A message from Fiona Kendall, Mission Partner in Rome

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Dear Friends

As the world faces a new challenge, this seems an appropriate time to write to you all with an update on the work being carried out by Mediterranean Hope and how we are experiencing the current situation. Tough operational decisions have had to be made within a rapid timeframe. However, we remain committed to carrying out what work we can with due regard for the current health situation and attendant measures.

Rome and Palermo

The lockdown has now been in force throughout Italy for over a fortnight, steadily more restrictive measures having been enforced every few days. Like other offices, shops and schools, the FCEI office and La Noce Diaconal Centre are closed. Staff in Rome and Palermo are working remotely, keeping in regular contact through a variety of online apps and messaging services.

Direct contact with the asylum-seekers we support cannot currently take place. Those who are in apartments of their own remain there; those who are in small supported structures are confined to their own quarters. Many are using the time to continue online language tuition. Where possible, Wifi is being made available along with online resources to support ongoing learning. MH staff are maintaining regular calls and video calls with those we support. Asylum applications are effectively on hold as public offices are not, in general, open and court hearings have been suspended until 15th April.

Those involved in advocacy work are no longer in a position to travel. Our international conference on asylum, to be held jointly with CCME and Diakonie Deutschland in May, has had to be postponed. However, there is much that can be done remotely. As the world adjusts to the current situation, we anticipate a significant increase in virtual meetings. We continue to lobby in respect of our proposal for

European Humanitarian Corridors and to negotiate the renewal of the existing Memorandum of Understanding with the Italian government regarding the corridors already operating here.

Beirut

Following discussion with the Italian government and our Sant’Egidio partners, the Humanitarian Corridor (HC) due to be opened at the end of March will remain closed, notwithstanding the final preparations for roll-out being made by the teams in Beirut and Rome. We very much regret the impact that this will have on the intended beneficiaries but accept that this is the right decision for now.

Travel between Lebanon and Italy having now been suspended, our entire team has been recalled from Beirut. They too are adapting to remote working, using the time now available to improve systems and engage in strategic planning. Where possible, the team will interview and work with HC candidates remotely.

120 people have so far tested positive for Covid 19 in Lebanon and a lockdown has been imposed. The team reports that, notwithstanding that Lebanon is ill-equipped to cope with a large-scale health crisis, preventative measures have been taken at an early stage by the authorities and, individually, citizens are playing their part to contain the virus.

Scicli

The lockdown measures apply to Sicily, in the same way as to the rest of Italy. Travel to Sicily from mainland Italy has been suspended other than in case of necessity, health or work. Given the emergency measures in place, staff at the Casa delle Culture are unable to interact directly with those housed there. Fortunately, those living there are housed in their own apartments and can remain there. Communal activities can, however, no longer take place.

Whilst Wifi is available within the Casa delle Culture, the majority of those who live there do not have computers and are reliant, at best, on mobile phones for information and connecting with the rest of the world. This is very hard on children, in particular. With all schools shut, the emphasis is now on online learning. However, in a household where there is no computer, accessing lessons is very difficult.

After-school groups to support homework are currently suspended. The everyday interaction which encouraged language learning and cultural integration simply cannot take place. Staff are maintaining what contact they can by way of telephone and video calls, disseminating links to information about the outbreak in a variety of languages and providing guidelines for how to comply with the current measures. Families used to shop together, each one bringing home a bag. Now only one person per household may go to the supermarket. Blank self-certification forms – and information about how to complete them – are being supplied to residents, none of whom have access to a printer, so that these can be completed before any outing is made.

For people who were already struggling to adjust to life in a new culture, it is particularly difficult to adapt to some of these changes, particularly in the absence of physical interaction. For some, their world is collapsing for a second time. However, staff are doing all that they can to maintain as much virtual contact as possible and to keep our guests as well-informed as the rest of us.

Lampedusa

Although physically separated from the rest of Italy, and although no cases of Covid 19 have so far been identified there, Lampedusa is subject to the same lockdown measures as the rest of Italy. As a result, the MH staff based there have been obliged to close the office and work from home. This presents a strange situation for the volunteers whose home shares the premises which house the office!

Whilst the team’s usual activities have had to be suspended, migrants have not stopped coming to Lampedusa’s shores. Just a few days ago 150 people arrived within the space of 48 hours. Notwithstanding the crisis in Italy and the risk of contracting a fatal illness by coming here, not many miles away others face something worse. And so, still, they risk their lives to come. The Lampedusa team asks us to reflect on that: people are still fleeing; people are still migrating.

