A testimony from the first meeting of those who welcome
A meeting on the Realities of Hospitality in Italy happened in Sacrofano, on the hills north of Rome, between the 15, and 17th February. Organised by Caritas Italiana, Centro Astalli and Fondazione Migrantes, more than 700 people – families, volunteers, workers, associations, consecrated persons, parishes – came together to talk and exchange ideas based on their own experience of hospitality.
The focus was not on dealing with the topic of welcoming migrants and refugees through lectures or lessons, but rather from the people themselves, with their own experiences. We came from all over Italy with the desire to meet and encounter each other. What motivates a family, a parish or religious community, a couple to open their doors and hearts to people from war-torn areas, men, women and children marked by persecution and suffering, people of another culture, religion, language, way of thinking… ultimately, to strangers? Ultimately, it’s the encounter.
Unanimously, we agreed that this type of meeting makes us question and makes us uncomfortable because we are uprooting the clichés and our preconceptions and instead, giving way to the curiosity to get to know one another. Of the numerous testimonies I heard, I was struck by the gestures of a gentleman. Antonio*, along with his wife, had been meeting for years with a group of friends to share experiences of prayer, followed by a friendly meal. Everything went as normal until, in 2016, they heard the appeal that Pope Francis addressed to Europe from Lesbos. After that trip, the Pope took three families of 12 Afghan refugees on his plane returning to Rome, including 6 children.
The manner of the group of friends changed, mostly – Antonio says – after seeing one of the children who landed at Fiumicino crying with joy. In solidarity they felt they must do something together. He emphasised that they had to be able to respond to the Pope’s appeal and to the silent request of that child’s tears, as Christians and as people. Where to start? Well, they decided to contact the Community of Sant’Egidio which has active humanitarian corridors with Syria, and offered to welcome refugees. After a few days, they received the news that a Syrian Muslim family was ready to leave.
Turmoil, distress and real fear took over then: it’s one thing to imagine oneself welcoming people, it’s another thing to have four people in front of you, father, mother and two small children, to take care of. They remained firm in their resolution and thanks also to the profound desire to ‘do something for these people’, overcame the stalemate and accepted what was going to happen.
There is a project in place to help them. Within the first year of their stay, the community have to try to accompany this family to a level of semi-autonomy. They work to be able to pay tax themselves and to be able to rent a house, “not a shack outside the village to save expenses, but the same we would have wanted for our children,” he said. They furnish it to the nines and the family arrives.
The first thing they thought of was to introduce the newcomers to the village community. They organized a public meeting, talk about their project, listen to their fellow citizens, to let them have their say. Many there were perplexed and some against it, but the fact that they were received by this group of respectable people calms everyone and paves the way so that the town hall and the mayor have a ceremony of great symbolic and concrete value, officially welcoming the family in the village. The children were enrolled in school, the youngest in nursery school, the others in elementary school; parents were given the opportunity to take an Italian language course. The whole family was visited by Antonio’s friends and others begin to get close too: the mistrust slowly melts. As the months passed, a course was proposed to the head of the family to adapt his skills as a blacksmith to European standards, because this was his job before he was forced to leave Syria. The man proved to be very capable, so much so that he ended up being hired indefinitely in a local company.
A little more than a year has passed now. This story, born from the feeling of ‘having to do something’ by a group of friends who hear an appeal from Lesbos and notice an emotional moment, becomes intertwined and becomes the reality of a Syrian family perfectly inserted in a social, cultural and productive setting that not only has started to call it home, but that also helps to maintain it. What possible ideas do we get from this experience?
Above, I wrote about the reality of encounter. Through the daily meetings, it was possible to get to know one other, and foster a commitment and responsibility in managing diversity, which is precious and unavoidable, free now from the fear of the unknown, of the stranger. A fear that, as Pope Francis says, “Is the origin of every slavery and every dictatorship, because the violence of dictatorships grows, thanks to the fear of peoples.”
Everyone at the meeting talked about the importance of networking, of making and creating a network to avoid being or feeling alone in the face of difficulties. Networking, it seems to me, is one of the most precious and rich aspects of the Sacrofano meeting. The many welcoming realities on the ground, from the very large networks to the individual realities, finally meet in person, and share the common commitment to continue and help this type of meeting grow.
We also talked about the necessity and the importance of not taking anything for granted, but rather to seek support and inform oneself and inform others. It was interesting to note the presence of “two Italies” of hospitality. In fact, while in the north, the state, in its various ways, is felt to be present and is consulted or seen as a partner for help; in the South this presence is rather absent, and so the tendency is to make a commitment is done more on a voluntary basis.
Finally, the strong message “We are here too!” resounded vibrantly. Italy is not just pushing back at the borders and waving the flag of the closure of the ports: Italy is woven by the many people who have welcomed, have been welcomed and welcome others, even if this reality makes less noise. The invitation, therefore, is to nourish hope, because as Pope Francis reminded us in the homily, “It is not easy to enter the others’ culture, put oneself in the shoes of people so different from us, understand their thoughts and experiences. Thus, often, we renounce the encounter with the other and we raise barriers to defend ourselves: giving up an encounter is not human! We are called to overcome fear in order to open ourselves to the encounter.” It can be done; you only have to try it.
*names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.