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Sisters on a mission on the island of Lampedusa

Those three guardian angels on the dock

 Quei tre angeli  custodi sul molo  DCM-011
02 December 2023

When a boatload of migrants is about to arrive in Lampedusa, three nuns go straight to the Favaloro pier. Sister Inès Gizzarelli, Sister Danila Antunovic and Sister Rufina Pinto walk briskly down the entire main street, Via Roma, and arrive at the port to welcome those who have crossed the Mediterranean in search of hope.

“When they touch land they are terrified. They have traveled for 12 hours in dinghies that barely stay afloat. They are often dirty because in the crossing their needs are done inside the boat, sometimes they have burns caused by the fuel”, says Danila, a Croatian woman, consecrated for thirty-five years, from the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Holy Cross. She is one of three women religious that the International Union of Superiors General has sent to the front lines in Lampedusa. With her, there are Rufina, from the same congregation, from India, and Inès, an American religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. The sisters work on behalf of the parish and collaborate with the NGOs on the island.

On Lampedusa, the arrival of barges never stops. The dinghies leave from Libya and Tunisia, carrying people mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa.  They have spent weeks, sometimes even months travelling through the desert; some have crossed the mountains of Iran. They have sold everything they owned to pay the traffickers. The poorest families have amounted massive debt to pay for the journey.

“When we welcome migrants at the dock, waiting for the bus that will take them to the reception center”, Danila explains, “ we talk to them. With difficulty, they tell us about the journey they have made, and many burst into tears. We tell them that they don’t have to be afraid anymore, that they will be able to receive medical care, that they are safe”. Talking is important, so for this project, UISG is always looking for sisters who can express themselves in English, Arabic and Italian.

“The first time I went to the pier”, says Rufina, “it was shocking. I had recently arrived from southern India. On that day, a boat arrived with dozens of migrants, both men and women. I asked some of them, why did you come here? To have a better life, they answered. In their country there is poverty, hunger, there are no schools for children. These are realities that in Europe we cannot even imagine”.

In mid-September, eight thousand migrants arrived on Lampedusa within a few days. The island’s inhabitants number about four thousand.

“We tried to accommodate everyone”, Danila recalls, “but there was not enough food for everyone. The Lampedusians provided everything they had at home to feed these poor people”.

Also arriving on a barge one day at dawn were two Syrian women in wheelchairs, who had fled Damascus to receive proper treatment for the neurodegenerative disease afflicting them. The first care they received, as they disembarked at Favaloro Pier, was a caress and a smile from Sister Rufina. 

“What saddens me most”, says this nun devoted to hospitality, “is seeing the sick, women, children. You can tell from their eyes the burden of desperation that drives them to set out. Many women arrive here having just given birth. Others are holding infants only a few days old. Others we rush them to the emergency room because they are about to give birth”. The encounters are heartfelt, participatory, with a female sensibility. “I asked one mother, why did you undertake such a terrrible journey? She answered, for a better life, because I will finally not be raped anymore, because my child will not grow up in the midst of war”.

Rufina also recalls “a pregnant mother who arrived alone with a two-year-old and another five-month-old. She came from Congo and told me that if she stayed in her country they would kill her. Then she told me she was going to look for a job right away because she needed the money to pay for her husband who stayed in Libya to travel. The money they had was only enough to pay for her and her children to travel. That’s why she had left alone with two very young children and one on the way”.

by Vito D’Ettorre
A journalist with Tg2000/Tv2000