"REFUGEE ROAD TRIP UPDATE - with Sam part 3"

Peggy Whitfield   02.04.2017

 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 :)



More Comment

"Wanted by the police! The RefuComm team"

Sharon Silvey   18.09.2017

RefuComm is surprised to find themselves on the front page of Politico Greece today on Chios.

Although we are very grateful for the publicity for our amazing micro SD card project, which has been rolled out on Chios this week, following our research in June and July where we tested it's effectiveness, we find it slightly disturbing, and also slightly amusing that we are the subject of police scrutiny, by no less than a "top official" in the Greek police force.

Read here

"So why is no-one talking about Samos?"

Sharon Silvey   18.09.2017

The island of Samos, in the media spotlight for much of 2016 and the first few months of 2017, appears to have dropped off the radar.

Sharon Silvey reports on conditions there and asks they the situation is not being reported.

Read Here.

"Helping Humans to Help Themselves."

Sharon Silvey   18.09.2017

RefuComm have been providing information to people seeking international protection for two years now and through our constant interaction with refugees and by asking and listening to what they tell us, we have moved swiftly to provide them with what they tell us they need.

"Call for Solidarity from RefuComm"

Sharon Silvey   06.08.2017
Souda Camp Closure
The Refucomm team spent a lot of time on Chios in June and July 2017, getting under the skin of the problem of information provision and trialing our micro SD card project.
When we arrived in June 2017 there were over a thousand people ‘living’ in terrible conditions in Souda and the dearth of media attention has highlighted the absolute disgrace of people being left there for so long.
No one should have had to live like this. Not when the EU has provided such huge sums to take care of refugees stuck in Greece. In the winter we watched people freezing in the snow, dying trying to keep warm and now summer is here people are living in blazing heat with no protection from the sun. The water is regularly cut off. It is not a proper shelter, it never was. The long waits while Greece sorts out their procedures led to self immolation. The stain of Chios will live long in history.
But let us not forget that there is a strong sense of community at Souda, the camp is near the town centre and people can escape the mundane long days and months of waiting for the Greek authorities to sort themselves out in friendly community centres and at least distract themselves from the conditions they are living in. The fear is that Vial will eventually become a closed centre again, as it was in the beginning, and people will be isolated in Vial with no witnesses to tell the story of what happens to them from here.
There are only about 300 people living in Souda right now (despite sensationalist posts by volunteers who say otherwise and misrepresent the situation from afar). Last night we got a message from one of our interpreters on Chios that Souda ‘camp’ will be closed by the end of August. Friends of friends at the municipality confirm that this is the case.
These are people who fled their homes, and now they are living with uncertainty again. Some will be sent to Vial and some to the mainland.

We must not forget them when they are in Vial or wherever else they are sent.

RefuComm has already made careful preparations to track their progress and potential difficulties that might come with isolation, by setting up Whatsapp groups, grouped by language and by gender, with interpreters in each chat, so that we can give legal and emergency assistance and people can tell us what is happening to them.
Next week, thanks to the outstanding success of our micro SD card trial in July, we will be sending 200 micro SD cards into Vial for people who haven’t yet had their interviews so that they have access to information about the procedures and interview preparation. The price of the card will be to join our whatsapp groups. Thank you to all those who donated the SD cards to enable this. It really is essential now, more than ever, that people stay connected and we are racing against the clock to get it done.
We have set up a deportation line with our amazing partners at Refugee Infobus so that people can report potential deportation. Deportation advice and numbers for support groups in Turkey are included. We can track what happens to people. If their phones are confiscated by the authorities they still have the SD card which includes support numbers for them and a record of their important documents.

We will not forget them, we have it covered.

In the longer term, we are rethinking our plans for Greece. Micro SD cards are needed for the other Islands. Things are changing becoming more and more uncertain for the refugees with the absence of EU funded NGO’s. Chios is an example of how things are changing, The EU is putting more and more pressure on Greece to clear the Islands. It is imperative that we are ready to continue to help people.
We are asking everyone to pull together now and put plans in place to make sure people are assisted in creative ways and we need to move fast.
This is a new reality, and we are agile enough and smart enough to beat the system, aren’t we? Isn’t that what we are good at?
Please help us to help people to support themselves. We need volunteers to help us to load and distribute SD cards on the Islands and we need funds for SD cards and printing of instruction leaflets

Join us today in solidarity and help us to get information to refugees who we may not have access to for much longer.

The RefuComm Team