Imagine a life very different from yours and mine. Imagine being a teenage girl living in an African nation that is beset with violence and extreme poverty. Your parents are good and loving people, but the circumstances of life are overwhelming.
Girls are often kidnapped and held for ransom by gangs. If a family cannot pay the ransom, the girl may be sold–trafficked–to a gang in a distant city. She may be repeatedly raped. If she becomes pregnant, she may be tossed to the street, homeless, penniless and left to fend for herself and her baby. She will do what is necessary to survive.
She will turn to prostitution to save enough money for escape. It’s the only work she can do. She will not go back home because she would bring trouble and shame to her family as an unwed mother and prostitute. Her only hope might be to escape to Europe which is generally known to be civil and welcoming. Europeans themselves have endured trauma in the past. Many escaped war conditions to find welcome in North or South American nations. Those here remember that their family members were able to rebuild their lives in new places. Europeans have traditionally opened their doors to others seeking opportunities for new life, just as Americans have.
The young African woman now has two children to care for. She has heard of others like her who left Africa for Europe by boat. Boats regularly leave from Libya where the government turns a blind eye to extortion and the dangers of unregulated transport. Libya is on the Mediterranean Sea, within reach of southern Italy. If she can get to Libya, she has an opportunity for life in Europe and freedom for herself and her children. In Libya she will work again for months or years to save for the boat. On paying everything she has, she is given a ticket for a boat, but learns the boat is nothing more than a rubber raft overstuffed with 60 people. They will drift for days in the intense sun. They will not have food or water beyond the first two days. They will become sick and some will die beside her. In harsh weather, some will fall overboard and drown, and the children are especially vulnerable. The young woman’s older child will be tossed overboard by wind and waves and cannot be saved. The grief and loss is unimaginable. This is a floating hell, and she has paid with everything she has to get here.
There are rescue ships that patrol the Mediterranean to save lives. They have food on-board and water and medicine provided by the donations of caring people, and they will transport these migrants to a place of safety. Governments are closing borders, however, and only a few will be granted asylum. Some will live in camps. A few will be given the opportunity for starting over.
Imagine the church stepping in to help; followers of Jesus working to care for the sojourner, feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger. They will work with government agencies to provide housing, food, medicine and education for up to a year, allowing the young woman and her baby to start again in a safe place. Her grief remains; all she wants is safety and security for herself and her child.
Yesterday, a young woman arrived from an African nation to Casa delle Culture (House of Cultures) in southern Italy where I am volunteering. I don’t know if any of the circumstances above apply to her situation, but it is likely that her story connects with that of others who have arrived here. Whatever her story turns out to be, it is no doubt filled with terror and heartache.
I worked with others to prepare a bedroom for her. It is a simple room with a twin bed, a bedside table, a lamp, and two wooden chairs. There is a portable closet for hanging and storing clothes, but she arrived without much. The bedroom is in a suite that has two other bedrooms and three other residents, one being a baby of 3 months. The suite has a simple shared kitchen and two bathrooms.
She was given clean linens for the bed, several blankets, and a few pots and dishes for cooking. She will be provided basic food and have access to medical care, and within a few days will begin attending school to learn Italian. She will have a team surrounding her to navigate the legal system, help with any emerging need, and encourage her on her way to citizenship and a productive life.
If she had arrived with children, they would be provided childcare and enrichment activities while the parent is in classes. And if the children were school-aged, they would be enrolled in the local school where kids of many cultures seem to mingle with ease. But beyond these life essentials, those who come to the Casa find a warmth and welcome that helps their troubled souls to rest and heal. She will live within a nurturing community.
Church and government are working together to make this possible. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here, to represent the followers of Jesus, and to help where I can.