Accompanying them at every stage of their journey to Europe, and giving the attention and care they need on their arrival. Such is the presence of missionaries among the immigrants.
Already this year, more than 184,000 migrants have arrived in Europe by sea, up from nearly 49,000 for the same five-month period last year as the refugee crisis rages on.
“Nobody likes leaving their family, home, culture or environment to go to a foreign land and yet it happens because of the lack of peace and security: these are the reasons why people will put their lives at risk…”, says Fr. Jemil Araya, a Comboni missionary living in Cairo, who offers pastoral care and assistance to migrants on the move.
Many of these migrants are Eritrean, like him, but also Ethiopian and Sudanese. For these people, Egypt is a stepping stone towards Europe, sometimes it is the final stop-off before they cross the Mediterranean. This is where some of the approximately 50 victims (according to UNHCR estimates), who lost their lives in the recent boat sinking in the Strait of Sicily, came from. The news of the tragedy quickly reached Egypt, says Fr. Jemil, but it did not discourage many from setting off anyway. More than 1,260 people have already died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe this year, according to UNHCR figures. For the missionaries who have regular contact with immigrants, this determination to go ahead at all costs, ignoring the risks, is a pastoral challenge.
A tunnel with no way out
When they finally arrive at their destination, it is often not what they dreamed of. There are fears, frustration and even detention.
Fr. Kouevi Adjétey Louis Mawoulolo – better known as Fr. Louis – a Togolese Comboni Missionary, has for the past two years been part of a working team set up by the Jesuit Refugee Service and concerns himself with migrants and refugees in London and in the two main detention centres at Colnbrook and Harmonsworth near Heathrow International Airport.
In these centres, amid high levels of security, those migrants who, for various reasons, have problems with the immigration services, are detained with 500 others at Harmonsworth and around 400 at Colnbrook. Ninety per cent of the detainees comprise young people between 19 and 40 years of age. Most are from Africa, Asia and the Middle-East. There is also a small minority from Latin America. Contrary to all the detention rules in other European countries, England continues to detain immigrants indefinitely, with no guarantee of an eventual residence permit. This system is experienced by the detainees as real psychological torture, with damage to their mental health. Not having any idea of how long they must wait is like ‘living in total darkness’, or like being in a tunnel with no way out and no light at its end.
“Our work is greatly limited by the complexity of the judicial system – says Fr. Louis – In both centres we have places fitted out to meet those immigrants who want to speak with us. Our first task is to listen to their stories and to accompany them. This we do in an atmosphere of human encounter and trust which helps the detainees to confide in us more personally. Very often, this is the first time they can get things off their chests without fear of being judged, betrayed or reported to the authorities of the Centre. For those who know no one in London or who have no one to visit them, this encounter is even more meaningful and helpful, countering loneliness and reminding them that they are important as persons with lives of their own”.
“We also have two lawyers with us – Fr. Louis continues – to facilitate the documentation process in court. Sometimes we liaise between the detainees and their relatives in London, the UK or abroad. Fr. Louis also adds that spiritual accompaniment is provided for Catholics. Celebrating Holy Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are also part of our ministry.
Castel Volturo is just a few kilometres from Naples, Italy, along the Domitian coast. It is a piece of Africa transplanted into the heart of the Campania Region. Since 1997, a community of Comboni Missionaries has been present there where they run the parish of Our Lady Of Help. It is a constant commitment to serve the community of immigrants.
“In a population of 25,000 inhabitants, we have more than 7,000 undocumented immigrants. Some have been there for more than ten years and still have not got their papers in order. They are worse off now than when they first arrived”, says Fr. Antonio Guarino, a missionary with many years of experience in the African countries of Zambia and Uganda. He adds: “This uncertainty creates tension and anger. More problems are developing such as psychological unease among large numbers of immigrants. Unfortunately, they have not been sufficiently helped to adapt to a new, strange environment. Many come here with ‘dreams’ but are faced with a very harsh reality”.
The task of the missionary is to accompany the immigrants both spiritually and psychologically. “It is a fundamental requirement – the missionary priest explains – that the immigrants are welcomed. We must be a community where the various ethnic groups, and not only those from Africa, can meet together and share their lives and their respective journeys of faith”. The Comboni Missionaries, through the Black and White association, with its pre-school, post-school and school for dressmaking and tailoring, endeavour to respond concretely to the needs of the immigrants. Another important factor is that of networking with other Church organisations and with civil society to respond to the challenges of the phenomenon of immigration.
Recently, about forty Comboni Missionaries serving migrants in Europe met to exchange experiences and testimonies. At the conclusion of their meeting, they issued a statement.
‘We, Comboni Missionaries, working in various countries in Europe, want to express our solidarity with our brothers and sisters who come to us as they flee from war, persecution, dictatorships and environmental crises’, said the statement.
‘We state that, accepting the stranger – the statement continues – as Pope Francis has strongly underlined: ‘accepting that refugees are the living flesh of Christ’, is a fundamental dictate of the Gospel. We also wish to stress that our openness to others, to their cultural and religious diversity is a source of growth which enriches our identity as human beings and as Christians’.
‘While Europe is busy building walls to block the exodus of refugees – an exodus determined mainly by wars in the Middle East and in Libya – too little is being done to put an end to these conflicts that are the reason for this forced migration. Therefore, we demand that our governments stop the sale of weapons to warring nations and exercise pressure on these countries so that they may reach a peaceful solution’.
The statement concludes: ‘As Christians, disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, we renew our commitment to the building of a more just and liveable world for all’. (C.C.)