On Europe’s Doorstep: Through Spring Hill College Program, Interns Come Face to Face with Migrant Crisis

A soccer game at the Asylum Seekers’ Reception Center in Brindisi, Italy

A note: This piece was written in summer 2017 and shared with the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities at the start of the 2016–17 academic year.

Summer in Italy signals an exodus of Italians fleeing to the beaches for pleasure while further south, human traffickers work overtime taking advantage of calm seas to smuggle migrants to coastal destinations. Libya, which is 185 miles south of Italy, has become home to a thriving slave trade of humans where the most desperate are being jailed, tortured or forced into prostitution and debt in order to pay draconian trafficking fees. The number of migrants fleeing Libya continues to grow; as of mid-summer, more than 70,000 have arrived in Italy, which represents a 28% increase from the same period last summer (International Office of Migration). Consistent with post-Arab Spring migration numbers, it is anticipated that once again, more than one million refugees and migrants will cross over into Europe this year.

I am an Italian professor who teaches political science and international relations. I also direct the internship program for the Bologna-based Spring Hill College (SHC) Italy Center. This summer, I managed to arrange for five of our former study abroad students to serve on the front lines of the migrant crisis. The project is in the spirit of what the late Rev. Dean Brackley, S.J. would define “as an opportunity to discover one’s vocation in downward mobility.” Discovering one’s “downward mobility” means having the courage to lose control, to feel useless, to listen. It also means having the courage to receive, to let your heart be broken.

As I write this, our young Americans representing the Italy Center’s summer internship program stand on a jetty in Brindisi, a modest-sized port city on the heel of our country’s Southern region of Puglia. Fellow intern and the group’s supervisor, Graziella, has quickly briefed them on the emergency landing that is taking place, and provided some political and practical background information.

Together, the five women have mastered English and Italian, as well as beginners’ level French and Arabic. They have developed nonverbal communication to a fine art. Alongside local governmental bodies, military forces, Frontex authorities, and various NGOs, they are preparing to welcome more than 500 asylum seekers (13,500 landed in Italy in the past 48 hours). Despite the stark differences among those at the jetty (some people are there to welcome migrants, others to manage resources, while some will conduct security screenings), the women are excited. Some of them will be allowed to welcome the migrants and bring relief to families and minors escaping poverty and war. For many, these young Americans will be the first nonmilitary contact for those who were rescued at sea on June 29th by a UK Royal Navy ship on duty in the EU anti-migrant smuggling operation known as “EUNAVFOR Med” or “Operation Sophia.” I later discover that on this particular day, one of the boats fleeing Libya caught fire, resulting in a significant number of arrivals who suffered from minor to severe skin burns, and deep trauma.

SHC Italy Center summer interns (L-R) Alessandra Testa, The College of New Jersey ’17; Graziella Ioele, Saint Joseph’s University ’15; Astrea Somarriba, University of San Francisco ’15; Dana Wilder, Spring Hill College ’17; and Micah Pfotenhauer, Saint Louis University ‘18

Our summer interns (Graziella Ioele, Saint Joseph’s University ‘15; Dana Wilder, Spring Hill College ‘17; Astrea Somarriba, University of San Francisco ‘15; Micah Pfotenhauer, Saint Louis University ‘18; and Alessandra Testa, The College of New Jersey ’17) are at different points in their lives, having studied a variety of disciplines. They all have unique personalities, passions, and desires for their future careers. Back home, they could have had relatively easier (and paid) summer jobs, as well as a comfortable existence surrounded by friends and family. Brilliant opportunities in graduate studies await them all: they are clearly not here for their resumes. A common denominator is that the group came prepared, having studied the migrant crisis from various academic backgrounds and perspectives. However, as Alessandra notes, “I have researched these issues but it really does not equate to what I am witnessing here on the ground. The real issues are not what I thought they were. I am so grateful for being able to learn from this experience.”

As a whole, the group has taken on an informal methodology anchored in the notion of “radical compassion,” which can be summarized as not demonizing people based on labels that local Italians, aid providers, or the media have produced, and simultaneously being highly aware of one’s surrounding and the politics at play in the eye of the storm of the “refugee crisis.”

Migrants at the Brindisi jetty after being rescued at sea by Operation Sophia

Pope Francis has repeatedly insisted that we have a duty to help those fleeing from poverty and war, something that the people of Puglia have modeled in their humble, serving and loving ways for decades. The “refugee crisis,” as it is known these days, really began in Brindisi on March 7, 1991, when the small coastal town witnessed, completely unexpectedly and overnight, the arrival of 27,000 Albanians escaping the Communist dictatorship of Ramiz Alia on the verge of its own collapse. Since then, the city has welcomed with open arms people of all skin colors and religions, refugees and economic migrants, regulars and irregulars alike, beyond any artificial political distinction that today attempts to separate, rather than unite, human beings. Brindisi has thus been on the forefront of the immigration fluxes that Europe has experienced in the last decades. As noted by Mariangela Recchia, the team’s supervisor who works through NGO Auxilium at the Brindisi Asylum Seekers’ Reception Center (CARA), “25 years cannot be called a “crisis” or an emergency. It is virtually impossible to understand what it is really like to be on the front lines here. However, these girls are doing an exceptional job.” Mariangela sees enormous futures ahead of these young women, most likely because their vision of “radical compassion” resonates with the hospitality of the “Brindisi model.”

Despite the rhetoric and blaming that we hear these days, the city has developed some deep wisdom in handling migration. The “Brindisi model” for welcoming refugees is a peculiar combination of passion winning over bureaucratic intricacies, tireless efforts of various organizations overriding a system of favors and corruption, and a strenuous individual disposition to go that extra mile for those in need, all within the melting pot of a Mediterranean culture of hospitality. This is probably why Brindisi works as a welcome model: there are no job descriptions, no fixed working hours, no deliverables — or rather, these are flexible frames to be embraced by many enthusiastic individuals and groups that try and do their best, every day, with a smile on their faces and that typical southern “lightness of being.” Residents, migrants, authorities, activists, they all dance together in this incredibly colorful microcosm.

Guests at the CARA engaging in a creative writing project run by SHC Italy Center interns

Meanwhile, as tourists are soaking up the sun and enjoying Puglia’s pristine beaches, our Italy Center interns continue to shadow professionals in the Asylum Seekers’ Reception Center (CARA) and are learning the legal, psychological, cultural, medical, and linguistic basics of the European refugee welcome process (in its Southern Italian variants). They have been running art therapy and poetry projects for those asylum seekers who have nothing, only empty hours to fill, waiting indefinitely for a local commission to decide of their own destiny. They have also been working at the Catholic agency Caritas, spending time with women and children who are under international protection and are trying to start a new life in Italy. At Caritas, they are learning to cook Italian meals for the poor — Italians and migrants alike — and are breaking down the inevitable barriers that arise between those in need. Every day, by forming deep bonds with the local community, they are truly showing their love in deeds.

Brindisi has become a second home to these women, one that has changed them deeply, and that they will carry in their hearts forever. But I also believe that the city of Brindisi will be changed by them, that it will become a little more international, a little more aware, a little more capable of seeing how incredible its own strengths are. The world needs to know what is happening here.

Alia K. Nardini, Ph.D. teaches political science and directs internships and undergraduate research initiatives at the Spring Hill College Italy Center in Bologna, Italy.