By: Fr. Domenico Guarino
Palermo, February 2018
In Palermo, Sicily thousands of migrants arrive each year searching for escape from violence and the chance at a happy life. By networking with other organizations, both ecclesial and social, the Comboni Missionaries are working to recognize and defend the rights of these immigrants and refugees.
Since September 2013, the port of Palermo, Sicily, has become one of several Mediterranean landing spots where migrants from Africa and other countries arrive. As the migrants reach shore, the Comboni Missionaries and the Comboni Lay Missionaries are there to offer a hospitable welcome. They provide the people with welcome kits filled with clothes and food. But this meeting isn’t about just fulfilling a physical need, the missionaries also try to establish a connection with the migrants.
People who decide to leave their home and make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, do so out of desperation. They are often escaping unspeakable violence and hardship. Our missionaries are there to listen and help. They collect information on how the migrants are treated after arriving in the port, especially since they are already burdened by indescribable experiences suffered before or during the journey, and they are often clueless about what awaits them in Italy.
Unfortunately, along with the living, the bodies of those who died at sea also arrive in Palermo. From the very beginning, our concern has been to give these individuals a dignified burial in the cemetery of Palermo. Every year in November, on All Souls Day, civil society and representatives from various religions come together for an inter-religious service in memory of migrants who lost their life at sea.
A spreading culture of exclusion has hastened the death of these people. Many countries throughout Europe have policies that seek to hurt and exclude migrants, refugees, and immigrants. Today, people feel free of any social responsibility, any tie with others, any common objective. It is urgent to focus again on the stories and the lives of migrants in order to stand up to racism and xenophobia. By focusing on the individual people, we can push aside prejudices based on false assumptions and on information controlled and manipulated by some of the media.
Through activities we promote in schools and in parishes, we present the stories of migrants by retracing the various phases of their journeys: the reasons why they left, their stay in Libya which upends their lives forever, crossing the Mediterranean and their arrival in Italy, where they end up being mere numbers. To go beyond the lies, to recognize and defend the rights of migrants as persons, are all very important steps in the building of an inter-cultural and multi-cultural society.
In cooperation with civic and church organizations we provide lodging for the migrants, and welcoming programs. While being processed, migrants will remain in centers for an extraordinary amount of time. There are few places available in the Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR). In many cases, the acceptance of migrants often becomes a lottery. To reflect on the migrants means to rethink our social, political and ecclesial structures. It means to have the courage to change the current order of things.
Finally, the constant element of our presence is the prophetic denunciation of people and institutions who speculate on the hopelessness of the migrants, exploiting their labor, or of those, in the political underbrush, who end up grabbing funds destined for the arrival process.
Calvin wrote, “Any time you build a wall, think of what you leave outside.” What today looks like a protective structure, tomorrow could become a prison. Life develops and grows beyond the wall. But, if fear is contagious, so are courage and hope.