Cecile Kyenge, Italian minister for integration, serves food at Centro Astalli in Rome in 2013 in Rome (CNS photo/Alessandro Di Meo, EPA)


Part of a series on the Vatican Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, this is the fourth of Griffin Oleynick’s dispatches from Rome. Catch up on his firstsecond, and third pieces here. Check back soon for the next installment.


The Centro Astalli—a refugee center tucked in an alleyway near the ancient ruins of the Forum and Michelangelo’s graceful Campidoglio in downtown Rome—is small and compact. Unless you were looking for it, you’d never know it was there. Housed in a refurbished basement, it consists of a long, vaulted corridor, containing showers and changing stalls, a few simple dining rooms, a kitchen with serving area, and a first-aid station. At the end of the hall there’s also a modest chapel, named after the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt—some of history’s earliest refugees, the staff like to say. Aside from a few paintings and a statue made by migrants, an altar carved from the desk of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ (former Superior General of the Society of Jesus and founder of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which runs the Center), and photos of Pope Francis from his 2013 visit, the space is bare and unadorned. Daily, more than two hundred people make use of the center’s services.

In recent days, the concerns of those on the margins have moved to the center of the Synod on Young People. As conversation shifts to the second of the three sections of the Instrumentum laboris, dedicated to interpreting the manifold issues that have arisen throughout the past two weeks, delegates have become increasingly vocal about the crises confronting young migrants and refugees. There have been blunt remarks not only from bishops in countries from which people are fleeing (like Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui in the Central African Republic, who forcefully lamented that refugees are treated “like animals, not humans”), but also from hierarchs in the wealthier countries that receive them, like Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto in Italy, who praised migrants as a “precious strength” and rebuked the growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe. (Migration has become a priority for the Italian Bishops Conference, or CEI, which in December will convene a gathering of Mediterranean bishops to identify practical ways of addressing the region’s mounting crisis.)

The Synod’s current focus on migrants and refugees is strategic, as I learned after speaking with two delegates, Michael Czerny, SJ and Robert Stark, SSS. Both represent the Vatican’s Section for Migrants and Refugees, a part of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development that reports directly to Pope Francis. They were specially appointed by the pope to ensure that the voices of young migrants and refugees are heard in the hall (the two held a listening session at Centro Astalli during the Synod’s opening days). Migrants and refugees aren’t just a “special problem” tacked on to the Synod’s agenda, Stark and Czerny told me. Rather, they’re privileged witnesses, paradigmatic of young people as a whole, and their stories can help the entire church rediscover its true identity in the crucified Christ. After all, if the church wants to learn to care for young people, all of whom are in a sense vulnerable, it would do well to listen with particularly close attention to the most vulnerable. It’s in serving those who have lost everything (home, family, friends) that the church most fully realizes its mission to care for the least among us.

For those who have been following Francis’s pontificate, these developments should come as no surprise. The pope has long drawn attention to migration, beginning with his 2013 visit to Lampedusa, the tiny Italian island south of Sicily where more than four-hundred thousand migrants have arrived over the past two decades. (More than three thousand people drown every year attempting to cross the Mediterranean in ramshackle boats operated by human traffickers.) Francis’s comments since then have likewise been unequivocal: “The poor and the earth are crying out,” he wrote in 2015’s Laudato si’, attributing the “tragic rise” in the number of migrants and refugees to the economic displacement and environmental devastation wrought by the “globalization of indifference.” Rebuking ideological opposition to migration (especially inside the church) in this year’s Gaudete et exsultate, he explicitly elevated care for migrants and refugees as one of the church’s top social justice priorities, on par with its traditional opposition to abortion.  

Today, the problem is only getting worse. The UN estimates that there are now 68.5 million refugees, or forcibly displaced people, worldwide, while migrants (those who fail to meet the definition of “refugee” but nevertheless leave home, usually for economic reasons) number around 244 million (3.3 percent of the world’s population, according to the Pew Research Center.) Anti-immigrant policies have only made matters worse. The Trump administration, for example, recently set a resettlement cap of just 30,000 refugees for 2019, a record low for the United States, and down from 110,000 under President Obama. Things are no better in Italy. Just months after his election last spring, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini (of the nationalist Lega party) notoriously refused to allow 177 refugees to disembark in the Sicilian port of Catania. A few weeks ago, the Italian parliament passed legislation making it easier for authorities to quickly expel migrants seeking asylum—in other words, to send them back to their conflict-torn home countries. In addition to its markedly xenophobic language (there is a category for migrants labeled “socially dangerous”), the law also allows police in larger cities to use tasers against immigrants said to be resisting arrest.

