Jesus Forsaken: today's God
Welcoming refugees in the family

Silvia Cataldi
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“It’s not human to close doors and the heart to immigrants,” said Pope Franics to journalists on the return flight from Sweden. Certainly, he recognized that the prudence of rulers is also important as they have “to calculate how to get them settled” because it’s not enough to receive them but they need to be integrated. This challenge does not only regard nations, but every community and families themselves. The purely episodic and limited experience we will present is emblematic of the attitude that could open the way to reach concrete solutions. The author is a sociologist, professor of La Sapienza University in Rome.

Everything began in September 2015. We were having supper in front of the television and our six and seven year old daughters saw an image that shocked them: the dramatic photo of little Aylan Kurdi, dead on the beach of Bodrum in Turkey. It’s a photo that was circulating the media in those days. My husband and I quickly changed the channel, but it was too late. We were bombarded with questions from our girls, “What happened to that little boy?” “Why was he swimming in his clothes?” “Did he drown?” “Why didn’t his parents save him?” The questions were too difficult to answer. We tried and to make them fall asleep serenely without nightmares we promised the girls that we would eventually welcome into our home one of those children who try to escape from war.

True enough we no longer thought about it for some months. We followed the facts and we trustfully saw that Europe, after that photo, finally started to do something more to welcome people. The institutional plan was certainly important, but perhaps we could also roll up our sleeves.

«Welcoming & Getting Settled»

We heard that some families had welcomed some refugee minors for the summer. We decided to follow this hint so as to keep the promise. We contacted AMU (Associazione per un Mondo Unito - Action for a United World), the NGO of the Focolare Movement that together with the non-profit NFA (New Families Association) and the Cooperative Fo. Co. promote the “Welcoming & Getting Settled” project aimed at unaccompanied young people and minors. The idea is to propose an alternative model to the welcome centres to favour a social and economical integration of the young people and avoid the danger of their being recruited by criminal organizations. Among the various initiatives, there is the possibility for families to welcome a minor or a family nucleus for a limited period. Obviously it is all guaranteed by a legal guardian.

We had our first meetings and phone calls, and… we were ready! We told Chiara and Francesca, our daughters, that soon that promise would come true and a girl or boy would come to spend the summer in our house. Our daughters immediately wanted to know who would come to stay with us. The match was not easy and the legal guardian advised us not to go ahead since we had two small girls, while the minors available to be welcomed, coming from a centre in Sicily, were mostly 16-17 years old and all boys. We were sorry, but the advice seemed sensible.

It was July and we unexpectedly received a phone call from the legal guardian: if we were available, a mother and here son from Somalia could come to our house. We just made two phone calls and reorganized our plans for holidays and said yes.

We were curious and excited. All four of us went to the airport. At arrivals we saw a mother with a veil with her boy, we immediately understood it was them: they were Nara and Mohammed [made up names, editor’s note]. All the embarrassment disappeared instantly: we hugged and in that embrace there was the whole expectation and mutual recognition. From there a wonderful experience began.

They stayed with us for 15 days, not much time. However they were intense days in which we did things together that we had not even done on our own. We played soccer, cooked typical dishes of our countries, shared some moments of prayer and we went to the recreational parks. The strong impression was that we were one family.

Giving a face to stories
we see on TV

We also heard their complicated and painful stories and we suffered with them.

It was difficult and disconcerting, especially for me, putting myself in the shoes of a mother of five children, run away from a militant Islamic group in Somalia. It was terrible to know that she had to make the choice to bring with her on her trip to Europe only her smallest son Mohammed and leave in Africa (with her mother) the four older children, today refugees in Ethiopia. It was painful to hear how the trip went through the desert, paying every mile to a different mediator. It was horrifying to listen to the story of the year of waiting in Libya, before being able to escape: all the refugees were kept prisoners and hungry, the women under the continuous threat of being beaten up and raped. Then it was terrible to imagine the very long trip across the sea up to Sicily with the risk of drowning because of the overcrowding on a small rubber boat and with the fear of dying of cold in the Mediterranean. Giving a face, listening to a voice and associating a cry to the images and the stories that we follow on the television every day, this is what struck me the most. Understanding that this is what one of us, together with her son, lives on her skin, a person from our family, who could be my sister or my best friend.

Beyond diversity

Everything wasn’t as we had imagined. Especially in the little things. For example we discovered that eating pizza, if for us it was the best thing, they didn’t like it at all. We realized that the architectural beauties of Rome were not interesting at all and were rather boring for African children and adults. We verified that immigrants spend hours and hours on the phone, perhaps because in this way they reconstruct and maintain a connection with the community they have left in their country.

Then there was an episode that particularly struck me. We were in the children’s games park that had a pool. It was the middle of August. We all jumped in to have a swim, even Nara took off her dress and remained with her leggings, her veil and a long sleeved shirt and jumped in the water to cool down. Soon after, the lifeguard approached and ordered us to get out because, for hygienic reasons, one cannot swim with their clothes on. That’s what the rule said. I played for time, retorted and resisted. Security arrived and forced us to make Nara get out of the pool: she should either put on a bikini or not swim at all. I was furious. We are not in a civilized country, I thought, I find this rule simply discriminating. I made them call the person responsible, but they were all unmovable: at the cost of making the news appear in the newspaper they didn’t make exceptions. The polemic about the burkini had not exploded yet in France, but I started to reflect on what it meant to welcome people in our country. I realized that I was starting to look at my city with new eyes.

In conclusion, I will certainly advise this experience to all. I must say that even just the fact of having welcomed Nara and Mohammed has created a change, a small change of mentality in the people around us and a big change in our family. We rejoiced, played and suffered together with Nara and Mohammed and now their story is a part of ours. After having them with us this summer we went to visit them in Sicily, in the welcome centre that hosts them. They have been recognized as refugees and having received all their documents, they have gone to Ethiopia to see the other brothers they had left with the grandmother. I cannot hide that we are concerned about them because by now they are part of our family.