Important Insights from Lampedusa

door of europe News images 554x415Jake Convery, United Reformed Church Youth Assembly representative to the URC's General Assembly and Mission Council, recently returned from a Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) fact-finding trip to visit refugee projects in Italy.

The professional organist and music teacher was one of seven young men from churches across Britain and Ireland to hear first-hand testimony from refugees and support workers on the islands of Sicily and Lampedusa, the ‘door of Europe’.

Jake, organist at Congleton URC and director of music at Saint Andrew's URC, Hampstead, said: ‘The trip to Italy was eye opening and educational as well as being incredibly heartbreaking.’

On Lampedusa, Jake – and the rest of the group –  spoke with the local Catholic priest Don Carmelo La Magra who opens his church for prayer each day and welcomes refugees to participate in its regular services. A phrase that the priest used has remained with Jake ever since: ‘I meet the very flesh of Christ in the faces of the migrants.’

Jake is keen to ensure that as many people as possible know the continuing story of what’s happening in the Mediterranean. ‘The trip was something I felt called to do. I did a lot of reading about the situation and, of course, we’ve all seen it on our screens but then I was there, in the thick of it, and it was completely different. To put names and faces to the desperate people arriving – and to hear their stories when you’re there – is beyond harrowing.

‘We went out there in partnership with the Mediterranean Hope organisation which is run by the Federation of the Evangelical Churches in Italy (FCEI). It’s astonishing to think of the scale of what’s been going on, and what is still continuing today. The indigenous population of Lampedusa is about 6,500 but more than 572,000 people have come through it in the past three-and-a-half years. There is a small dedicated team of people in action and the work they do is hard and gruelling; I found that I really needed time to reflect after having been there.’

Jake has a challenge for the United Reformed Church. ‘I would like the URC as a whole to make some sort of commitment to the work that happens out there and to truly appreciate that they’re dealing with real people with real needs. The whole mindset in Lampedusa and Sicily was, “We’re not dealing with a migrant, we’re not dealing with a refugee, we are caring for human beings who are hungry and cold.”

‘I want people to remember this is an ongoing issue and it was an honour to be alongside people whose lives are as intricate, fragile and delicate as our own. I want to motivate people to get engaged in this. That might be in a practical way, through volunteer programmes for young people, through prayer, through raising awareness of the issues at General Assembly and Mission Council and synods. I know the news agenda moves quickly but I get so frustrated about what, to me, amounts to media silence on it. Granted, the situation is not as bad but it’s still bad. I’m hoping that the URC Youth Council’s youth executive will think about taking some action on a practical level as well as through all-important prayer. I’m still very raw about the things I’ve seen during this trip but I’m going to be candidating for ministry within the next 12 months  and I’m sure this experience will be something that sticks with me and will feed what I do in future.’

Overland Balkan routes into Europe are all but closed. After the signing of the EU agreement with Turkey last April, the primary entry point into Europe switched from Greece to the central Mediterranean, with the majority of people crossing by sea into Italy from sub-Saharan Africa. More than four in five (83%) of first time asylum seekers in the European Union in 2016 were less than 35 years old.

Alan Meban coordinates CTBI’s Focus on Refugees project and co-led the ecumenical delegation. He explained: ‘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.

‘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.

On Lampedusa, the group:

heard from the Mediterranean Hope staff at their ‘Observatory’ who greet refugees with tea and blankets as they disembark the search and rescue boats in Lampedusa harbour;

talked to recently arrived young men from Nigerian, Gambia and Senegal who were waiting to be transferred to Sicily where they could claim asylum;

observed the refugee ‘hot-spot’ that 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 now been marked;

spoke with the local Catholic priest Don Carmelo La Magra

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 delegation:

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.

All of those who took part in the CTBI trip will now document their visit through photographs, written reflections and recommendations to be published on the Focus on Refugees and the CTBI websites. Jake is also blogging about his experiences and reflections:: 

Photo credit: © Damian Jackson