From Djibouti to Cairo, Priests are Standing by Immigrants

Along the routes leading to Europe and the Middle East, the paths of those who risk their lives fleeing their homelands cross with those of missionaries offering assistance. One priest in Djibouti said: “They are God’s children, not economic variables”.

“Nobody likes leaving their family, home, culture or environment to go to a foreign land and yet it happens because peace and security are lacking: these are the reasons why one accepts putting their life at risk…” says Father Jemil Araya, a Comboni Missionary living in Cairo, who offers pastoral care and assistance to migrants on the move with the help of some fellow missionaries in the Egyptian capital. Many of these migrants are Eritrean, like him; but also Ethiopian and Sudanese. For these people, Egypt is a stepping stone towards Europe – sometimes it is the final one before they cross the Mediterranean.

This is where some of the approximately 500 victims (according to UNHCR estimates) who lost their lives in the recent boat sinking in the Strait of Sicily came from. The news of the tragedy reached Egypt fast, Father Jemil says, but it did not discourage many from setting off anyway. “Everyone seeks a better life for themselves, no matter what,” the Comboni Missionary adds. “Given the situation they are in, these tragedies do nothing to stop them from trying their luck making the crossing. This was the case in the past too: they see these events as a case of bad luck.”

Another priest, thousands of kilometres apart from Father Jemil, shares the same thoughts. Father Mark Dresser, from the US, works and lives in Djibouti, which is another immigration crossroads: here, it is mostly Somalis and Ethiopians who risk the journey, heading towards the Arabic peninsula. “Many, especially the young, are convinced they will not be among the victims, and that they will make it to their destination,” says the missionary. This is despite the fact that in this Islamic country in the Horn of Africa, there is a strong awareness of how risky the sea crossing via the Bab el-Mandeb Strait is.

Father Desser recalls one incident in particular, which happened last year during the month of Ramadan. A boat, which set sail at night to avoid being seen, capsized as a result of strong winds and waves: at least 40 passengers, all of them Ethiopian, died. The next day, the missionary saw a boy coming to church: he was supposed to be on the boat that sank the night before, but he didn’t have enough money to pay for the journey. “He was sad, not because of what happened but because he hadn’t been able to try,” the priest recalls. “He stuck around a few days, then he found a space on another boat and attempted the crossing.” For the missionaries who have regular contact with immigrants, this determination to go ahead at all costs, ignoring the risks, is a pastoral challenge that requires a response. Especially bearing in mind that, as Father Araya points out: “transit countries have their own problems in terms of unemployment and domestic peace so they lack the resources to take these people in”.

“It is a difficult job, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Desser says. Sometimes, pastoral care involves more than simply offering practical assistance. “Some of the young people that attend the school where I teach have dealings with those who manage the migrations routes,” the US missionary goes on to say, admitting: “One person alone cannot stop this phenomenon”. But he adds: “Here, what I can do is make these young people aware of what they are choosing to do and the dignity of the people whom they come into contact with: ‘treat them as you would expect to be treated if you were in their situation, put yourself in their shoes; we are all children of God who will judge us according to how we receive these migrants, how we treat them’ – that is what I tell them.” “Hospitality” is the term the American missionary uses when he speaks of the Pope’s decision to take three Syrian migrant families back to the Vatican with him, upon his return from the island of Lesbos. His gesture, Desser says, “is representative of what the Church is doing in this part of the world as well, with the little means at its disposal, to help the migrants who wish to continue their journey and are in need of assistance”. From Cairo, Father Araya says: “It is an act that gives courage, that seeks to improve the situation and get across the message that peaceful coexistence is possible”. A plea that is not only addressed to individual missionaries, volunteers or citizens of the various countries migrants pass through, but has a more general importance. “The Pope’s gesture of hospitality sends out the message to everyone that a nation’s greatest asset are the people that inhabit it,” says the Djibouti-based priest. “If we simply look at these people as economic variables we impoverish ourselves in every single way.” (D.M./VI)