In August 2019, I spent two weeks with Sr Veera Bara in Caltanissetta, Sicily. While walking along the streets, the migrants would happily raise their voices from afar, calling out “Mamma” as they greeted us.
Sr Veera Bara began working with refugees here in 2015. A member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross, Ingenbohl, Sr Veera was teaching them Italian, helping them obtain the necessary documents and medical care in case of poor health. These migrants did not know her real name. For them, she was “Mamma”.
When I asked how she finds the courage to do this challenging task, Sr Veera said, “The motto of our founder, Fr Theodosius Florentini, ‘The need of the time is the will of God’, helps me go beyond religious and cultural barriers. It gives me courage to move forward in helping others. Blessed Mother Maria Theresia Scherer, the co-foundress, used to say, ‘Everything is possible with God and for God’”.
Sr Veera was born on 13 July 1957 in Neematoli, Farsabahar in Chhattisgarh district. Six months later, her father died. She has two older brothers and a sister. Her family prayed evening prayers at home and Veera participated in the sodality for children. On occasion, she would lead the prayers and songs in the village. The seeds of religious life sown, she joined the Holy Cross Sisters in 1978 after attending one of their schools, taking her first vow on 8 December 1982.
Sr Veera accepted an invitation to work as a missionary in Uganda. She left for her new mission in October 1993, along with three other sisters. It was a challenge to mould herself to the new environment, language, culture and people. “It taught me to be more patient, more courageous, more missionary-oriented”, she said. The acceptance, support, and love received from her sisters, the local people, and from her superiors helped her carry out various roles as pastoral and social worker, vocation promotor, formator, superior and councillor during her 22 years there.
In 2015 Sr Veera received another call to go to Sicily to live in an inter-congregational, international community. This community was created at the request of Pope Francis who had heard the cry of the migrants on Lampedusa in 2013. Pope Francis expressed his desire that women religious work among the migrants to the International Union of Superiors General (UISG). On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the UISG in 2015, the Superior Generals decided to open two centres in Sicily to help refugees. Religious from various congregations were invited to form a community and work together there. Ten sisters were selected, from nine countries, and eight different institutes. Sr Veera, along with the other nine sisters, reached Rome in September 2015, and received basic instruction in Italian. On 2 December, after the General Audience, the group received Pope Francis’ blessing to begin their new mission in Sicily.
Once again everything was new — where, how to begin, unknown challenges… Motivated by the charism and motto of her congregation, she took one courageous step after the other. At a certain point, she was asked to accompany 20 Nigerian women hosted in a local convent. Her experience with them taught her a lot about trafficking. These young women, physically, mentally and spiritually broken, were in need of someone who could listen, understand, and love them as they were.
In October 2016, she moved to Caltanissetta. There she was shocked to find around 170 Muslim refugees living in the open air under tents made of grass, without water, food, medicine, with minimum clothing, and little hygiene. Their cry for basic necessities made her forget her own small difficulties. The sisters’ presence helped remind the migrants that Allah was with them, and the spring of hope started to blossom in their broken hearts. Their trust, respect, concern and love freed Sr Veera from her fear of encountering them. They met the migrants on the streets, in refugee camps, in hospitals, in families, in churches. In April 2017, she took one more challenging step and began to teach Italian to the migrants. To her surprise, within days, her classroom was filled with 25 to 30 boys who liked her method of teaching.
Sr Veera also became a mediator between the migrants and religious leaders, doctors’ advocates, police and school authorities in Caltanissetta. Through all this, something her late brother had told her came true, “You have left your family and you will find a lot of homes and loving people. Wherever you go, you will find your family, brothers and sisters.” She began to feel like a member of these migrant families, sharing their poverty and struggles.
“I’m happy”, Sr Veera told me, “when migrant families consider me a member of their family and share their joys and sorrows. Pakistani and African migrant children, young men, women, all call me ‘Mamma’”.
After five years of service among the migrants in Sicily, Sr Veera returned to Uganda, where she continues her mission.
Sr Margaret Sunita Minj