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Refugees share their stories with Pope Francis
September 11, 2013

Refugees share their stories with Pope Francis
Pope Francis greets refugees and others outside Centro Astalli, the Jesuit Refugee Service center for refugees in Rome. (photo by Centro Astalli)
"Jesuit Refugee Service in Syria, and Centro Astalli here, are important sources of strength for us refugees, but we need more. We need the international community to stand against the suffering of the Syrian people caused by a war that is neither wanted understood." — Carol, a refugee from Syria, to Pope Francis

(Rome) September 11, 2013 — In anticipation of the visit yesterday by Pope Francis to Centro Astalli, the Jesuit Refugee Service center for refugees in Rome, several refugees shared their personal experiences in letters to the Holy Father. Two of those letters — written by refugees from Darfur and Syria — and a letter from the country director of JRS Italy, are shared here with you.

Message from Carol, a refugee from Syria

Holy Father,

My name is Carol. I’ve been a Syrian refugee in Italy for one year. I’m a victim of an atrocious conflict that today counts more than two million refugees.

I’m a teacher, for many years young people and children have been my reasons for living. I always thought that education would be a pathway to peace.

But today every pathway towards peace and liberty in my country seems to have been erased forever.

Our children have either been conscripted or killed in a senseless war. They are killing them all. It will take at least 50 years before new Syrian generations emerge. We are a country without a future.

Today in Syria, our children are prevented from going to school, because to send a child into a classroom to learn means accepting the risk they may not come home alive.

We have escaped from our homes, from our families, from our past because there is no alternative.

The only hope is to reach Europe alive, welcoming and open as we dreamed. Unfortunately, we have not been able to find peace here either.

Our human rights and dignity too often becomes trampled by the indifference and superficiality with which we’re treated.

Today I entrust my people to your heart and into your hands. My Syrian brothers and I present here can offer you only deep wounds and a heavy heritage of pain. We are also witnesses to the suffering of our Christian brothers in Syria. We come from cities like Homs and Kamisly, we’ve seen our churches destroyed. The war has even denied us the possibility to pray. 

Here in Italy, or in other European countries, many of us have escaped the horror, but we still do not feel safe.

Holy Father, we turn our prayer to you. The Syrians in Europe feel a great responsibility to not be a burden, we want to feel as an active part of a new society. We want to offer our help, our wealth of skills and knowledge, our culture in the construction of a more just and welcoming society for those who flee war and persecution. 

We adults can still endure more pain, if this serves as a guarantee to a future of peace for our children. We ask that they be guaranteed an opportunity to go to school, and to grow up a peaceful environment. 

Jesuit Refugee Service in Syria, and Centro Astalli here, are important sources of strength for us refugees, but we need more. We need the international community to stand against the suffering of the Syrian people caused by a war that is neither wanted understood.

Message from Adam, a Sudanese refugee from Darfur

Holy Father,

My name is Adam and I’m a 33 year-old refugee living in Italy because I was unable to stay in Sudan. I’m a war survivor who arrived here by sea. To be here today is a really emotional experience for me.

I feel a strong responsibility to express the pain and hope of all refugees living in Italy, but finding the words is not easy.

I thought I would briefly tell you my story, not because it is more important than others, on the contrary; but because although it may seem extraordinary it is really quite normal for so many people in the world. It is a story of war.

You know better than us how many wars there are in the world and where, and for this reason you can understand the burden we refugees carry on our shoulders.

My story of war began when soldiers burned down my village in Darfur. My two younger sisters, four and six years of age, died in the fire. I was forced to enlist with the rebels, and my brother with government forces. Two months later, I found myself in the middle of a conflict with a rifle in my hand.

I was fighting against those who I had been ordered to consider my enemies. I never imagined that day the enemy could have been my elder brother. One in front of the other, we remained paralysed staring into each other’s eyes. We didn’t say a word to each other. Instead, I threw my rifle to the ground and began running, escaping. My flight ended in Italy.

