This article is going offer some insight into what I’ve been feeling whilst I have been away with Churches Together In Britain and Ireland. Opinions are purely my own, and do not reflect the view of CTBI. I also warn you that the content of this post can be graphic, please continue to read only if you feel able to do so.
Day One. Heathrow to Milan, Milan to Catania, Catania to Scicli Travel time: twelve and a half hours.
So today was hard on a good number of levels but I’ll start with the most obvious which is leaving a hotel at Heathrow Airport not long after half past four in the morning to make it to the terminal in time for check in. Anybody who knows me will be able to tell you I am not a ‘morning person’.
Arrival, check in and departure all went well and we were well on our way to Milan to catch a flight to Catania on Sicily. Travelling by minibus, we then travelled on to Scicli on the south of the island.
Once settled into the B&B we headed to the ‘Casa delle Culture’ which is a centre run by Mediterranean Hope.
The photos above show the outside of Casa delle Culture in Scicli.
A tour of the centre let us see their premises, staff, facilities and some of the refugees who were present at that time.
You might find that the preconceptions you have about the refugee crisis involve people actually migrating for business, work or to just have an easier life? The last statement is true, the people I have met are travelling for an easier life, but not a comfortable one. Life in some of the countries these people are coming from is as far removed from a British lifestyle as it possibly could be.
For example, I ate dinner with the refugees last night at the centre and I was sat with a young man named Omar who had travelled from Senegal to Lampedusa and then on to the secondary centre at Scicli. Omar had been beaten, raped and tortured during the trouble going on in Senegal so fled the country without his family and friends. Sitting with him, and getting around a language barrier with my schoolboy French, I learnt that all he wanted to do was to be safe after he fled Senegal with his father. Omar’s father died in 2015 fleeing the country. The way Omar spoke, the way he carries himself and the love that he showed a complete and total stranger like me is something I have never experienced before. I was sceptical before I came as to what I would find, those I would meet and the way that I would see the local people put faith into action. There’s a photo below of myself and Omar, but look at his smile, it’s not forced and his natural joy for life shines through. There is hope.
Omar and I.
The local Methodist president and local Methodist minister run the project in Scicli from a pastoral point of view and Franzo and Giovanna really are ministers of God’s love in the most radical of ways. Franzo showed us around the little Methodist church near the center and spoke about the church’s involvement in the project locally, he also went on to tell us that the local community had been sceptical about the refugees coming to Scicli.
The local people soon melted though after they heard the story locally in the paper about about the little girl pictured below called Sara. Sara’s mother fled from Sub-Saharan Africa while she was pregnant and Sara was the first child born at the centre in Scicli. This amazing story has captured the hearts of the local Sicilians and Sara has become somewhat of a local celebrity. The refugees and centre staff all adore Sara and treat like a little siater and after spending some time with her and her mother I very quickly came to realise why. Can you imagine being born into this situation and only knowing this as life? She was tired when this photo was taken with Franzo and I but I still wanted to share it.
Sara, Franzo and I.
Faith is key. Prayer is central. Grace is poured our. Love is freely given.
Monday showed me God’s plan for the people here, how it’s put into action is astounding. It was an emotionally draining day, it was a tiring day but it was a day filled with so much hope.
Day two. Scicli to Palermo, Palermo to Lampedusa. Travel time: seven hours.
It became apparent that easy days were the things of dreams.
Tuesday was a hard day for many reasons, but on a positive note I slept like a log having only had a few hours sleep the past few days.
Tuesday morning the group went to view the kindergarten which is run by the same Methodist church that run the Mediterranean Hope centre in Scicli.
The Methodist kindergarten logo.
The kindergarten is run by the church to provide childcare and education for all, including families who may have issues with affording fees, so they are asked to most what they’re able.
The same volunteers who work in the refugee centre in Scicli also work in the kindergarten if time allows and their dedication to humanity and doing God’s work is astounding.
Following on from the visit to the kindergarten we headed back to the Casa delle Culture for a quick cup of coffee, ornate least what we thought was going to be a quick cup of coffee.
While we were sat in the centre having coffee a young lady walked in to the lounge and was very quickly introduced to us as ‘Vicky’. Vicky was seventeen years old and sat with us and started to tell her story.
