewhere that can change they fortune. Somewhere that can give them a new glimpse of their future.

The quayside is the first place of contact for the staff of the Observatory. When the ships with migrants arrive, the Mediterranean Hope workers stand and offer cups of tea and chat with them. Refugees arriving at Lampedusa are soon aware that the experiences awaiting them do not match up with their dreams.

I have a vivid memory of the emotions imparted by our guides. Dedicated to their work, they wanted us to understand more than what we could pick up from newspapers. They wanted us to know what it is like to be there, to understand the truth given with love.

We travelled the short distance to the ‘hot spot’ where migrants spend their first few days after coming to Lampedusa. It’s just a few barracks overfilled with people. We didn’t have permission to enter the site – two nuns living on the island are the only outsiders free to come and go – so instead we stood overlooking the buildings which are set into a natural valley. The unpleasantness is obvious even when looking from afar.

As we made our way back towards our transport, some of the hot spot residents walked past. Smiling widely, they related their scary journey with astonishing openness. They were heading out of the rural wilderness into town.

Downtown we saw the men walking around in groups or sometimes just sitting on the benches and watching the world pass by. It was as if they were looking for something.

Or perhaps they were processing the fact that their first contact with Europe was not working out how they imagined. Some had peaceful looking faces. Some seemed lost, shocked by their new reality. Local people have long ago grown to accept the presence of migrants, so now no one is really surprised by the pockets of young Africans sitting here and there across the town. Today children on Lampedusa are used to playing football with migrants.

Dom Carmelo is the local Catholic priest. He told us that lots of migrants attend his church even though they are not all Catholic. They stay there for hours. In silence. He told us that they cry so much the floor is wet with their tears. I can’t think about any more apt commentary.

At the Porto M project we saw a collection of objects left behind by refugees in the fishing boats that used to bring them to Lampedusa. The most common object was a Bible. What else?!

As we listened to how these objects came to be on the island, the view out the door of Porto M showed a big ship entering the port. Big trucks full of goods needed on the island were unloaded. Standing at the side of the ship, waiting to board were a group of maybe fifty migrants. All excited. In a row. In the sun. For a few hours. They were heading to Sicily and perhaps on to mainland Italy. They were lucky. Those who were leaving were watched by groups of other refugees.

I stood on the opposite side of the harbour. I represented another world. I came there to see them. We were alike in so many ways. Yet despite our sameness, we played incomparably different roles.

It was as if I was in a theatre. The drama taking place was really well written. It tore open the curtain of superficiality. It grasped the essence.

I wasn’t alone. There were few of us. A Catholic, a Quaker, someone from the Church of Scotland, one from the Anglican Communion, some from reformed traditions. We disagree on matters of theology. Emotions can be stirred about doctrine. But compared with the reality of the humanity I witnessed queuing up on the other side of the harbour, it all seemed to matter less than before.

I was overwhelmed by a series of questions: Who am I? What do I represent? Who are they and what do they represent?

Humanity is being questioned on Lampedusa. There is a need to find the right answers. We can feel partly responsible. We can also influence our societies. The migrants make us go beyond the field of our own beliefs and face the unpredictable reality of the human spirit. There is a need to recognise and acknowledge the signs of the time.

I’m writing these lines while others are arriving, reaching their promised land.

Over two days at Easter, more than 4,000 migrants arrived in Malta, Lampedusa, Sicily and southern Italy.

We don’t know how many set off and didn’t make it.