In order to comply with current measures, those who arrive must be placed in quarantine. As a result, a few nights ago, more than 40 migrants had to spend a night and a day on the jetty, for the hotspot was already full with 26 others who had arrived the day before. No other space was available to place the group, which included women and small children.

The MH team, being unable at present to offer a welcome at the jetty and legal information to those who come, is focusing on monitoring what is happening, disseminating accurate information locally and beyond to dissipate misplaced tension and anxiety. It is hard for the team not to be alongside the most vulnerable in a situation such as this but they can continue to be eyes and ears for the rest of us. Like all of us, they are using any spare time to reflect, review and plan. This is a moment which can bring us fresh perspectives. For all of us are now being forced to experience limits on our freedom.

They write: “And this is surely the most powerful realization: how precious and vital is the survival of freedom. A vital breath to which every individual who inhabits this planet has the right and must struggle to keep.”

Calabria

A small team has been based in Calabria for the last eight months or so. Their focus has been the seasonal migrant workers who are so often exploited in the agricultural sector. The team has been working to improve conditions for them, through provision of language tuition, legal information and practical support. The team has also been working with local farmers to build an ethical supply chain which guarantees rights for the workers concerned. A new label, “Etika”, has been developed with a view to marketing this produce beyond Calabria and, indeed, Italy.

The outbreak of Covid 19 and the measures imposed in response brings particular challenges for the migrants in Calabria. Although the south of Italy has so far been much less affected than the north by the virus itself, an outbreak there could be still more serious, given the reduced level of healthcare available in that region. Many of the seasonal workers are living in shanty towns. Conditions often do not exist to maintain social distancing nor hygiene measures. Access to running water, never mind hand sanitiser, is extremely limited.

The MH team is seeking to balance its commitment to the most vulnerable with the need to minimise the possibility of transmission. For that reason, one person only is now present in the camps where we work for up to two hours per day and social distancing measures are being strictly enforced.

Some fundamental work has needed to be done in terms of educating those in the camps about the current situation, its potential impact on them and how to respond to it. Unhelpful rumours, such as this being a “white man’s illness” have had to be dispelled. The team has been teaching people when and how to wash hands using soap and water or sanitiser, the importance of maintaining at least a metre’s distance at all times and what to do should someone develop symptoms of Covid 19. These seemingly simple notions have to gain a foothold in the camps. These lessons are fundamental.

MH has been able to provide water butts and hand-santiser dispensers for some camps. However, a significant practical difficulty is that sanitiser solution is not readily available. Similarly, stocks of masks have been exhausted. This is a huge concern given the conditions there.

MH is calling for ghettos and shanty towns in Calabria and beyond to be dismantled and for those living there to be found accommodation where they can follow the emergency measures. The water supply in one camp having been completely cut off, they are lobbying the local authority to restore this immediately. They remind us that the health of all should be guaranteed, migrants included.

Greece

Although we are consumed by news about the Covid 19, we do not forget that just before this exploded in Europe we were confronted by a migrant crisis on the Greek/Turkish border. The decision by Turkish President Erdogan to send migrants back to Greece and the Greek response to close its border and suspend asylum applications exacerbated an already difficult situation. Quite apart from the breach of international law on one side and the reprehensible use of migrants as pawns in a game of political manoeuvring on the other, for those stuck either side of this border, the situation has been intolerable.

Against that background, MH has called upon national and supra-national institutions urgently to address this situation, and reiterated its commitment to care for the most vulnerable. https://www.nev.it/nev/2020/03/06/greece-fcei-ready-to-replicate-humanitarian-corridors/

A working party from MH has engaged directly with NGOs and churches in Greece to assess how MH and other faith-based organisations within Europe can respond directly to this situation. MH’s experience of operating Humanitarian Corridors from Lebanon places it in a unique position to assess whether the model could be adapted to ease the situation for the most vulnerable in Greece. Whilst the EU has acknowledged the need to extract unaccompanied minors from this hellish theatre, the response does not go nearly far enough.

Our intended mission to Greece has had to be placed on hold for the time being but our engagement with those on the ground continues. We must not forget the plight of these people, notwithstanding the crisis which surrounds us at home.

Call to Action

“Siamo tutti sulla stessa barca” (“we are all in the same boat”) is a phrase with a particularly poignant resonance at present. However, this global emergency is an opportunity for us all to pull together as a single community, to focus on the needs of the most vulnerable rather than ourselves and to stimulate a collective response to meet their needs. If this does not happen, the most vulnerable, migrants included, will be left to fend for themselves.

