Exhausted men get off the boat that rescued them. Then a woman appears, an infant in her arms and a little girl holding hands. “She must have been ten years old. I approached, with a puppet. Her gaze went straight there, to the stuffed bunny. And she gave me the most beautiful smile in the world”. You may have traveled the world, encountered suffering in its most tragic forms, listened to a thousand stories, and shared afflictions, but there is always a face, a pair of eyes, a word that marks you, to where you return when there is a need to take stock or simply catch your breath.
For Sister Carmen Elisa Bandeo, that child was an important milestone. “At that moment, the crossing, the fear, the cold, and the violence had disappeared, she was a child, and she had to play. Recognizing others as persons, see advocacy is done, view rights as fundamental, yet it is life in its entirety that must be kept in mind”, she says.
The Missionary Congregation of the Servants of the Holy Spirit nun who is now the coordinator of the International Union of Superiors General’s inter-congregational migration and refugee project is Argentinean, 61 years old. She has a degree in education, and experience in youth work in her country. She lived in Taiwan for 16 years, where she worked in schools with female students, and with adults and young people in prisons, then with undocumented migrants. “In Taiwan I discovered this world of migration, which is intertwined with a series of injustices and violations of rights. Be that underpaid labor, trafficking, prostitution, or arranged marriages. And women are often the first to be affected”. In 2012, her congregation, which called her to Rome to coordinate the Mission and Justice Peace and Safeguarding Creation sectors, joined the Centro Astalli’s “Communities of Hospitality” project, which asks convents and institutes to open their doors to refugees, for paths of semi-autonomy. “We have taken in families from Africa, from Afghanistan, Syrians too, and theirs besides” When Carmen goes to Athens, to deal with education, she continues her collaboration with the Jesuits who also follow migrants and refugees there.
In 2015, the Superior Generals’ Inter-congregational project commenced, “but it was actually founded two years earlier, on Oct. 3, 2013, when there was the tragic shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa”. Carmen Bandeo was with Sister Fernanda Cristinelli, a Combonian. “We were reflecting on the project for the justice and peace area of the UISG, but we were caught up in what was happening in Sicily. So we thought that as religious we should work on this issue”. With the blessing of the UISG, the experiences of the different congregations working with migrants were brought into focus, and we commenced with an experience that, in 2015, became a prophetic sign that coincided with the 50th anniversary of the UISG. The project entailed working with communities of religious women from different congregations that act as a bridge between migrants and institutions, welcoming contexts, and dealing with their immediate needs. We have three houses in Sicily - Agrigento, Ramacca, and Caltanissetta - and then the community of Lampedusa, where Carmen Bandeo experiences direct reception, on the Favaloro pier. This concrete arm -just like all piers-, has now become a symbol of the lives saved from Lampedusa in these troubled times of migration.
“After a few years we realized that we could not limit ourselves to Italy. Migration is a global issue and a huge challenge”, reflects the religious. Three years ago, the UISG international project began. The initiative comprises a database of congregations working in this field, cooperation with the Dicastery for Integral Human Development, the Jesuit Refugee Service, Centro Astalli, the Italian branch of the JRS and the Scalabrini International Migration Institute (SIMI), and online and in-presence training courses open to all congregations.
Four women religious weave the network across continents, while trying to find answers to forced migration (U.S.-Mexico border, Spain, Italy, Latin America and Africa). “In Latin America we have already been working together for some time. Africa and Asia have fragmented realities, in Europe a lot is being done but each one for themselves. We want to reach out to all congregations, not just those working on this issue, so as to create a common consciousness and culture”, says Carmen Bandeo, who announces plans in 2024 to hold a symposium on theological reflection and responses to migration.
“As religious women we are facilitated to creating a connection that does not necessarily need words, especially with women”.
Carmen recalls Fatima, the young Afghan woman Carmen met in Athens. “I was involved in education. She, who had two children and was pregnant, took all the classes, she was very committed; and after the baby was born, she completed her studies. On the day of the delivery of the attendance certificate she was sick. Therefore, I took it to her where she was hospitalized. The joy I saw in her eyes said that that piece of paper, which is taken for granted by us, was a recognition of her struggle to be considered a person, recognized in her dignity. And that is what makes the difference in everyone’s life”.
by Vittoria Prisciandaro
A journalist working on St Paul’s magazines, Credere and Jesus
The Migrant Monument
A group of 140 migrants from various cultures and different historical periods in a six-meter-long bronze sculpture titled Angels Unwares. The piece was created by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz at the suggestion of Cardinal Michael Czerny, who is current prefect of the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development. As of 2019, the artwork is located in front of St. Peter's Basilica. Francis says he wanted it there, in the middle of the square, the center of the world and of Christianity.
“So that it may remind everyone of the evangelical challenge of welcoming”.