The Island of Lampedusa: a Refuge
The island of Lampedusa, southern-most point in Europe, is where Africa meets Europe, where the West picks up subtle influences of the Middle East. Closer to Africa (just over one-hundred-fifty kilometers from Tunis) than to Sicily (two hundred kilometers to the north), Arab and Christian sailors crossed paths on this island for centuries, praying to their own gods in adjacent grottoes.
Near those grottoes today is the Santuario della Madonna del Porto Salvo (Sanctuary of the Madonna of Safe Haven) where the lampedusani often stop in to a whisper a prayer to their venerated Madonna, after reverently touching her cloak.
Her image is all over the island. Donatella has the Madonna image in a prominent place in her grocery store and asked Rosalia to leave cash register and customers to show it to Pino and me! Joining in the evening passeggiata on the island’s only main street, Via Roma, we met elderly Pasquale who took us to his home to see the Madonna del Porto Salvo flanking his doorway – and then gave us pictures of her and prayer cards. Logicamente, Pope Francis stopped to pay his respects to the beloved Madonna on his July visit to the island, choosing Lampedusa as his first Papal mission.
Underscoring his desire to put the poor and the neglected at the heart of his Papacy, he met with the immigrants from Africa on the island who’d boarded boats on the North African coast, headed to Lampedusa (Europe) to escape poverty, hunger, and bellicose conflicts in their own country.
Visit Lampedusa today and you’ll see remainders of the Papal visit all over: posters and banners of “Benevenuto, Papa Francesco” still hang in shop windows, on the walls of restaurants and on the balconies of homes. If you keep your eyes open, you might see clutches of immigrants, too, strolling the streets in the evening, tasting life in Europe, before returning to the fenced in Centro di Accoglienza (“Welcome Center“). The centro is temporary home til they are sent to other centers on the mainland.
You’ll see on the island reminders of the immigrants’ travails: a pile of decrepit fishing boats used in the crossings piled high in a sort of “boat cemetery.”
Many did not arrive at the “safe haven” of Lampedusa, dying at sea during the crossing: during his island visit, Pope Francis paid tribute to the deceased, too, flinging a memorial wreath of flowers onto the pristine water surrounding Lampedusa, thus laying flowers on this “underwater cemetery” (according to estimates, the Mediterranean is burial place for over 20,000 immigrants who have died in the crossings from Africa since 1990).
The custodian of the Lampedusa cemetery has dug graves (over fifteen) for the bodies of immigrants arriving on the boats. A visit to the Lampedusa cemetery is sobering: simple crosses, a few flowers mark their dirt graves.
They have no one to visit. The immigrants’ graves are in stark contrast to the beautifully-kept family mausoleums nearby, adorned with fresh flowers (attesting to frequent visits), the glass over the photos of the deceased polished, and the marble tombstones sparkling in the sun.
During our week on Lampedusa, hundreds of immigrants arrived by fishing boats nearly daily and I talked with as many as I could.
On some boats, all survived; on others, some died during the crossing.
Those immigrants I met were appreciative of the care given to them in the Centro, grateful for having reached “the port of safe haven”, the island of La Madonna di Porto Salvo…
Click here for news on Pope Francis’ July 2013 Papal visit to Lampedusa
Read about Pope Francis’ visit to Assisi on October 4, 2013
Click here for news on a special floral welcome for the Pope