Italy had always prided itself on the fact that it was a leader in refugee resettlement. But extreme right-wing attitudes now predominate.

What accounts for the rapid rise of anti-immigrant ideologies here in Italy, where not only the pope but also the CEI have consistently defended the rights of migrants? “It’s ironic,” explained Sara Tornielli, an intern with the Vatican’s Migrants and Refugees Section. “Many Italian Catholics, especially young people, don’t make the connection between their faith and their politics. They say they believe in Jesus, and that they sincerely desire to help others, but at the same time, they have no problem voting for Salvini. He claims immigrants come to Italy to take their jobs, and they believe him.” I lived in Italy in 2006 and again in 2015, but the attitudes Sara was describing were new to me. Italy, as I knew it, had always prided itself on the fact that it was a leader in refugee resettlement, its Coast Guard recognized for rescuing thousands of migrants from the sea every year. But extreme right-wing attitudes now predominate. I wanted to know how this could have happened.

“It’s a fundamentally flawed way of thinking,” Czerny explained. “Many people in Italy, just like in the United States, wrongly assume that migrants and refugees come to their countries voluntarily, with the intention of taking away jobs and economic resources. That’s just not true. Migrants leave home not because they want to, but because they’re forced to.” In this sense, he concluded, migrants and refugees are victimized twice over. They’re traumatized not just in their countries of origin, where they suffer war, genocide, torture, sexual violence, poverty, and other kinds of exploitation (including the adverse effects of climate change), but also once they arrive in the West, where they may be greeted with indifference, suspicion, or even outright hatred. “Migrants,” Czerny said, “have a right to be welcomed and cared for, not turned away; to reject them is an affront, not just to their human dignity, but to the image of God that each one bears.”

That’s the vision that the Vatican is proposing on a global level, synthesized most recently in a set of action points submitted to the UN, as it moves toward ratifying two Global Compacts on migrants and refugees by the end of the year. The principles are simple and intuitive. Rooted in a “contemplative gaze” that beholds the biblical image of the “new Jerusalem” (from Isaiah 60 and Revelation 21) as the City of Peace, a home in which people from all nations may dwell, the Vatican asserts the rights of migrants to travel in freedom, without fear of deportation, protected by laws that respect their integrity and keep their families intact. This call to action—organized around the four active verbs of welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating—offers a pointed biblical critique of anti-migrant hostility, calling on Christians worldwide to pressure their leaders for more just immigration laws. In short: to build bridges, not walls.

What about those involved on the front lines of such bridge-building here in Italy? What’s their situation, and how are they faring? “Not so well,” lamented Donatella Parisi, a staff member at Centro Astalli. We spoke for a half hour at the Jesuit Refugee Service headquarters, housed in the basement of the Collegio Romano, a few blocks from the Pantheon and the Church of the Gesù. 

In Italy, Donatella explained, the vast majority (about 90 percent) of refugees and asylum seekers are young men from Africa between the ages of twenty and twenty-five. That’s in contrast with the United States, where refugees often arrive in families, including women and children, from a range of continents. There’s a grim logic behind this difference: young men are the only ones physically equipped to survive the long journey to Italy, first through the African desert and then across the sea. Women, when they travel along the same routes, often arrive pregnant, having been raped during the journey by traffickers or other migrants. It’s expensive, too. Smugglers often charge up to eight thousand dollars for a one-way ticket, the funds raised and considered an investment by the migrants’ families back home.

But arrival in Italy is no guarantee of safety, Donatella told me. Once here, more than 70 percent of migrants are eventually sent back; the few who are permitted to stay spend years in legal limbo, unable to work lawfully or integrate into Italian society as they await the outcomes of their cases, typically held up in a byzantine bureaucracy. “La situazione è grave,” she said—the situation is grave. “Migrants continue to die in the desert, and at sea, as many as eight people every day. But in Italy, we no longer hear about it—their stories have disappeared from the news. And with that, all memory of their existence as human beings, too.”

Donatella was tired, and exasperated, but after a long pause, she found her strength, focusing on what she called the “countercultural” work of Centro Astalli. Handing me a thick annual report, she detailed the many resettlement services the center provides (medical and legal aid, food and housing, Italian language courses) as well as the range of new initiatives taken up in recent years under the direction of a charismatic Jesuit, Fr. Camillo Ripamonti, SJ. Integration here is difficult, she said, especially in Rome, where you need at least two salaries to get by. But it happens, especially in peripheral, multiethnic neighborhoods like Torpignattara, about four miles from the city center, where once-gritty walls have now been covered by beautiful murals depicting migrants of different ethnic and geographic origins.

