October 2011 Vision Trip Report
In the second and third week of October 2011 we were blessed to travel in Rome and through southern Italy exploring the refugee situation with a leader from IAFR. We have done our best to provide a concise and hopeful report below. However, we learned much more than can be shared on one page. If you'd like more information or have specific questions, please email us. To read more about our experiences and the refugee stories, please visit our blog.
To the left: Refugee camp in Mineo, Sicily. We were not allowed into the camp, but met with church leaders outside the camp grounds where they shared their story with us and joined us in prayer for their church, the refugee situation and our ministry.
Trip Overview (written in Oct. 2011)
We are so grateful for each of you who sent us on our journey. When we reflect on Italy and the refugees there, we are reminded that crisis and opportunity are joined at the hip.
The current refugee crisis in Italy stems from the war in Libya. Many people from Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, West Africa and the horn of Africa left home to find work in Libya. We met refugees who worked there for years driving cabs or in manual labor jobs. That opportunity came to an end when the war broke out, and over 50,000 people sought refuge from the war in Italy (because it is the European country with the closest coastline to Africa). Unfortunately, as Italy has an unemployment rate of 30% of those 35 and under and, of the remaining 65%, many are under-employed and cannot afford their own apartment, most refugees in Italy cannot find work and end up homeless.
Opportunity for the Church
The crisis affords opportunity for the Church to come alongside as governments are not adequate to meet all humanitarian needs. The Church has opportunities to meet basic needs and build relationships that change lives in the process. During our journey through Rome and southern Italy, we met with ministry leaders and churches who are working together to do just that. However, we also learned of challenges that are caused by political divides in the Church as well as a limitation of resources and time. While we do recognize that the Church can't solve all of the refugee problems, we also know that what the Church can do may impact the world. Our own next steps include praying and discerning what God is asking us to do and be willing to dive in.
Examples of ways we can connect with refugees became clear when we visited camps in Bari as well as Sicily. When a refugee crosses the Mediterranean and comes ashore in Sicily, they are taken into custody and held while they are processed. They are then transferred to a camp to await their hearing where they'll learn if they will be granted asylum and, if so, receive documents that show they are in the country legally and qualify to work and travel at will. This process can take upwards of 18 months.
During this time, there is little for the refugees to do but wait. Many expressed to us that they have nothing to fill their days. Others spend hours in bible study and fellowship. But, still, the wait is long and frustrating for most. In this phase of the journey, there is a tremendous opportunity for Christians to reach out to people from all over Northern Africa and Central Asia to offer hope and build life-changing relationships while they wait on the bureaucracy to get to their case. There are also refugee churches within the camps that we can encourage and support -- even from a distance.
Faith in Action
In Mineo, Sicily, a decommissioned U.S. army base houses the largest population. Although food and shelter are provided, many needs go unmet and the nearest town is 10 kilometers uphill. The ministry we visited in Sicily offers a day center in the nearby town that provides donated clothing and other necessities provided by local townspeople and churches. The space is small and fills quickly, particularly on days when the ministry leader provides transportation from the camp to the center (generally twice each week). We had the opportunity to visit on a day when refugees from Nigeria, Togo, and Bangledesh were receiving assistance. The time went by quickly as we engaged in conversations, helped move donations into the small facility and briefly explored the surrounding village.
While visiting the center, John met a man we'll refer to as R. As he made conversation with R and his friend (who did not reveal his name), R began questioning John about the prophets, and challenging him to defend the Bible as authentic. They spoke about the similarities and differences between the Bible and Quran for nearly 3 hours until R had to return to his camp. John had the opportunity to encourage R to bring his questions to Allah (God) and ask for a vision of the truth (throughout history we discover stories upon stories of Christ revealing himself to non-believers in the Middle East through dreams and visions). R and John exchanged email addresses and R emphasized that he really wants to stay in touch.
Although this may seem to be only a conversation, it is actually a powerful exchange. The refugee situation brings people of all faiths to Christian countries. As Christians, we need to be very mindful of this and remember who we represent. We have heard too many unfortunate stories of the impression Christians both in America and in Italy have made on people of other faiths -- and even on Christians from other cultures. The refugee crisis presents an opportunity to share the love, hope and healing of Christ with believers and non-believers alike. There is an opportunity here for both the Church and for individual Christians to leave a lasting impression with people from around the globe about who Christ is. If we are not intentional in our interactions, we may damage the Gospel. If we are intentional, we may help transform lives with hope and love in ways that we cannot even imagine.
Prayer and Next Steps
We have returned to our home in Austin, but the journey has just begun. Please continue to pray for us as we ask:
1. What can we do?
2. Why us?
3. Why not us?
The thought of returning to Italy to work among the nations is scary and exciting at the same time. We can only do it if God does it through us. Thank you again for your prayers and support. Please visit our blog regularly for updates and refugee stories.