We have greatly appreciated the messages of support and encouragement which we have already received. We know that many are already praying hard. If you can, please add your prayers for the following:

· Worldwide collaboration in the race to find treatment and a vaccine for Covid 19;

· Willingness amongst individuals to place the needs of the community above their own; the necessary self-discipline to reduce transmission of the virus; patience with the measures imposed;

· Wisdom for governments across the world as they struggle to respond to this changing context

FCEI has launched an appeal to support three initiatives to tackle the pandemic: provision of disinfectant kits to Italian care homes, healthcare facilities, reception centres for migrants and other public facilities; financial support for institutions monitoring the spread of the virus to enable appropriate plans of action to be drawn up, financial support for healthcare facilities directly engaged in preventing the pandemic from spreading. Please also pray for the success of the appeal at this difficult time.

A useful passage in these difficult times which you may wish to consider can be found in Romans 5:3-5. Here is a fragment:

“We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope […]”

We will survive this.

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In their own words…

To end, here are some recent quotes from those who regularly speak on the project’s behalf:

“We are appealing to members of Protestant churches in what is a difficult and painful moment for all. We express our fellowship with those who, as a result of the pandemic, have lost relatives and friends, and with those who are working to tackle it and stem its flow in conditions which are not always safe and with sometimes inadequate protection. We concur with the appeal for responsible behaviour and proper respect for the regulations which have come out in recent days. We pray that the Lord would help us to overcome this trial and, notwithstanding these difficult days, keep us from giving into into dejection and despair.”

Luca Maria Negro, President, FCEI

“At a point in time when this nation’s attention is rightly focused on its own citizens, we nonetheless contend that we must not neglect our commitment to the most vulnerable in society, which includes the many migrants who would otherwise be left to look after themselves. We are so grateful for the support already received and which we hope to receive to enable us to provide the best possible service to that group.”

Paolo Naso, Coordinator,

Memories healed, lives rebuilt

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, the Tamil Tigers. A feared guerilla army, a banned terrorist organisation who recruited child soldiers and trained suicide bombers. The LTTE waged war on the Sri Lankan state for 26 years, a brutal conflict that left 80-100,000 dead.

There were ten men and women in the group sitting in a simple village hall near Batticaloa in the east of Sri Lanka. Nine were former LTTE fighters. Most of them had done Healing of Memories training implemented by National Christian Council of Sri Lanka (NCCSL) based on work developed by Fr Michael Lapsley[1].

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This man was suicidal but now counsels other ex-combatants

After an initial 3-day workshop there are follow-up sessions to help the ex-combatants face the issues and challenges. NCCSL keeps in touch with participants. There are local groups who also help support each other.

They shared their stories of how the training had helped them change their lives after the war. One man had lost part of his leg, was held in captivity for three years after the war ended and felt suicidal. Through NCCSL’s intervention he trained in electronics and counselling so he can help others. He also employs ex-combatants in his business. Another said he had been tortured and was unable to work due to his physical injuries and mental health. He showed us the scars of his wounds on his torso and said he and has wife have been unable to have children due to his injuries. Counselling and support through the NCCSL programme helped him and he is now a dairy farmer.

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She was a Tamil Tiger fighter, now runs a food business

Others told similar stories of being able to recover from the trauma of war and set up a variety of businesses.

There can be no denying the strength and courage of the ex-combatants to have gone through the Healing of Memories programme and rebuilt their lives in the face of immense challenges. They still face problems, especially since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected last year. He was Defence Minister when the Sri Lanka military launched the massive offensive that ended the war in 2009.

CID officers visit regularly to ask about their activities which feels intimidating and threatening. Army and intelligence agencies know the ex-combatants and will harass them. All said they are worried about their children’s futures.

Thanks to NCCSL, Healing of Memories and on-going support these men and women have largely recovered from the trauma they suffered, but they face further difficulties and discrimination. Their memories have been healed, but others won’t let them forget.

[1] Lapsley was born in New Zealand and served as an Anglican priest in a religious order in South Africa. An anti-apartheid activist, he was seriously injured by a letter bomb sent by South Africa security forces. See his book Redeeming the Past (Orbis Books, 2012).

Stuck in the mud

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Christmas 2018.

An electrical fire destroyed 19 family quarters at a housing colony in Kelani valley, part of the Fordyce Tea Estate near Hatton. The families were shifted to temporary emergency accommodation comprising a single 5 square foot room each. The site floods in rainy season and there are problems with electricity supply.

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Kokilraj, a community activist inside one of the destroyed quarters

Over  a year later the families are stuck in the mud when it rains and the community, all Up-Country Tamils comprising Hindu and Christian families, has been caught in a debate between the estate operators, Hayleys, and the government about the provision of replacement quarters.

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Some of the people displaced by the fire, near Hatton

Hayley’s offered to rebuild houses but the site was unsuitable. The government seems to have begun to build new, bigger houses with a kitchen garden that conform to new housing standards, but this may be a promise ahead of the March parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile community activists lobby for the families and that National Christian Council of Sri Lanka gives gives occasional food rations, soap and school materials, worth about Rs 4-7,500/£17-34 per family. This is much needed support as tea pickers earn less than £3 a day.

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Sangeeta, community activist

Poverty is not just about a lack of money. Its means lacking power, access and opportunity to make a difference. Thanks to support from NCCSL, there has been a little progress and the families know they have not abandoned.

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Children at Fordyce Tea Estate near Hatton

Sheltering, caring, training

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I have written about the Women’s Development Centre (WDC) in Kandy, Sri Lanka before.

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Sashi Stephens, Director of Women’s Development Centre

I have written about how Sashi Stephens and her team look after girls and young women who have suffered abuse, sexual assault and rape, often perpetrated by someone in their family.

I have written about how the girls are looked after, are given accommodation in a safe place, are taught new skills, receive counselling.

A year ago a new building was opened, funded by the Japanese Embassy,  with three dormitories, leisure rooms, kitchen and dining facilities and office suite. The local Rotary Club sponsored solar panels and kitchen equipment.

The shelter, one of only three such homes in the country, currently provides accommodations for 53 young women and girls. Most are under 16 and are rejected by their families and communities. There are also 15 babies and infants who have been born there – WDC has a separate maternity unit.

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A baby in the arms of her teenage mother, Women’s Development Centre

Abuse victims depend on civil society to provide shelter and care otherwise they would be jailed or sent home where they would be even more vulnerable. Along with UNFPA, WDC is working with government to improve education on health and sex education in schools. WDC has lobbied the police and authorities to improve processes and practices which has made a difference.

WDC has arranged for 16 current residents to continue school education which involves wrangling with bureaucracy and having good relationships with local schools.

I have written about the Women’s Development Centre (WDC) in Kandy, Sri Lanka before. But the work that Sashi and her her team is so important and they do it so well that I will keep on telling their story.

 

Fiona Kendall – Remembering

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Rome, 24th January 2020

Pic 1Just as the Mediterranean Sea gives up bodies, so too does the Sonoran Desert, on the US/Mexico border. Other deserts may undulate with red waves of sand; this one is spiked with cactus, scattered with rocks and overlooked by mountains. It is an eerily beautiful landscape, deadly in its aridity

Pic 3Those who live on its edges and walk its trails know well that others attempt to cross this place out of necessity, often ill-equipped and unfamiliar with the terrain. Every now and then, the wild scrub is witness to that, harbouring evidence of desperate journeys which have ended in death.

Pic 4Red dots mark these sites on maps produced by the local medical examiner. However, a local conceptual artist, Alvaro Enciso[1], is working to honour those whose bones have been found in the desert itself.  Every Tuesday Alvaro makes a pilgrimage to the desert to collect and to plant.  He is collecting materials and planting crosses.

Alvaro’s decision to use the cross as a symbol was carefully considered. The cross is not intended to ascribe faith to the lost migrants, nor to use their deaths to proselytise.  Here, the cross represents a place of encounter, where paths cross, where death (horizontal) meets life (vertical), recalling the cross as an instrument of death and suffering, used by (Roman) authorities to kill and to deter.

Migration policy across the world includes those elements of death and deterrence. If that were not so, migrants, like any other person whose life is at risk, could count on rescue from sea and from desert.  They cannot.  The lives lost are less valuable, it seems, than the political point being made.

At a workshop at the 2020 Common Ground on the Border arts festival in Sahuarita, Arizona, a group of us worked with Alvaro on the crosses, each bearing a red dot as a link to the maps which trace the sites. Some, too, incorporated objects scavenged from the desert, that unsought resting place.

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It is often impossible to determine who has died, for the desert is not kind to the dead. Bodies are carrion for the animals who live there and it may be years before remains are found.  The remains of over 3,000 have been gathered since 2001, as have countless objects such as clothing, backpacks and shoes.  As we walked to pay our respects at some of those memorials, we heard poetry and songs also found on scraps of paper at some resting places: cries unheard in the barren landscape.

We may not know their names but we can make them more than statistics. The act of remembering reminds us that these are people, not numbers, every individual lost matching someone missing from a family and a community many miles away.

Alvaro’s project is called Donde Mueren Los Suenos (Where Dreams Die).

[1] https://www.instagram.com/aencisoart/

 

Building Integrity

Rev Dr Valerie Allen is the previous convenor of ‘Integrity’, the Church of Scotland committee who focus on Gender Justice. She recently visited our partners in Pakistan to help facilitate workshops.


Saima, a young woman in her early 20’s, stood in front of the packed room.  In a clear voice she told us “Before this weekend, I wouldn’t have had the courage to speak in front of anyone.  But after the affirmation I’ve received in the activities we did this weekend, I now have the confidence to stand here and speak to you.”  It was a deeply touching moment witnessing this young woman blossoming.

Saima was one of 35 women from a variety of denominations who participated in a three-day women’s leadership workshop entitled “Nurturing Resilience in and Empowering Women”.  The workshop was sponsored by Talitha Kumi and facilitated by Kay Keith and I (current and past Covenors of Integrity).

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Using the story of the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28), the women reflected on inner qualities that build resilience.  In small “Clan” discussion groups they shared stories and strategised about things they’d like to change in their communities or churches.  They were encouraged to use their voices and skills, building confidence and leading to a greater sense of empowerment.  They tried a variety of creative approaches – stitching, art, drama, movement and wellness practices.  This was a revelation!  The women arrived expecting to sit around a conference table and listen to “expert” leaders, pens poised to take notes.  Instead they discovered circles of chairs and the expectation that they were the experts in their own lives and communities.  Anyone passing the room where we met would have heard animated conversation and hoots of laughter!  The depth of relationships formed were lovely; the connections made are ones, we hope, will continue.

This workshop was part of a two-week visit helping to strengthen relationships with our partners in Pakistan.  It followed on from Integrity’s visit in 2017.  We spent two days leading six wellbeing workshops at The Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).   These workshops taught simple body, mind, and spirit practices which promote wholeness, healing and peace.  The practices are particularly helpful to those who have experienced violence and abuse or those living with post-traumatic stress disorder, as many of CLAAS’ clients are.  Those attending had never worked with their bodies in this way.    “I came here with a thumping headache and feeling stressed, but now my headache is gone, and I am totally relaxed,” one man told the group.  A woman shared, “This class has been wonderful.  I came feeling confused.  I now have a sharper focus.  I feel calm and peaceful.”

We also travelled to Sialkot where we were hosted by retired Mission Partner Catherine Nicol and Bishop Alwin Samuel.  We spent time with two women’s groups, again exploring the story of the Canaanite woman and the qualities of strong women.  The hospitality we received was wonderful – hospitality, lots of laughter and smiles, especially trying to teach 80+ year old Catherine about selfies!

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This trip was made possible by grants from Faithshare, the St. Colm’s Fund and The Pollock Trust, the latter two of which fully funded the women’s leadership retreat.  We are extremely grateful to all three.

  • Rev Dr Valerie Allen

Praying Amidst the Olive Trees

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 In the final hours before he ascended Mount Calvary to die on an imperial Roman cross, Christ prayed amidst the silvery green olive trees of Gethsemane. And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will’. (St Matthew 26:39)

Across the Occupied Palestinian Territories, ancient olive trees are being uprooted and destroyed to make way for settlement expansion, illegal under international law.

The Tent of Nations is a reminder of the fragility of beauty, growing amidst the structural injustice of walls, watch-towers, and barbed wire…. A refuge and oasis, encircled by the militarised networks of occupation, that force themselves on the fragile beauty of the land and its people, pushing shepherds and their flocks off the fertile hilltops, to build more settlements and checkpoints.

The Church of Scotland is standing with the Nassar family and their witness of non violence, and is helping to plant an eco chapel, amidst the olive grove which is currently under a demolition order.P1000733

Written on the coarse surface of a rock as you enter the Tent of Nations are the words ‘we refuse to be enemies’; a message that calls us to see through the eyes of compassion, so that fears can be overcome through love; inspiring us to believe that reconciliation and resurrection can take root in this land; amidst the olive trees, flowers and fruit; embodying the beauty of God’s Kingdom here on earth.

The church is called to be Christ’s hands and feet to our hurting world, to reach out beyond the socio-political, ideological and economic boundaries that separate people into different categories. And the church must adopt a preferential option to stand with all who are marginalised, crushed, persecuted and occupied. A church that is silent and inactive in the face of injustice is not living up to its prophetic calling in the world. It is not taking up its cross and walking in Christ’s footsteps.

Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero once said:

The church, like Jesus, has to go on denouncing sin in its own day. It has to denounce the selfishness that is hidden in everyone’s heart, the sin that dehumanises persons, destroys families, and turns money, possessions, profit, and power into the ultimate ends for which people strive. And, like anyone who has the smallest degree of foresight, the slightest capacity for analysis, the church has also to denounce what has rightly been called ‘structural sin’: those social, economic, cultural, and political structures that effectively drive the majority of our people onto the margins of society. When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which that cry arises.[1]

The Church of Scotland will continue to stand with the Tent of Nations and its Christian witness of non-violence. The Nassar family are one of the last remaining Christian families in one of the most threatened parts of Area C. The eco chapel will be a place where the sacrament of communion will be celebrated amidst the threatened olive grove. It will become a space that embodies the hope and love of Christ’s evangel, where justice and compassion reach out beyond the walls and fences of division.

May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

 – John McCulloch, Mission Partner in Israel and Palestine


To find out more about the Olive Grove Chapel, please visit our website 

 

[1] Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements. Introductory Essays by Jon Sobrino & Ignacio Martin-Baro (Maryknoll New York: Orbis Books, 1985, (p.74)

Resistance in the Valleys – Fiona Kendall

Regular readers of this blog will remember George[1], the young Gambian man who made it to Lampedusa following a horrific journey which included detention in Libya, and who now lives in Piedmont.

This week I’ve been in Piedmont for the annual synod of the Waldensian Church, one of the FCEI’s  member churches, now united with the Italian Methodist Church.  Torre Pellice, which nestles in the Alpine area now known as the “Waldensian Valleys”, plays host to this meeting every year.  The location is inextricably linked with the tumultuous history of this minority Protestant church which sprang to life 800 years ago and whose members have been persecuted, exiled and discriminated against for much of that time.  The serene mountain setting belies the spirit of resistance which has prevailed throughout.  As I took the opportunity to visit the newly renovated the Waldensian museum, which carefully charts their story, I was struck by how that spirit of resistance, kindled by the prejudice and fear of others, continues today and how it is now channelled into the work which Waldensians persevere in doing for those on the margins.

Resistance in the valley

The trip provided me with an opportunity to catch up with all sorts of people including George, who has been supported by the Diaconia Valdese since arriving in Italy.  When I last wrote about him, he had very recently had his meeting with the Territorial Commission which decides asylum applications.  During the long months awaiting their decision, George continued his valuable work as a carer.  He studied hard and passed tough exams in Italian (his sixth language) which would give him the formal qualification required for a permanent contract.  He is currently holding down two jobs: one in a local hospital and the other in a residential home for people who are severely disabled.  He will shortly be leaving the accommodation provided by the Diaconia Valdese for an apartment which he will be renting in his own right.  In September, the curling season will start and, all being well, he will once again take up his place in the First Africa Curling Team.

So far, so positive.  So you will be as galled as I am to know that George’s application for asylum has been refused.  This, of course, is nothing to the shock which George felt on learning of that decision, and the heightened sense of uncertainty which it generated.  Whilst praise was given by the Commission for his considerable efforts to integrate into the local community, its members did not agree that George had met the test to acquire refugee status.  Worse still, other channels for someone like George to obtain residence in Italy are few and far between.

Resistance comes in many forms and George is not going to give up.  He does not believe that it is safe for him to return to The Gambia – and he is now well settled in Italy.  He has a life to lead and so much to offer his community.  He has therefore appealed the Commission’s decision.  It will, however, be another two years before he learns the outcome of the appeal.

Whether or not George succeeds, his case highlights the failure of a system which ignores the positive contributions which migrants can make.  When a system is essentially based on protection or humanitarian criteria and leaves little or no room for others to adopt another country as their own, it is the receiving country which is likely to miss out.  Legal channels for migration which permit realistic numbers to immigrate are not floodgates but filters which enable the kind of people you’d want in your community to join it, irrespective of their country of origin.  How long will it take, I wonder, to shift the policy focus from keeping numbers down to populating society with the kind of citizens who can make a difference?

It is little wonder that Waldensians should have such a deep-seated commitment to those, like George, who are pushed to the edges of society, for that has been their own story.  Such work, however, will only be done when society at large starts to adopt that spirit, and marginalisation becomes nothing more than a distant memory.

[1] Not his real name.

Watershed – Fiona Kendall

Yesterday proved to be something of a watershed in Italy.  There were a couple of reasons for that.  In Rome, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte addressed both houses of Parliament.  In a speech which pulled no punches, he was trenchant in his criticism of his Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, whom he described as putting personal and party interests before those of the country and whose fitness to hold any kind of office he called into question.Watershed

Conte, whose response this was to the motion of no confidence lodged by his erstwhile Deputy Prime Minister, then tendered his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella.  Whilst the president mulls over next steps, Conte will remain in office.  Behind closed doors, the political manoeuvring continues.  The coalition between right-wing Lega and anti-Establishment 5 Star now shattered, Salvini hopes to capitalise on the chaos and propel himself into the premier’s seat.  Whether other parties will form an uneasy alliance to stop that from happening remains to be seen.  Meantime, the business of actually governing Italy is once again on hold.

A few hours later, at Italy’s southernmost outpost, 83 migrants disembarked from the Open Arms at the jetty at Lampedusa.  The crew had been seeking a safe port for 19 days.  Offers to host those aboard came from the French government and Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (FCEI).  Yet no EU country would allow the boat to dock.  When an Italian regional judge revoked the order forbidding disembarkation, Salvini immediately lodged an appeal (now understood to be without legal foundation), effectively stalling the order’s implementation.  National and international celebrities boarded the ship as it was re-supplied in an effort to draw global attention to the unfolding crisis.  Still EU governments stood firm.  Medics and psychologists aboard reported serious concerns, and conditions rapidly deteriorated.  Those most at risk and, eventually, all unaccompanied minors were evacuated.  Some of those left aboard leapt into the sea, attempting to swim to dry land.  Still EU governments stood firm.  Spain, five days away, finally offered a safe port.  Only after the Open Arms crew refused that offer in light of the conditions aboard, and only after the coalition’s collapse, did Italy relent and were the exhausted passengers welcomed by a small crowd at the Lampedusa jetty.

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The suggestion is repeatedly made by the Far Right here that those who arrive here by boat are, somehow, all “clandestine”.  The contrast is often made with those who arrive by plane, either through UNHCR evacuations from Libya or the FCEI’s humanitarian corridors programme.  Whilst it is the case that beneficiaries of those schemes already have a humanitarian visa, it is simply incorrect to say that those who arrive by boat are all “clandestine”.  An asylum seeker may arrive by boat, plane or, indeed, any other means.  Whether or not their eventual claim for international protection is genuine depends on whether they meet the criteria set out in the 1951 Geneva Convention which converge around “a well-founded fear of persecution” or the criteria set out by the EU which converge around “a real risk of suffering serious harm”.  The criteria under both sets of norms have nothing to do with the means of transport used by the person seeking to reach Europe.

There can be no doubt that the migrants who spent 19 days aboard the Open Arms will have been traumatised by that experience.  However, there can be little doubt that what they will have experienced prior to being rescued will have been significantly worse.  According to various sources, for most who make the journey across the Mediterranean, this is the end of an arduous journey made up of several stages during which violence, exploitation and abuse will all have been encountered.  Each individual on the Open Arms will potentially carry the physical and mental scars of those experiences and it will be for each of them to convince a Commission examining a claim for asylum or subsidiary protection that they cannot return.  Many will fail to do so.  However, it is a basic human right for them to be permitted to make that claim and to have it properly examined, however they got here.

The current Minister of the Interior does not answer that point in the rhetoric regarding migration.  Instead, he casts judges whose decisions contradict his policies as “political” and considers closure of the ports to be necessary in a society which puts national interests first.  At what stage, I wonder, did universal human rights become hostage to national sovereignty?  And at what point do citizens cease to hold their leaders to account on such a fundamental point?  At a time when Italy may about to usher in a new Prime Minister whose views on these matters could not be clearer, these are questions which cannot be ignored.

Hope like Youth Springs Eternal – Bob Milne

Rev Bob Milne is a volunteer with the World Mission Council in Zomba Presbytery of the Church of Central Africa, Blantyre Synod, Malawi. Bob was commissioned on 24th February in Comrie Parish Church and will be writing a series of blogs during his time in Malawi.


A large group of teenagers with a few non teenagers are sitting in a large room in a cottage high on an escarpment. The view, as you might expect, is exquisite and stunningly beautiful. No one though is looking out the window, all especially the teenagers, are utterly engrossed. Not as you might think in their phones but in the words of a local forester who is telling them about climate change.

This is no ordinary collection of teenagers.

