By Rachel Thornton
On the 10th August this year I made up a poster asking for donations of medical equipment, medicines, food, and clothing to be delivered to the refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon and Ventimiglia. The network of LSR donors and volunteers geared up once more to produce a brilliant selection of items. This past year has been a learning experience for us all and we are getting more efficient and professional with each new appeal. The generosity of LSR supporters and their friends seems limitless. From my point of view I’m also pleased to note that on this occasion there were none of the more whimsical items like ice skates, Fred and Wilma Flintstone costumes, ball gowns and teeth, that plagued us all last year.
Below is my account of the trip my husband and I made to Ventimiglia to deliver part of the donations to Caritas (Catholic charity working in the camp) and the Church of Saint Antonio. I’m just the delivery girl. Without the donors, supporters and individuals like Bassie Scott and Joel Bamber I wouldn’t have had anything to deliver. So thank you all. (Ed. More later about the donations to Lebanon and Syria.)
This is dedicated to the anonymous woman who told me over Facebook that she didn’t mind helping Syrians but she didn’t want to help Africans. Also to the woman who asked me on an InterNations (an expat organization) forum when she heard I was taking donations to Ventimiglia, “Whose side are you on? They are all rapists and I have an eighteen year old daughter!”
Rapists are generally not so easy to spot until it is too late. So I can’t tell you whether or not I saw any on this trip. I can only tell you what I did see.
I saw many people from many different African countries who have survived long, harrowing journeys across deserts, seas and mountains. I saw polite, grateful, courageous people and many (too many), people in various stages of hopelessness. My overwhelming feeling from this trip is sadness. When asked what words sprang to mind, my husband replied, “despair and futility.” It was not a merry jaunt in the sunshine.
Wherever these people came from, whatever horrors drove them from their homes and loved ones, it has led them all to the same place. They are now living in Limbo*. Of course, to the holiday maker or casual observer, Ventimiglia would seem to be a lovely place to get stuck in. The climate is for the most part agreeable; the scenery is stunning, the food delicious, and the people attractive and charming. The shops glisten and sparkle and their windows are full of beautiful and ugly expensive stuff…. But Ventimiglia is no more than a gilded cage with bars of sea, mountains, hardship and a well-guarded frontier.
Caritas is only open from 9am to 11am, so we made the first drop there. Although like last year there was construction work going on nearby, we were able to drive though the mud into a car park behind the Caritas building. There was a second gate nearby and a silent line of solemn men waited there patiently to come in. From the building itself came others to help unload the van. They then carried the boxes and bags of donations up some rickety looking stairs to the Caritas building for sorting, storing and eventual distributing. One persistent fellow asked me repeatedly for a rucksack until he was driven away by the ‘line manager’ with the words ‘if you aren’t going to help carry, then go away!’ Another hungry chap who spoke Italian, but could have been from any European country, spotted the boxes of Kinder Chocolate and Madeleines and would not leave without some.
Because of my recent foot surgery I was forbidden by the Caritas Assistant who greeted us to climb the stairs. But she did tell me that there was a further yard at the top filled with unwanted and useless donations awaiting disposal (to other charities and/or the town dump). She asked me pointedly what I had brought and stressed repeatedly that they did not want items for women and children. Unlike last year, this time I had not personally bought or checked and packed every item, therefore I could not take full responsibility for the contents of the boxes and bags. I remembered with a sinking heart that much of the stuff (from unknown and probably less experienced donors) which was thrown into the back of the van at the last minute were indeed items for women and children. I had been told that the women and children were being housed at the Church of S. Antonio but the church had limited storage space so even they would not appreciate much more.
At the church we were shown around by a lovely Italian man, known as Papà. He was delighted with the large amount of food and catering equipment we’d brought and soon organised a chain of people to wheel it all down to the basement store rooms and kitchen. Toys were taken away to be given out a few at a time. He then gave my son and me a tour while Chris chatted to a young dreadlocked Italian reggae musician called Alberto who spends his free time helping out at S. Antonio.
As I tottered down the slope at the side of the church I was greeted by the sight of dozens of women, many of whom had small children in tow. A toddler trundled round on a plastic tricycle, a solitary child gravely kicked a football against a wall, while another tiny tot solemnly tried to help push the trolley of donations over the threshold into the storage room.
However, it struck me that this was unlike any other large gathering of women and children I’d ever seen before. The silence was deafening. There wasn’t the hum that one would normally expect from a group of people this size. Admittedly many women were sitting too far away for me to hear their conversations. But they appeared to be sitting in silence. Defeated and subdued by the turns their lives had taken.
But this is hardly surprising. On the 7th October a young Eritrean girl called Milet and her brothers left the church in a bid to walk to France, which lies after all, just a few tantalising kilometers away. Presumably after their perilous journey to get to Europe the frustration of being blocked at Ventimiglia was too much to bear and they risked all in one last bid for a better life. Milet was hit and killed by a truck in the last tunnel before the border. Her brothers and her friends, along with all the other residents at the church, are still numb with shock and grief. Another life wasted. Who knows what she would have achieved had she lived?
Papà took me straight in to the kitchen, dragging me away from cooing over a tiny baby, born (I believe) on Italian soil.
Here a jolly chef wielding a large knife chopped his way through a glistening pile of chicken pieces, aided by two Eritrean girls, while Papà’s beloved terrier danced impatiently under the table, his little claws skittering across the marble floor.
Across from the kitchen I was shown store rooms and, down another corridor, then I was shown into the dormitories. One for men (incidentally they are in dire need of more bunk beds) and one for women and children. This room was so crowded with bunk beds there was barely enough space to walk between them.
In a tiny, tiny room off the courtyard was the dispensary, where a volunteer doctor was treating some of the sick and injured. I was glad that I had diverted some of the medicines from the Syria container to Ventimiglia; there was clearly an immediate need for it all here.
I met a lovely young girl. We bonded over our crutches. She spoke a little Italian and only one or two words of English. She’d had surgery on her leg and somehow the Italian doctor had mucked it up and her kneecap appeared to be almost sideways on her leg. In fact the whole leg looked twisted. She hoped that if only she could get to Germany there would be a good doctor who could fix it for her. But yet again, Ventimiglia is proving to be life’s waiting room, where no one has been issued a number and the wait could well be eternal.
Eventually we had to leave. Our hearts heavy, but also confident that the good people of the church were doing the best they could to help these people. As we drove the van out of the gates we saw countless, listless men sitting in groups along the low wall under the motorway over pass. Just sitting and waiting…
Many of the people I met came from Eritrea and many women had Coptic crosses around their necks. Many Christians face persecution in Eritrea. I have been asked many times what has caused the Eritreans to flee their country. It would be a waste of time for me to answer that myself, so instead I will give you this link:
* limbo [lim-boh] noun, plural limbos.
- (often initial capital letter) Roman Catholic Theology. a region on theborder of hell or heaven, serving as the abode after death of unbaptized infants (limbo of infants) and of the righteous who died before the coming of Christ (limbo of the fathers or limbo of the patriarchs)
- a place or state of oblivion to which persons or things are regarded as being relegated when cast aside, forgotten, past, or out of date: My youthful hopes are in the limbo of lost dreams.
- an intermediate, transitional, or midway state or place.
- a place or state of imprisonment or confinement.