Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Pope cared. Do we?

It was too late to ask the road sweeper close to London’s Victoria Station to tell me his story. We had said our goodbyes and gone our different working ways. Yet, how is it that someone so intelligent, articulate and thoughtful is cleaning pavements and gutters on behalf of others rather than following another occupation? Of course his service is valuable to the community at large, but how did he come to sweep streets?

Take another scenario, also close to Victoria, and also during the morning rush hour only a few days ago. Two men, both neatly dressed and in their early 40s, collided in the early morning rush hour close to Victoria Station. One was black, the other olive-skinned. “Don’t you dare bump into me!” The black man looked around in amazement. Before he could speak, a clenched fist punched into his face. Instantly, the two men rolled around the ground, their fight increasing in violence as the one tried to defend himself and the other attempted to inflict punishment. A few younger men courageously stepped from the crowd and separated the two fighters, who stood glaring at each other. The attacker hurled verbal abuse at the other and suddenly slammed into him once more. Again they were separated, but the fight had not finished. Again, they rolled around on the pavement, punching and kicking each other, one in attack and one in self-defence. Things threatened to become very serious indeed. An unusually tall stranger in a dark blue pinstripe suit grabbed the shoulder of the assailant, flashed a badge in a black leather holder and hauled him upright. Was he associated with New Scotland Yard, not much further down the road? Were he and the two who escorted him actually off-duty policemen on their way to work? Who knows? What caused the man of Middle Eastern appearance to suddenly ‘flip’? What was his story?

Who fitted the stereotype? All three men in these two incidents were immigrants. All were educated, but one laboured peacefully at one of Britain’s most menial tasks. One was an innocent victim of violence. The third was aggressive – and yet his reaction was so extraordinary and over-the-top that, surely, there was an agenda hidden from onlookers.

Some years ago a teacher in an Australian school with a high immigrant population said that most of the fights involved students of Lebanese origin. “They have grown up in the midst of violence and bloodshed”, he explained. “They have not yet had time to learn that they are safe and they don’t need to fight. All they have known is fighting and killing. They need time.”

Pope Francis recently caused the Italian authorities to grit their teeth and pretend that they were delighted. After all, Italy has so many magnificent places which would look glorious when highlighted by the world’s media. Why should the Pope choose the island of Lampedusa for his first visit outside Rome, targeted destination for hundreds of thousands of would-be migrants from North Africa, the Middle East and Asia?

Italy has a major headache with Lampedusa, where migrants often outnumber the native population of 6,000. Facilities apparently cater for 800 people in improvised camps around the island, but this number can be exceeded in a single day. Vatican Radio said that “The temporary immigrant reception centre of Lampedusa, which had already come under criticism by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that stated it was inadequate, was so overcrowded that thousands of people were sleeping outdoors and in shelters provided by the local parish and by ordinary Lampedusa inhabitants.” The UNHCR acknowledged that "most are seeking employment and better economic opportunities, rather than international protection".

Yet by the time that a boatload of would-be migrants reaches Lampedusa, most are exhausted, dehydrated, hungry and thirsty. Many have scraped together everything they possess and have paid exorbitant fees to profiteers and people traffickers for a seat in an overcrowded, overloaded and probably unseaworthy boat which risks the lives of its passengers and offers little or no space for any luggage. Whether people are economic migrants or not, they are vulnerable to exploitation in their eagerness to leave their country of origin in order to travel to Europe, where streets are apparently paved with gold. Even on the day of Pope Francis’ visit, a few hours before his arrival, a boat carrying 166 people from Mali landed in Lampedusa. The following day, another 340 reached the island’s shores.

Sadly, accurate numbers of migrants are hard to obtain: overburdened and poorly-maintained boats regularly sink. An estimated 20,000 people are known to have drowned over the years and unknown numbers of others are presumed lost without trace. It was to venerate the memory of so many shattered lives and dreams that the Pope’s visit to Lampedusa included a boat trip on a small Coast Guard vessel, escorted by fishermen, to lay a wreath at sea. Beautifully, the cross that he carried, the simple and beautiful chalice which he used for Mass and the lectern from which he later preached were constructed from wood rescued from shipwrecks.

Immigrants who died at sea, from that boat that, instead of being a way of hope was a way of death... unfortunately repeated so many times... And then I felt that I ought to come here today to pray, to make a gesture of closeness, but also to reawaken our consciences so that what happened would not be repeated. Not repeated, please!”

He continued. "These, our brothers and sisters, seek to leave difficult situations in order to find a little serenity and peace. They seek a better place for themselves and for their families – but they found death. How many times to those who seek this not find understanding, do not find welcome, do not find solidarity!"

Pope Francis added, “"We have fallen into the hypocritical attitude of the priest and of the servant of the altar that Jesus speaks about in the parable of the Good Samaritan: We look upon the brother half-dead by the roadside, perhaps we think ‘poor guy’, and we continue on our way. It’s none of our business and we feel fine with this. We feel at peace with this, we feel fine! The culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing, are illusions of futility, of the transient, that brings indifference to others, that brings even the globalization of indifference. In this world of globalization we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others. It doesn’t concern us: it’s none of our business."

What were the stories of the three immigrants at Victoria Station a few days ago? What was their reception when they landed in this country? How often do we group people as ‘immigrants’, a faceless mass, whose qualities and talents, joys and sorrows, successes and failures we overlook in prejudice. Pope Francis talked to some of the migrants at Lampedusa. How often do we speak to those who come to Britain?  The Pope cared. Do we?