We refugees are the fortunate survivors, the witnesses of so deaths in war, of those killed by terrible dictators.

The most difficult part for those like me, refugees in Italy, is trying to raise public awareness of the tragedies in which our peoples live. We can’t afford to give in to the pain, to close in on ourselves, to consider ourselves victims of injustice. If we do that we’ll offend the memory of those who didn’t make it.

We refugees have a duty to do our best to integrate into Italian society. It is difficult, but we must try. Many of us arrived here full of hope and expectations. We were convinced that the worst was behind us, but too frequently we wonder if that’s the case.

Many of us living in Italy don’t have a bed, a hot meal or a place to call home where we can recover from our long journey and the horrors of war. Even if integration seems more of a dream than reality, we can’t give up. I was lucky; I was helped by friends in Centro Astalli. They are my home, my second family.

One last thing, Your Holiness. The journey we refugees are forced to take in order to seek asylum in Europe is a crime against humanity. There were 170 people in the boat that brought me from Libya to Italy. Each one of us paid $1,200 (915 Euros) to take this journey, and for many it was a ticket to their death.

Holiness, your voice is powerful. Everyone listens to you. Help us. Speak out against these massacres in the future.

Seeking asylum shouldn't cost you your life.

Message from Fr. Giovanni La Manna S.J.
Country Director of JRS Italy and president of Centro Astalli

Very Dear Pope Francis, 

Your presence here with us is a great source of joy; it is a concrete sign of the love of God for the poorest of the poor and a source of consolation, of hope. As the Gospel reminds us: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted, Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

God gave Pope Francis to His Church, who immediately spoke to our hearts with compassion, hope, courage, asking us to be poor for the poor and to be witnesses.

Pope Francis’ testimony and words confirm his desire to serve refugees, people of every age and nationality, forced to flee war and persecution, imprisonment and tortured. As you can see with your own eyes today, refugees are frequently young men and women, children and families.

Your testimony and your presence here reminds us of the importance of being open to encounter those who have already paid the highest price, forced to leave everything behind and face a journey which many do not survive. Your highly significant visit to Lampedusa a reminded us that many people have lost their lives at sea because of indifference. We should all carry the death of these people on our consciences; this would help us live with open eyes and awakened consciences. 

Pope Francis, the entire Centro Astalli family — Jesuits, lay staff and volunteers — strive to welcome refugees and care about establishing relationships with them. Welcoming refugees opens us to dialogue with people of other cultures and religions and allows us to share the hope of those fortunate enough to reach Italy to live in peace.

We thank God that throughout the years we have maintained our philosophical tradition of helping the poorest of the poor, this has offered us the opportunity to grow humanly and spiritually. Refugees teach us day after day the significance of faith and hope, the only possessions with which they arrive. 

Pope Francis, each of us experiences the limits of our own humanity every day in the encounters with refugees in difficult situations. This makes us feel we are in crisis, but simultaneously keeps us alive, stirring our imaginations to seek new ways of responding to the many needs and difficulties faced by those we welcome. Increasing poverty assumes new connotations; the crisis that we live in is above all cultural and human, more than economic.

Pope Francis, in your blessing and prayer we entrust our wish to remain faithful to our vocation with joy and courage. In you, we entrust to God the desire to recognise the face of Christ in our brothers and sisters. We desire to live with courage to challenge a world that is still too unjust, where resources are not lacking but are unfairly distributed. We try to serve so as to feel part of a single community, where no one remains alone or excluded from the possibility of a worthy and just life.

We believe in the Gospel and we know that limited resources can be overcome if we are able to share what we are and what we have, wherever we are, trusting in providence.

Pope Francis, we find great happiness in your presence, we pray for you, we entrust in the Virgin and in the intercession of St Francis and St Ignatius and we count on your paternal blessing, above all for the refugees present here and also for all others displaced throughout the world.

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Jesuit Refugee Service in Syria

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