Vicky was from Nigeria, but she had lost both her mother and her father to illness, due to them being unable to buy medicine, and had moved into a house within her grandparents and four brothers. She dropped out of school to find a job to try and support her family but soon found that delivering newspapers wasn’t for her. Vicky became severely depressed and wanted to commit suicide, but resisted the urge to go through with it by fleeing the country with her best friend and her best friend’s boyfriend.
The three fled from Nigeria to Niger and then onto Libya. When they had gotten to Libya her best friend’s boyfriend abandoned them to head back to Nigeria and the girls were left alone in Libya.
In Libya they were kidnapped by men and were beaten and tortured. They were then told to call their families and ask for.money to release them. Vicky hadn’t spoken to her family and her family didn’t even know where she was. She was unable to pay. The men who had kidnapped Vicky quickly became aware of the situation.
Vicky was then sent to a “connection house” in which she met a other women from sub Saharan Africa. Vicky’s captors told her she would be working and the other women would teach her everything that she needed to know in order to work, and she would be working as a prostitute. She paid her money that she owed and they said they owed her more.
Vicky was trapped. Vicky was a prisoner. Vicky was raped.
She eventually fled when she was five months pregnant with a rapists baby to Tripoli where she was going to sail to Lampedusa. Her friend caught up with her before they set sail on different boats and had an almost identical story. Her friend sailed three hours before Vicky did but sadly her boat capsised a number of.miles off the coast and all of the refugees drowned, her pregnant friend included.
Vicky was rescued in the middle of the sea by a humanitarian rescue boat which had been in the area and brought her to Lampedusa and then on to Scicli.
Hearing he tell her story was harrowing, horrific and an honour. She is such a bright teenager, but has had one hell of a life so far. I’ve written a poem below based on Vicky’s story.
Sometimes I wish that life was great,
And often reminisce,
Then I remember what you’ve seen,
And realise it is.
Your life has been turned upside down,
I’ll never comprehend,
The things you’ve seen and those you’ve lost,
Not even at my end.
Your story filled my heart with pain,
My soul, it mourned with you,
Your unborn child it does not know,
The things that you’ve been through.
A family torn apart by death,
Shall never be the same,
A mere shadow of it’s self,
Or like a child who’s lame.
You parents gone, just siblings left,
All of you had to eat,
Worked and toiled for food and drink,
In searing, white hot heat.
Across the arid land, you fled,
With friends whom you held dear,
Although they are not here with you,
In Him they’re always near.
You thought you traveled safely,
Alone in endless thought,
At night they came in numbers great,
And you were bound and caught.
Extortion was their only plan,
Your family they tried,
They did not know that they were gone,
And so again, you cried.
At last a plan was sought and hatched,
Hard work there was to do,
In time you’d come to pay your debt,
The currency was you.
The house they took you to seemed nice,
The women friendly too,
“You’ll be safe” is what say said,
“But there is work to do”.
The women taught you everything,
Your innocence to destroy,
The men who came did as they wished,
And treated you as a toy.
Your time with Libyan working girls,
A debt there was to pay,
A smugglers greed or your own life,
The dark of night or day?
The pain you must have suffered there,
The indignity and shame,
Night after night, for freedom’s sake,
Yet you were not to blame.
A crime against your very being,
Your body bears the scars,
Attacked and raped, and forced to pay,
For smuggling out in cars.
And yet you worked and paid your debt,
A boat there was to be,
Your best friend’s death you witnessed there,
Quickly swallowed by the sea.
This was it, your moment came,
You travelled quickly there,
A boat was waiting at the shore,
You climbed aboard with care.
The vessel traveled quickly,
Through the water of the sea,
Although a problem with the ship,
There soon appeared to be.
The coastguard boat rushed to your aid,
A welcome sight at last,
To take you to the nearest place,
Though no triumphal blast.
And so you came to this warm isle,
Your belly full of life,
The man who gave this child to you,
Did not make you his wife.
An outcast in you family’s eyes,
A shame for all to see,
A child who did not ask for much,
But crossed the dangerous sea.
Your family don’t know if you live,
Or if you’ve had your child,
At least your safe and home at last,
Not travelling through the wild.
