Tuesday, October 7, 2014

One Month Arrived, a Lifetime of Growth

I arrived in Rome, Italy, to start my second year of YASC on Sept. 13, 2014. I arrived at Fiumicino Airport on a big jet plane - a plane where I sat in a comfortable chair, was given yummy food and drink, and watched as many movies as the time would allow in a 12-hour flight.  I even put my seat back for most of the flight without having a drink poured all over me!

Myself, Rev. Austin Rios and last year's YASC intern, Jared Grant.
These roots run deep! 

In the past three and half weeks that I have spent in Rome, I have met a lot of refugees at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center (JNRC) who have also recently arrived in the Eternal City - but by a much more horrific and traumatic route. Forget about the free in-flight meals and the beverage service. Forget about the short 12-hour flight. Instead, imagine (if you can) buying a spot on a tiny fishing vessel packed with 200 people or more. There is little food and little water. There is even less space to move or sit down. There is no bathroom.

These trips are supposed to only last a day or two, but most of them go catastrophically wrong. Thousands are drowning as they try to make their way to Europe from places like Libya, Syria and Mali. Sadly, all of this is becoming normal to people in Europe.

This is one of the many anti-immigration signs being put up in my neighborhood.

Yet, while many ships are capsizing, some of them actually make it to Europe. And this is the point where refugees then begin the long, arduous and bureaucratic nightmare that is the process of gaining asylum in a European country. It is also the point at which (if they find themselves in Italy, which most of them do) that they come in to contact with the radical hospitality that is St. Paul's within the Walls Episcopal Church and its refugee center. Our center is on the front lines of the immigration crisis that is sweeping Europe - and I'm not trying to sensationalize the situation. What is going on is a definitely a crisis. But what are we doing to help it?

Here at the refugee center, we aren't saving the world. We aren't fixing the problem but we are definitely making a difference simply by being present to the hundreds of refugees that come through our doors. Here at the JNRC we offer them a simple breakfast, clothes and basic toiletries. We even offer them free psychotherapy sessions and language classes. However the most important thing I think we do is allow the refugees a place to go and stay for a while. We are present with them.

The refugees here aren't exactly homeless, as they have a place to stay. But they definitely don't have a home. Not in the sense that most Westerners would think of as being a home. Instead, the refugees live in immigration centers where they live with 200 other people, sleep in rooms of 12, and are given one meal a day. There is nothing "homey" about the situation except for the fact that there is a cot for them to sleep on every night. So where do they go when they are not sleeping? Without places like the JNRC they would be left to wander the streets of Rome. However, here with us they find a place to just sit and watch a movie, or play chess with one of our volunteers. They can also just find a nice corner of the center and sleep.

In a world where they often have no control over the most basic parts of their lives, we offer these refugees options and choices. We offer them the basic courtesies that most Westerners (including myself) have always taken for granted. It is truly meaningful work.

Inside of the recently renovated JNRC. 

I know I have only been here a few weeks but I truly feel like I have aged a year. There is something so humbling about working here, and I guess it really revolves around circumstances - the circumstances of my life and the circumstances of most of the people I see every day.

The questions I ask myself: Why was I born into such a safe, loving community? Why was I born into such a supportive, healthy family? Why wasn't I born in Somalia or Mali? Why am I not a product of a war-torn country? Is life just some huge, messed up lottery?

A lot of people I see every day are just like me. They are like me in the sense that they have a heart beat. A soul. A spirit that yearns to be happy, busy and satisfied. However, one of us was lucky enough to be born into a life that provides all of those things - and one of us was born into a life that is deprived of all these things. What did I do to deserve this life? Am I making the most of what I was blessed with? I don't know how to justify it. I don't know how to even really process it. But I will work to make it better for the people that I meet.

All in all, my life here in Rome is far different than what you would expect. This is not a Euro-trip, nor is it a romantic stroll among ancient ruins and olive trees. I have found here one of the darkest parts of man - the victims of war, human trafficking and religious persecution. I have found a desperation that I have never before witnessedand a sadness that I hardly know how to confront. Yet while all of those elements are present here, these people continue to go on. They continue to live and struggle for the dream that they dreamed before setting off on this crazy journey. That resilience is so beautiful to me and I draw a lot of inspiration from it.

The Colosseum. 

To me, St. Paul's seems to be surrounded by a huge paradox. Here I am in Rome - at one time the center of the world. There are works by Carvaggio and Michaelangelo only a few blocks away! Yet amidst all of it is a growing mass of people running away from the worst experiences that a life could ever offer, and a European population that wants nothing to do it. In short, the best and worst of humanity is all here - just outside my window.

What is one to do? I choose to pray.

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference."