It goes without saying that Europe is experiencing what is being called one of the most severe migrant crises since the Second World War. Much has been written, is being written, and will continue to be written as the situation develops day by day. The issue is immense in scope, depth, breadth—it feels overwhelming. As such, I’d like to focus on a micro level to spotlight some local organizations and individuals that are involved on the front lines of this crisis. Some of them are living the crisis first-hand. Others are providing resources, support, and the intangible but essential element of hope.
In September, I attended a storyteller’s evening at The Beehive. Linda and Steve generally host Storytellers once a month, giving space to narratives on a particular topic, in a sort of modern-day campfire gathering of shared humanity. That evening, however, was co-hosted by Paul’s Place Project (PPP), a non-profit organization that is part of the Christian Codrai Foundation, and was dedicated specifically to understanding the migrant crisis. As such, two young men—Rakin and Maiga—told their stories in front of an intimate and attentive group of about 30-40 people. The impact of hearing these stories in person from those who lived them is difficult, if not impossible, to put down in words.
Rakin, from Kabul, told the story of his dream of becoming a psychologist in his home country, and of his becoming the victim of a kidnapping for ransom because of his family’s class standing and wealth. He came from a home that was quite possibly more well-off than some or many of the listeners present that evening. He spoke of his harrowing escape and eventual arrival in Rome, where he slept in parks, nearly lost his mental health, and was treated like a degenerate.
You can read more of Rakin’s story in an interview with The Local, which was included in their round-up of five truly inspirational interviews from 2015. Another local English-language publication, Wanted in Rome, also shared Rakin’s story.
If you prefer to listen, check out the podcast episode Immigrant on The Bittersweet Life, hosted by senior radio producer Katy Sewall of Seattle’s KUOW and local expat and writer Tiffany Parks who heads up the editorial department at Where Rome magazine and writes The Pines of Rome.
Maiga, from Mali, witnessed and lived through the killing of his entire family. He, too, eventually made his way to Rome in a story that was both heart-wrenching and a testament to the impossible strength of the human spirit. Not enough tears could ever be shed for such inconceivable loss and grief.
Taking the overwhelming topic of the “migrant crisis” down to its micro level, down to the level where each migrant is a person, each migrant has a story, and each migrant has a name, is important. It helps to combat against feelings of apathy that often result from wanting to help, but feeling that the problem is too big to tackle in any productive way. It also helps humanize people who are all-too-often generalized into terse labels that get repeated ad-nauseam, to the point where they seem to lose all traces of substantive meaning: Syrian refugees, economic migrants, asylum seekers.
For a non-expert, following the issue as an informed reader often requires learning and incorporating all sorts of new phrases, places, and nebulous terminology—Dublin Regulation, EU hotspots, the Balkan route, Idomeni—which, to an average reader, might simply feel like too much work. True, an informed citizen should undertake the duty of informing him or herself. But when reading the news for understanding begins to feel like an exercise in studying for a university degree, once again the issue of “this is just too much to deal with” is hard to avoid.
That’s when making the issue local can brings things into perspective.
In the Eternal City, one organization is the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center (“Offering Radical Hospitality to Refugees in Rome”). It’s a day center for refugees located at St. Paul’s Within the Walls Episcopal Church. Their website is full of resources for anyone who wants to help on a local level. For those who want to help but aren’t local, they accept donations. They have a blog of reflections from various people involved in the daily refugee crisis. They have a page where migrants who are legally authorized to work in Italy offer their skilled services in categories as diverse as language teaching, artisan, domestic staff, industrial, and hospitality.
The refugee center also has a handicrafts workshop called Artisans Together, where migrants can sell things that they produce.
At the storytellers evening, I purchased a bowl that was hand-crafted by Adama, one of the migrants who works with the Artisans Together project. It’s made entirely of folded newsprint paper. It’s incredibly sturdy and has a really unique aesthetic. Adama explained to me that each ridge of the bowl is made up of tightly folded paper which is then hot-glued together. It all starts by wrapping the first pieces around that central ball in the bottom.
In short, this simple object of beauty showcases a skill and creativity born out of sheer necessity; provides a source of income for the migrants, however meager; and also instills a point of connection between the generic term “migrant” and the individual human being behind the label.
Transforming Migrant Lives is a crowdfunding campaign that this year has allowed local migrants to travel and raise awareness in local Italian communities as well as within Europe. You can donate to the project here.
The TML crowdfunding project is run by Jill Drzewiecki Rios, who works with the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center and is a student in the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma—Global Mental Health Refugee Trauma and Recovery. Jill is a certified Specialized Operator in the Reception of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Italy and also holds degrees in International Studies (BA) and Environmental Education (MS).
Please, read Jill’s reflection piece A Place at the Table.
In short: the refugee problem is overwhelming, and yet, we mustn’t dismiss it as something that’s too big for us to concern ourselves with. Bring this issue down to a local level if you are interested in getting involved. All we are required to do is simply that which we are able to, to do our part.
Once, a very wise man told me a parable to teach me this concept, the fact that we each have something to contribute but no one individual must ever feel responsible for solving an overwhelming problem alone. I looked up the parable on Google and found this narration. Enjoy – and reflect.