The love you found since coming here,
Is plain for all to see,
A family, home, community,
A place where you can be.
I some times wish my life were great,
But I know that’s just me,
I’ll always hold you in my thoughts,
Though you’ve forgotten me.
Lunch then followed with a swift transfer of only four hours to Palermo on the north coast to catch a flight to Lampedusa. The island of Lampedusa is the first port in the Mediterranean and one of the humanitarian corridor entry points for refugees. We met the centre staff over dinner and were shown some of this beauitful island.
Day three: Lampedusa
The day started with a quick cup of coffee an croissants before heading out the office of Mediterranean Hope in Lampedusa.
Via Roma, Lampedusa.
The project at Lampedusa which is run by Mediterranean Hope aims more as a point of observation into the flow of migrants and studying the patterns, flow and movement of migrants across the Mediterranean. We also learn the Italian term that is used for the migrants and it’s “ragazzi” which translates at the informal English “guys”.
The other objective of the team in Lampedusa is to “Humanise” the European border on the island. On arrival, refugees/migrants/ragazzi are shuffled off of ships at the dock and moved swiftly to the “hotpsot” centre in the middle of the island which will house them temporarily. The team led by Martha aim to supply the migrants with a blanket or something to drink. They usually take tea, and being British and playing to stereotypes, this is something I could wholeheartedly endorse. This is possibly the first human kindness they will have seen for weeks or months and the team make it known that the ragazzi are welcome in Europe. We also experienced a brief meeting before heading off for a tourist type tour of the island during which we saw the entire island as it’s tiny! The highlight was the walk to the “Rabbit Island” which is just off the south shore of the island of Lampedusa.
Rabbit island and beaches.
Lunch then happened and we experienced some wonderful Italian food.
The afternoon brought a trip to the Santuria di Madre Santo di Porto Salvo di Lampedusa, which is a shrine to the Virgin Mary of the safe port of Lampedusa, to which there is history attached, but I’ll cover that in another post sometime soon. The sanctuary was beautiful and showcased some of the prettiest parts of the island.
Later in the afternoon we visited the “hotpsot” which is the centre where the ragazzi are supposedly held during their time in Lampedusa, although the authorities locally turn a blind eye if the ragazzi get outside of the fences and into the town. The centre is buried in a valley in the very centre of the island away from the tourist centres.
The “hotspot” in Lampedusa.
Feonthw “hotspot” we travelled to one of the docks in the harbour which was controlled by the Italian military. This is the first place that ragazzi land in Lampedusa and it’s not exactly a hospitable place.
The dock in Lampedusa harbour.
After visiting the dock, it was time to grab coffee and reflect on the things we’d seen and experienced before heading to dinner and to relax for the evening.
Day four: Lampedusa
Again, breakfast quickly.
The morning again started with meet the Mediterranean Hope staff in a coffee house, where we had a brief meeting before heading to another meeting and fave finding session with Don Carmelo, the parish Priest of Lampedusa.
Don Carmelo was inspirational on so many levels for me, and the quote which summed it up was when he said “You meet the very flesh of Christ here in this pace, trying to fulfill the need of the local community”. The way that the local Catholic church and the FCEI project works together in Lampedusa is truly remarkable and should be a case study for local ecumenism across the globe.
Lunch then followed the meeting after we’d had chance for some photographs with Don Carmelo.
The group at the Catholic Church of Lampedusa.
After lunch a visit to the Lampedusa cemetery was on the cards and on a personal level it was one of the hardest experiences of the week and brought me to tears at a couple of points. Mediterranean Hope have laid nearly fifty people to rest in the cemetery at Lampedusa who have arrived “senza vita”.
Photos from the cemetery.
The last photo shows the unmakred grave in the cemetery which holds the bodies of more than twenty people who lost their lives whilst fleeing across the Mediterranean. All of those buried within the grave arrived in Lampedusa with no.life left in them, their spirits gone. This was incredibly poignant moment for me and I felt the need to stay and pray for their friends and family who wouldn’t know their fate. The was incredibly moving to be there and to find the time to just pray. The cemetery visit was overwhelming in a lot of ways which is one of the reasons I ended up writing the following poem whilst being sat there.