Working with young people is a way, Francesca explained, of intervening in the future of Italian society. Opening minds and hearts now ensures a more open, welcoming Italy tomorrow.

Even more important, Donatella told me (here she was joined by her colleague Francesca Cuomo), is the cultural work that the center does with Italian secondary schools and universities. Two successful new programs (Finestre, which means “windows,” and Incontri, “encounters”) aim to sensitize Italian students not only to the struggles faced by migrants, but also to facilitate meaningful engagement with their different religions and cultures. The approach is innovative, as Italian-speaking immigrants and former refugees travel directly to classrooms to share their stories in person, building relationships with students who in turn come to volunteer at the center. And it works, too: the number of schools requesting visits has risen sharply, leading to a corresponding uptick in the center’s funding, staff hirings, and volunteer participation. Working with young people is a way, Francesca explained, of intervening in the future of Italian society. Opening minds and hearts now ensures a more open, welcoming Italy tomorrow. The approach is analogous, I reflected, to the way in which the Synod is trying to rejuvenate the church.  

As Donatella left to return to her busy schedule, I was joined by Dhurata Ghjnaj, twenty-eight, a former refugee from Albania, now an Italian citizen, who works as an educator in the Finestre program. Poised, confident, and unaffected, I’d taken her for a native Italian when she first greeted me. “Don’t worry, it happens with everyone,” she said. She told me the story of her and her family—harrowing, but with a happy ending—openly and without a hint of shame.

The five of them had come over in a boat from Albania in the winter of 1998, following the genocide carried out by Slobodan Milošević. Halfway across the Adriatic their smugglers forced them overboard. They would likely have drowned had they not been rescued by the Italian Coast Guard, who brought them to Bari, in the south. The family eventually traveled to the outskirts of Rome, where Dhurata (her name means “gift” in Albanian) grew up in poverty, living without running water in what she called a baracca abbandonata—an abandoned shack. Met with hostility by their Italian neighbors, the family was aided by a local parish priest, who sought them out after hearing about their situation. The hardest part about growing up as a refugee in Italy, Dhurata told me, was witnessing the helplessness of her parents, who suffered humiliation (from the government, mostly) at every turn. She, instead, was quickly able to “pass” for an Italian, speaking the language and hiding her poverty from friends and teachers. Excelling at school from an early age, she finished university studies and found a job as a teacher in Rome.

But a few years ago, moved by news stories about migrants drowning in the Mediterranean on the way to Italy, she decided that she could no longer remain indifferent. “How could I? Even though my family were refugees, now they’re with Salvini, thinking migrants are coming to steal jobs. But I’m not ashamed of being a refugee: it’s who I am.” So she took what her friends called un passo indietro, a “step backwards,” leaving the security of her job first to volunteer, then to work full time at Centro Astalli.

She loves the work, which she carries out “con passione.” And when her Italian friends recently learned that she herself had once been a refugee? “They asked me to forgive them,” she said, noting that some were curious, even becoming regular volunteers at the center themselves. Her job now, she told me, is not just to raise awareness among young Italians, but to offer support and accompaniment to young refugees arriving in Rome. Her trauma, which caused her so much pain in the past, has now become her chief asset. As a survivor of the overseas journey, she’s able to instantly gain trust, offering guidance and wisdom as refugees travel the slow path of recovery and healing.

For all of Dhurata’s enthusiasm for her work with Centro Astalli and the Jesuit Refugee Service, she did offer a few critical suggestions for the church as the Synod on Young People continues. She’d been to see the pope, and she’s glad for the Synod’s interest in migrants and refugees. But it’s not enough, she explained. Young people today (and not just refugees) can barely plan for “tomorrow,” let alone think about what they’ll do “the day after tomorrow,” that is, in the long run. “Why can’t the church come out from the parishes and meet people where they are, like the priest did for my family? He came to us, not the other way around.”

Just as she said this, she politely excused herself. Over at the legal aid desk, there was a young African who needed help completing a job resume. She told me she was grateful for our conversation, and interested in how the Synod would play out, but that right now she needed to get back to work.

Published in the December 1, 2018 issue: View Contents

Griffin Oleynick is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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