Report on a CTBI return trip to Italy

CTBI’s Christine Elliott visited Italy with Bala Gnanapragasam (who is now vice president of the Methodist Church in Britain) between 17 and 21 April 2018.

Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency asks the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
But, conscience asks the question, is it right?
Martin Luther King

The above quote is used on all the leaflets and publicity of Mediterranean Hope for the Federation of Protestant Churches of Italy (FCEI). Together with the Community of Sant’Egidio, they work on a programme of Humanitarian Corridors. This is done through an agreement with the Italian Government to bring refugees, mostly from Syria, to Italy safely and swiftly and to receive them into an hospitable and caring environment.

Bala is taking as his theme for his year of office the Desmond Tutu statement that he is not just an optimist, but a Prisoner of Hope. The visit to Italy was to experience the nature of transformative hope that the Italian churches believe is their calling and in response to their question of conscience, ‘Is it right?’

The visit began and ended in Rome with visits to the FCEI meeting Luca Maria Negro the General Secretary, Mirella Manocchio, the President of the Methodist Church in Italy, Guilia Gori, Alessia Melillo and Fiona Kendall of Mediterranean Hope. (Fiona is a joint mission partner of the Church of Scotland and the Methodist Church in Britain.)

We met members of the Sant’Egidio community, spending time with Monica Attias and finally participating in the prayers with the community when we were formally welcomed. In between, we visited two main centres of work in Sicily, the Centro Diaconale La Noce in Palermo, where the Director Anna Ponente welcomed us warmly, and the Casa delle Culture in Scicli with Giovanne Scifo.

In all places we were inspired, challenged, and heartened by the commitment and dedication of those we met, and equally saddened and in some cases shocked by the stories we heard. In one of the houses for unaccompanied minors was a poster of an iceberg showing the size of the berg above and below the sea with the tag, ‘This is Just the Tip’. How true.

The sinking of the boat off Lampedusa in 2013 when 366 people drowned was the impetus for FCEI to begin the work of Mediterranean Hope. Until very recently, and only when the ‘HotSpot’ reception centre on the island was closed after a (possibly deliberate) fire, MH staff had been a constant presence meeting and greeting refugees as they arrived and were processed. The principle they have worked on has been one of welcome and friendship.

The island has this amazing sculpture on its foreshore, The Gate of Europe. It is a large open gate with nothing to bar entry. This sculpture embodies the MH attitude of open welcome.

It was very sad to hear Marta Bernadini describe how with considerable regret that they have had to leave Lampedusa, for now, but that move away from the first place of arrival in Europe hasn’t in any way lessened her commitment and work.

The policy of open welcome is very much at the heart of the two centres in Palermo and Scicli. In both places they have welcomed Syrian families through the Humanitarian Corridors programme and are also working with the local authorities supporting the programme of settlement for unaccompanied minors. Most of these minors are boys in the 15-18 age bracket.

The challenges of getting to Sicily are huge, one of the lads we spoke to told us it took him 5 months to get across sub-Saharan Africa and up into Libya and once there, he endured several turns in ‘jail’ before finally making it across the Mediterannean to safety. The resilience of these young lads is profound, and their hope for the future, their future, helped us in our understanding of what being a Prisoner of Hope means.

In Palermo, there is a culture of acceptance around, thanks to the Mayor of the city who has made it a personal campaign by always going to the dock when a boat is due in and standing with his arms stretched wide and calling out ‘welcome to Palermo, you are not refugees but you are now Palermites’. This has made it easier for both those who work with the refugees and the refugees themselves, but that doesn’t mean that the welcome is universal.

The role of Humanitarian Corridors as reception into Europe, in its fullest sense, is the key to the work undertaken by Mediterranean Hope and Community Sant’Egidio. The European Union protects the rights of people to claim asylum and upholds the dignity of human existence and condemns any inhumane and degrading treatment of such seekers. However, this only happens once refugees land in Europe.

In far too many cases those arriving in Europe have paid traffickers and undergone dramatic and ghastly voyages. This in turn seems to have led to the view that refugees and asylum seekers are somehow criminals. Thus, the goal of the HC is to avert deaths at sea and the danger of human trafficking by opening safe and legal channels for people who are particularly vulnerable and in dire need. This is particularly so in Lebanon where Syrian families are left in limbo.

This is a wonderful story for a comparatively few fortunate people, but the change to these peoples’ lives is dramatic. As one of the helpers said, it might seem like a drop in the ocean, but it is better to be a part of the ocean than not at all. Piero joined the staff team at Scicli despite not feeling any particular connection to the church. He said that his heart led him into the work not his wallet! The compelling urge to work for Mediterranean Hope came from a belief that this was an organisation that was actually doing something positive and practical, and that he could put his heart and soul into the work. And, he certainly does.

The Il Noce centre is a place of real refuge; a place to come and talk and make things like the ‘cloth jewels’ made from scraps of material into something beautiful, a place where health care is attended to, where children can play freely and safely, a place where everyone is equal.

In Scicli, the Casa delle Culture is a centre close to the heart of the town, within a very short walking distance of the Town Hall and main street. They have a double-fronted shop window with four floors of accommodation above. This open area is well used as a gathering place and somewhere to have food and celebrations together, refugees and towns people. It too provides opportunities for learning, working and eating together, play, connecting and belonging.

Everywhere we went, it was clear that those involved felt that they were beneficiaries as well as helpers. Those who were the beneficiaries all spoke of wanting to give back to the community and to be good citizens.

It was inspiring to meet so many committed and passionate people who achieve remarkable things through compassion, hard work and care, embodying the gospel call to love our neighbours as ourselves.

It was an honour to accompany Bala on this visit and I am confident that as he travels around the Methodist Connexion during his year as Vice President the things he witnessed and experienced will be help shape and inform his desire to inspire people to be ‘Prisoners of Hope’.

Christine Elliott