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With Sarim who queues for a meal every day

· The Pope's visit to the Astalli Centre ·

Sarim is stunned and bewildered. He can’t understand why the people standing in line in front of the door — on the other side of which for months he has received his only daily meal — isn’t moving today. It is already past three o’clock in the afternoon, the official time for lunch at the soup-kitchen in Via degli Astalli, Rome; but the queue does not seem to be moving. Sarim tries to push ahead. He is held up, and showing his document which shows “Via degli Astalli, 14/a” as his residence does no good. The Pope is about to arrive, someone explains to him. And he looks more perplexed than ever. He doesn’t know who the Pope is. However he asks no more questions and stands back quietly. He goes to a corner and waits.

This small, apparently insignificant detail sums up a love story — dramatic in certain ways — for so many others like Sarim. A story to which Pope Francis on Tuesday afternoon, 10 September, added an extra touch of authenticity and credibility. Via degli Astalli is the headquarters of the Astalli Centre. Since 1981 it has been part of the network of the Jesuit Refugee Service (jrs), founded by Fr Pedro Arrupe, then Superior General.

The centre provides many services. In particular in the old building there is a soup-kitchen, which guarantees a daily meal to more than 450 people, day surgeries and counters where assistance is given in contact with the institutions and with the municipality, as well as a school for learning Italian.

After spending half a day at Lampedusa on 8 July among the illegal immigrants who had just disembarked in Italy, Pope Francis chose to stand beside other disadvantaged people. He went to meet them at one of the centres where they now live, after their dramatic adventure of escape and disembarkation. They now face another dramatic struggle for survival in a land which, although not hostile, is perhaps all too often unaware of the desperation of others. According to their documents more than 10,000 “Sarims” reside in Via deglia Astalli 14/a. Because giving them residence in the centre is the only way to secure their integration.

When at 3:30 p.m. Pope Francis arrived by car at the entrance and approached the queue of refugees waiting to enter, Sarim shook his extended hand, clasped it and cried out his suffering: “I have been here for five years, I now feel Italian, but no one wants to recognize it. I have the documents but, you see, they do not even let me in to my own home!”. And so it was that Sarim entered immediately after Pope Francis.

The premises of the soup-kitchen are far from spacious. In practice, there are several small rooms equipped with tables and chairs where the guests eat. The Holy Father looked into each one of them and said to them simply “Enjoy your meal!”. Then in a slightly larger room he met representatives of those who are assisted: Colombians, Pakistanis, Ethiopians, Afghanis, Cameroonians, Congolese and French people too. Entire families, couples of young newlyweds, young men and women, some slightly older but all with a terrible story behind them. They wanted to tell him about it. Some whispered into Pope Francis’ ear. Just as he often recommends during his morning homilies, he himself looked them straight in the eye while he was talking to them and listened as they confided in him, putting his arm round them, a sign of deeply accentuated personal closeness.

At the end there was a meeting between two old friends. Pope Francis recognized and embraced Mariana Szajbely, an Argentine Missionary of the Risen Christ, who moved from Buenos Aires to Rome four years ago. She offered him some mate , which the Pontiff deeply appreciated. Then after first passing the kitchens where the volunteers who work in the soup-kitchen were gathered — among them was also a Roman journalist — and walking past the infirmary where he greeted doctors and nurses, he reached the Chiesa di Gesù. There to greet him were the refugees who live in the four hospitality centres and study at the Italian school, those who use the social assistance and legal advice bureau and the day surgery, as well as the volunteers who work at the Astalli Centre.

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