· Vatican City ·


Migrants, women saved, and women who save

Do you remember Josepha?

 Vi ricordate  di Josepha?  DCM-005
04 May 2024

“I started to pray, invoking the Star of the Sea. I said to her: ‘Mom, you are my mother, you are the Star of the Sea, and here it’s just you and me. Work a miracle, and come here to find me’”. Josepha composed this prayer while unable to keep her eyes away from the dark and salty abyss.

I will never forget the day she had that handwritten sheet delivered to me. It had been written by the volunteers of Open Arms to whom Josepha had dictated the prayer uttered before falling asleep clinging to a plank, near the corpse of a newborn. He wasn’t her child, but he had died like all those on the boat, except her. Josefa bore the brunt of xenophobia. Because women who migrate are subject to an extra dose of slander and contempt. They had called her “the castaway with nail polish”. Indeed, “an actress, because the nail polish is intact after 48 hours in water”. Thus mocked: “She flees from war but has painted her nails”. Insulted: “Her hands do not have the spongy appearance typical of those who remain in water for hours”. Offended: “There was no shipwreck”. Finally forgotten, after the poison of false news had taken effect, justifying unspeakable deals with Mediterranean criminals, just to a have other “Josephas” out of their way. It was July 16, 2018, when she was rescued almost by chance off the coast of Libya.

Once relocated to Spain, after months of almost selective mutism, she sent us a voice message. A sweet and melancholic melody. “I’m doing better. I thank everyone. Today I’m starting to take my first steps”. And then those notes, which should be engraved at the entrance of every harbor. While one by one everyone else vanished into the darkness of the sea, “I began to pray, I invoked the Virgin of the Sea. I said to her: ‘Mother, you are my mother, you are the Star of the Sea, and here it’s just you and me. Work a miracle, and come visit me here’”. More than a day and a night adrift. Josepha had escaped the Libyan tormentors, the Sahara traffickers, even before that, she had eluded her relatives in Cameroon. Married, she couldn’t bear children. An infamy. Paid with humiliations, beatings, insults. Josepha prayed as she sought another chance. She prayed when, in secret, she outwitted the jailers of her own blood, who hid her from the shame of the village.

Without a family anymore, without the affections that had deceived her, as Josepha descended under a sky that no longer distinguished the abysses of the heart from the liquid, briny depths, she looked up. “To Jesus I said: ‘Father, you are my father. I know you are here and that for you nothing is impossible. Don’t leave me here. I am not afraid’”. So, I began to sing a prayer. When I finished the song, I fell asleep, until the moment I found myself here, on this boat. Here I am with people with big hearts. They are taking care of me. In all my life, before now, I had never met people like these”.

In which recess of the soul did she find that strength? Because everyone prays when in need. But then who can say, at the very last inch from death: “I am not afraid “.And truly hasn’t been if then says: “I began to sing”. To grasp onto life, Marc Gasol, Iberian champion exported to the NBA in the USA, nearly broke his hand risking his career when he boarded the Open Arms.

In years of travel and reportage, many faces and many words stick with you. But of some migrant women, only a voice remains. Like that of the five underage Somali girls imprisoned in Libya. June 2021. They managed to get their desperate plea for help to us through a stratagem. Their age was known to the Libyan police. But being barely more than children didn’t shield them from the rapes of the guards, funded, equipped, and trained by civilized Europe. Two girls, after yet another session of abuse by the Libyan agents, attempted to take their own lives. Both were then hospitalized in Tripoli and visited by Médecins Sans Frontières personnel. After treatment, the troops threw them back into their cells. To continue as before.

 “Even though it’s not the first time I’ve experienced sexual assaults, these are the most painful because they’re committed by the people who should protect us”, one of them recounted. There’s no alternative: “You have to give them something in return to be able to use the bathroom, or to call family, or to avoid being beaten”. Sexual assaults can happen at any time of the day: “It happens every day. If you resist, you get beaten and stripped of everything”. Another girl reported starting to experience sexual harassment shortly after being brought to the detention center. The brutal script remains unchanged. When the Somali girl asked a guard to let her call her parents, the soldier gave her a phone and let her out of the cell. After the girl hung up, he grabbed her. Months later, they were released and were able to obtain international protection. But the psychiatrists who treat them say their wounds will never heal.

Women saved and women who save. It was March 7, 2016. European authorities officially declared the closure of the Balkan route for refugees. Since that day, not a single evening has passed without the usual march of migrants from Greece along the railway line to Veles, 40 km from Skopje, following the spine that leads towards the borders of the European Union.

Lence Zdravkin noticed it first one evening in 2013. Living close to the railway that runs through North Macedonia to Serbia, she understood that the greatest migration crisis of our time would not be resolved with barbed wire or tanks stationed at the borders.

At first, the locals didn’t take it well. “But together we showed that there is a small Country with a big heart, a land of solidarity. We don’t have much, but what little we have we can share with migrants and refugees”. That’s how they saw bread multiply in Veles. The baker, who initially brought leftover loaves to the makeshift transit camp, ended up baking many more than he used to put on the market counter every day. Not to mention the greengrocer, who never let anyone go without a big apple.

An entire community turned into a field hospital. “Here we said to ourselves one simple thing: no one should pass through Veles and remain hungry and naked, sick and without care. No one should, when they finally remember us, think of us as people who turned away”. And so it was. “The fact that the pope comes from a family of five children and his father was an Italian immigrant, I believe, will contribute to his message for us and to further denounce the Golgotha of refugees who, through no fault of their own, must leave their homes”.


In the eyes of a reporter

Nello Scavo is a special envoy and war correspondent for Avvenire, an Italian daily of Catholic inspiration. He has investigated organized crime and global terrorism, and has authored reports from hotspots around the world such as the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Southeast Asia, the countries of the former USSR, Latin America, the most hostile borders in Turkey, Syria, the Horn of Africa, and the Maghreb. In 2016, for over a year, he documented the Balkan route through which migrants arrive in Europe. In September 2017, he managed to infiltrate a clandestine prison run by Libyan traffickers, providing firsthand accounts of the conditions of trapped migrants.