The Unmarked Grave
Here in an unmarked grave,
There lies the bones of those,
Whose lives were ended quickly,
Near to the olive groves.
They came from somewhere different,
A place we do not know,
They fled for their own safety,
Before they’d chance to grow.
Amongst them are our brothers,
Our sisters too are here,
We didn’t hear them calling,
In times of strife and fear.
The way they came was treacherous,
A journey fraught with pain,
Across the rough and rolling sea,
And through the wind and rain.
At last across the sea they saw,
An island jutting out,
Great joy had filled their hearts at last,
They gave rejoicing shouts.
Upon a boat moored at the quay,
They sidled quickly off,
A new life waits for them they thought,
But the Europeans scoffed.
But all who came did not arrive,
Great numbers were the loss,
Man or woman, Young or old,
Death couldn’t give a toss.
Their stories are unknown to us,
Their lives are gone for naught,
We should have loved them as our own,
Not shunned in reckless thought.
Their time on earth was soon cut short,
Their bodies slowly rot,
In unmarked graves in graveyards here,
A resting place ’tis not.
We do not know their faces,
We do not know their names,
Their lives remain unknown to us,
And so it shall remain.
Our own indifference killed them,
Far from our ivory tower,
We did not care or want to know,
For ’tis the life of power.
Yet still they come, to this our land,
In search of lives made new,
I’d welcome them without a doubt,
My question is “would you”?
Following the cemetery visit the delegation headed for a tour of “The Door of Europe” which is a monument on the coast of Lampedusa which commemorates the migrant crisis and also shows them a form of welcome as well as remebering those who have perished on the journey to Europe. The monument is a place of hope, sadness and memories and is truly unique in the way it seeks to remember those without names who have perished on the journey.
The day then ended with structured activities as we needed time to reflect on the things that we had seen through the day. Much needed to be done. We ate dinner with the Mediterranean Hope staff again and headed to bed for an early flight to Palermo.
Day five: Lampedusa to Palermo. Travel time : two and a half hours.
Friday began with a very early flight from Lampedusa to Palermo which is only an hour of flight time.
Upon arrival, we were whisked off to the Centro Diaconale Valdese in Palermo which is run by the Waldensian church in Italy. The church and the centre function in conjunction and union with the Methodist Church in Italy.
View from the fifth floor of the Centro Diaconale do Valdese in Palermo.
We had a very quick coffee and pastry breakfast followed by the centre manager discussing the work that the centre in Palermo actually do. The centre currently houses two families of refugees and is helping them to become autonomous parts of Italian society by putting the children and adults through the Terza Media qualifications, sorting out Italian identity cards and working on the Italian Language whilst also offering bursaries to the children so that they are able to attend the private Waldensian school at the centre in Palermo.
A tour of the city followed taking in some spectacular architecture which is not to my personal taste but could be easily appreciated. Cromwell would have had a field day.
Dinner followed suit and some fellowship time with Rev.Tim and JJ Tenclay and their daughters Petra and Sofia, members of the Reformed Church of America who are serving the Waldensians in Sicily. The work that JJ does is primarily social work with the families that are arriving at the centre in Palermo whilst Tim ministers to three congregations in the surrounding area.
Dinner followed with fantastic conversation, reflection and fellowship, we were really made to feel like part of the family. Bed backoned and another day dawned.
Day six: Palermo to London. Travel time: seven hours.
The day started with a very short prayer meeting and breakfast before heading in our own separate ways. A day of travelling which involves a piano at Palermo airport.
We arrived back at Heathrow and went our separate ways, but then young men with whom I travelled will always be dear to me and therefore let this blessing to with them.
The time has come for us to say,
Our heartfelt parting words,
This place for us shall always be,
A dear part of the world.
The dove of peace is here with us,
It guards our journey home,
Good times we’ve spent in fellowship,
But now it’s time to go.
The time we’ve spent together,
Will change the world around,
Through love and faith, and inner grace,
We’ll use the strength we’ve found.
We pray for one another,
For we are one in Him,
Who guards our hearts, our minds, our life,
Until the light grows dim.
The blessing of the Father,
The blessing of the Son,
The holy spirit goes with you,
The godhead three in one.