Serious and ambitious they may be but they are teenaged serious and ambitious people

This is a “RYLA Plus in Malawi” collection of teenagers. RYLA is an annual event organised by Rotary Clubs in Scotland to take teenagers out of their comfort zones and challenge them in the great outdoors. Rotarian Denis Robson thought it would be a good idea to bring the concept to Malawi and challenge some Malawian youth here in their own country. Drawn from towns and country areas they came to spend a week in each other’s company on Zomba Plateau and at Liwonde Game Reserve learning about the Plateau, climate change, Malawi and above all, themselves.

The local forester tells them of the effects climate change is having on their country and let no one be in any doubt, Malawi is at the sharp end, with mass deforestation, rivers silting up and lakes drying out in the dry season. What, he asks, can we Malawians do about it? You could be forgiven for being unsurprised if their answer was “not a lot” as the biggest causes are in the rich countries in the North and West. But that would be to underestimate the youth. They fully engage, looking at what can be changed here, they see the need to protect the forests and restore the ones previously destroyed. They look at the societal, educational, cultural and economical changes required. They see the injustice of being at the sharp end but seek solutions not retributions.

All in all, at the end of several hours and lively mealtime discussions there is reason to hope that here is a force for good; a force for change, that we can look with confidence for the day when this generation get their hands on the levers of power.

To reinforce the talk the RYLA participants engaged with the women who live on the Plateau and men who make a living there passing on their new-found knowledge on how to minimise the effects of climate change. To reinforce it they hand out mango plants but which in three years will provide a crop of fruit!

A couple of days later having visited a counselling service in Zomba City, the group venture out on foot across the Plateau to see the forestry in operation. They lend a hand to the women cutting back the undergrowth to let the newly planted native trees flourish, not by mechanical means but by a specially adapted machete blade known prosaically as a ‘Slasher’. Not for the first time it is necessary to forget what I have learned about Health and Safety, risk assessments et al and trust that they would be careful! They were. A little further on they helped with ‘screefing’ (Google it) around other young trees to give them room to grow.

After that the walk became purely for pleasure as we went on to two viewpoints jointly described in the past as the “Best views in the British Empire”. Not sure about that but they are both dramatic and beautiful and any view beating them must indeed be spectacular! As befitting their description they are named ‘The Emperor’s View’ after Haile Selassie who visited in 1965 and ‘The Queen’s View’ after the Queen Mother took a look in 1957. The young people were impressed by the views and took several hundred selfies in a few moments. We moved on to the reservoir of Chagwa Dam, regular readers may recall I mentioned this dam in March when we were warned it was in imminent danger of collapse. The reaction of most locals was its collapse had been foretold since the day after it was completed and it hadn’t happened yet so why worry? Well I didn’t worry then but had I seen the state of the earthwork dam at the time my sleep might not have been quite so sound for a few days! Several large cracks are there and large landslips have also taken place. The state of the Dam did not phase our young folk who enjoyed their walk. The forester merely shrugged his shoulders and said only “It’s been reported”.

Admiring The Emporer’s View

Admiring The Emporer’s View.

The youngsters moved on to Liwonde Game Reserve where they helped restore no less than fourteen houses damaged in the floods of March. This was followed by a game drive seeing many an elephant, hippo, warthog, buffalo, various types of antelope and to cap it all lions! This might not seem much for African youth to be taken to see African wildlife but it is a sad fact that the vast majority of Malawians have never seen any of their native wildlife which, with the exception of monkeys and baboons, are restricted to reserves.

Looking across The Shire Valley to Mount Mulanje Africa’s third highest mountain

Looking across the Shire Valley to Mount Mulanje, Africa’s third highest mountain.

So what of our teenagers? Did they get anything out of the experience? Yes they did through their learning, experiencing and sharing, seeds were sown that will help them become better citizens of the wonderful country that they care deeply about. In conversation they spoke of their ambitions to become engineers, teachers, doctors, nurses and media leaders, not so they can sell their talents in South Africa, Europe or North America but to live and work in Malawi. Using their skills to help raise this country from the dire poverty that constrains it at present and to take its place as a full member of the international community.

My generation were told when we were young that we had never had it so good and that I am certain was true. The tragedy is I cannot tell my grandchildren the same because we messed up. Big time! But so long as there are young people like those I met on Zomba Plateau about, and I am certain there are many throughout the world, so long as they are in our midst we can have hope and if we have hope we have faith in a future where all can share the bounty of this beautiful creation.

 


Rev R B Milne

Zomba Theological College

P.S. Screefing – clearing with a hoe an area around newly planted sapling trees to allow the tree light, water and nutrients. In Zomba area is normally 1m diameter.