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Priest visits survivors of sea crossing

21 April 2017


Entrance: Sean Gilbert by the “Door of Europe” on Lampedusa, a monument to those who have not survived the crossing of the Mediterranean

Entrance: Sean Gilbert by the “Door of Europe” on Lampedusa, a monument to those who have not survived the crossing of the Mediterranean

THE story of a Syrian refugee, taken from the hold of a ship to “light and life” by a German rescue boat, was recounted in St Leonards-on-Sea last week by a priest who discovered tales of suffering and resurrection on Italy’s migration frontline.

The Assistant Curate of Christ Church and St Mary Magdalene with St Peter and St Paul, St Leonards, the Revd Sean Gilbert, spent Passion Week in Lampedusa and Sicily, listening to people who had survived the journey across the Mediterranean. The trip was organised by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

“All of their stories are basically horror stories,” he said on Wednesday. “Pretty much all are subject to human trafficking and exploitation.” Among those he met was Esther, a 17-year-old girl from Gambia, who was pregnant as a result of rape. An orphan who was sold into sexual slavery, she had a story to tell that was “very familiar” to the charity, he learned.

A man, Gambi, described crossing from Syria in a fishing boat carrying 700 people. Many were in the hold, amid suffocating exhaust fumes. Two of his friends drowned during the crossing before he was rescued by a German boat. To date this year, 913 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean.

Mediterranean Hope, a project of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, supports these survivors. “When they come on to the dock,” Fr Gilbert said, “they are allowed to clothe them, give them cup of tea, a smile, and a welcome. Some of them need some hospital care, psychological care.”

Although initial responses on the island had included suspicion and prejudice, attitudes had changed, he learned. A girl rescued from the sea by an Italian fisherman was now considered part of the family; the birth of a child to another survivor had “changed the hearts of people”. Now, the Mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, operates a policy of welcome.

“If is becoming part of their culture,” Mr Gilbert said. “They are staying true to their own culture . . . saying: this is distinctive part of who we are, and you are welcome to be part of that.”

Many of the refugees he met were Christian. Among the things he saw was a cabinet filled with washed-up Bibles — one of a small number of things that migrants took with them, in addition to soil from their home town. He prayed with them “for stability and peace for them and their lives, for friends they had lost, that they will find somewhere safe, and for all those helping then along the way”.

On his return to his parish, he preached sermons over the Easter Triduum illustrated with the stories he had heard. “It was such easy, clear imagery about the best and worst of humanity.”

He recalled those who washed the feet of the newly arrived on the dock; Esther, who had prayed for those who persecuted her; and Gambi, who had suffered the “hell” of the hold, before being “welcomed with light”.

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