Let us tell you about the parable of Don Justo. It’s one of the best ones, we promise.
This is a story about the power of faith. Even though we don’t believe. We live in times where the core of the major Abrahamic religions are being abused and misused to prop up tyranny, to justify war crimes and to excuse terror and death. It’s easy to forget that every single day, humble men and women of faith practise what they preach. And Don Justo is one of these people.
He arrived in Lake Como, Italy, six years ago from Cameroon and one of the first things he did was open up his church and buildings to the men, women and children who had braved the watery graveyard of the Mediterranean to search for refuge in Europe. Whatever their legal status, nationality, religion, sexuality or backstory, it didn’t - and doesn’t - matter. Don Justo offers refuge. We had heard about his project several months ago and it topped our list of projects to visit on our trip.
We arrived on a foggy, grey day and were welcomed by Desi and Georgia, mother and daughter from Como who have been volunteering with Don Justo’s project for a long time. We were immediately struck by how peaceful and welcoming the project felt. We also felt like we were in a London tube carriage - so many nationalities! Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Syria, Morocco, Italy, Peru and countless other far-flung places are represented here.
People under the care of Don Justo are very well looked after. Everyone who arrives here or is referred is interviewed by a volunteer so they can help refugees in the best way possible. Minors are referred elsewhere and victims of sex trafficking are offered a place of refuge with another specialised project - both groups are sadly commonplace. There is space for 70 people to sleep within the walls of Don Justo’s property and everyone here is helped to access the medical care that they need. Rarely for this kind of project, legal support is offered - both of us wish that NGOs and volunteers paid more attention to this area as it can often be life-changing. Whatever stage of the process a person is at, they can be referred to get the advice that they need.
But support here is also practical - clothes and wash products are distributed and snacks are provided - other restaurants in Como provide meals during the day. But every evening, local volunteers, residents and refugees cook together to prepare a meal for anyone who wants to join them. It’s a very Italian opportunity to communicate, socialise and learn over eating really good food. We don’t think that we have ever sat down with so many different nationalities in our lives - we learned about Neil Armstrong’s love of ceviche from a Peruvian, the joys of whiskey from a Bangladeshi, how to dress from an Italian and how to ride a camel correctly from some Moroccans. And this was all before coffee!
One thing that struck us was how well integrated residents seemed - such good Italian! Some residents of the project have found employment and Don Justo helps them pay the rent for the first year, to make the transition easier. Integration is helped by the fact that Italians from across the country sit down and eat dinner with Don Justo and the residents every night. It’s really valuable and a lesson that other countries and projects would do well to learn from.
All of this is in sharp contrast with the Red Cross ‘camp’ less than a kilometre down the road. Volunteers or locals are forbidden entry, but people who have been inside say that containers made for four are now crammed with up to eight people. There are no activities or facilities in the camp and if the authorities know that residents of the camp wish to leave to attend activities elsewhere in Como, they are forbidden from leaving. Instead of making life better for people there, the Swiss Red Cross, the prefecture and Caritas are just in an ongoing battle over who has overall control and the residents suffer. The camp has been open for a mere six months but, like many official structures, seems to be failing before it even begins.
An outsider may think that a project like Don Justo is running would be well received. Alas, this isn’t necessarily the case. Even though Como is a very rich place, because last summer refugees were sleeping out in the railway station, many powerful locals just want to wish away the ‘problem’ of refugees passing through or living in their town. Don Justo’s project is entirely run on donations and needs help. More recently, the fascist Italian Northern League party has been making problems for Don Justo and the residents. Their most recent attempt to try and shut them down came from Como’s first and only health and safety inspection of the community kitchen. They passed with flying colours, but this certainly won’t be the last time they try.
Both of us feel this is one of the best projects we have come across during our time working in this crisis and Don Justo and his volunteers need all the help and support they can get. We made a substantial donation and we would love it if you or anyone you know would do the same. More coverage and volunteers could help raise European consciousness about what Don Justo is achieving here. Financial donations would help to safeguard their future - as any Italian will tell you, utility bills are astronomical here and a big proportion of donations goes to paying for essentials such as heat, water and light. Please make a donation and if you are friendly with any church groups, please encourage them to help on a more ongoing basis. If you would like to make a donation to Don Justo, then please contact Sam or I for IBAN details.
Local volunteers fully expect the numbers of people travelling through Como, especially minors, to rise during the summer months - last summer around 500 people were camped out in appalling conditions in the railway station. With this in mind, local volunteers are planning on opening a shelter for minors in the next month or so. If you would like to donate to this cause or obtain more information, please contact me and I can put you in touch with one of the organisers, the lovely Ale Galli, who was our Como guide and is an all round lovely human being and excellent volunteer.
We are really reluctant to leave Como, even though there has been torrential rain since we arrived, but it’s time to hit the road again and find out more about the incredibly work that Italians are doing to help their newest and most vulnerable arrivals.
Ciao for now, and if you want to donate to our crowdfunder to help us help great projects continue their fantastic work across Europe, you can do so here :) https://gogetfunding.com/refugeereliefroadtrip/
You are free and responsible to make your own personal moral decision about what to do about this, but consider that there are now thousands of volunteers who befriended refugees over the last few years who share the experience of moral alienation from the conventional ‘mainstream’ European society now. A burning sense of injustice and moral alienation cannot be suppressed even if we wanted to, so we should reflect and then plan how to direct that fire of righteous anger wisely and well.
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Has Greece ever been under more pressure to resolve the growing challenges created by the influx of asylum seekers and migrants than during this week?
Two reports, with conflicting recommendations have been focused on Greece this week. One, in a hypercritical attempt to force Greece to resolve a situation which is undoubtedly and for the most part, caused by the EU-Turkey deal further compounded by the lack of solidarity from other EU countries to relocate people.
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