Closer to Africa (about 113 km. from Tunisia) than to Sicily (176 km. north), the island of Lampedusa is southern-most point in Europe, where Africa meets Europe, where Arab and Christian sailors crossed paths for centuries, praying to their own gods in adjacent grottoes on the island.
Steps away from the sacred grottoes, the Santuario della Madonna del Porto Salvo (Sanctuary of the Madonna of Safe Haven) remains a venerated spot, for lampedusani and vacationers alike. When I was there in August, an elderly woman whispered a prayer while reverently caressing the cloak of the Madonna over the altar.
Her image is all over the island. At the grocery, owner Donatella asked Rosalia to leave her cash register to show us the Madonna image on the wall. During the evening passeggiata, elderly Pasquale led us to his house to see the Madonna del Porto Salvo flanking his doorway, giving us Madonna prayer cards.
Logicamente, Pope Francis visited the beloved Madonna on his July 2013 visit to Lampedusa, his first Papal mission: centering his Papacy on the poor and neglected, he met with African immigrants arriving by fishing boats, fleeing poverty, hunger, war.
All over the island, you can still see “Benvenuto, Papa Francesco” banners draping balconies.
We often saw clutches of immigrants, too, strolling in the evening before re-entering the centro di accoglienza (“welcome center”), where they’ll stay until being sent to the mainland.
I talked to many – from Gambia, Nigeria, Mali, Eritrea – hearing stories of safe crossings and stories of tragic crossings, too, not all on their boats surviving the voyage.
A testimony is near the port: decrepit fishing boats of the crossings piled high in a sort of “boat cemetery.”
And in Lampedusa’s cemetery, I walked past the rows of lampedusano family mausoleums – in polished marble, fresh flowers near the photos of the deceased – to a dirt plot with fifteen rudimentary crosses, made respectfully by the custodian of the cemetery as markers for immigrant graves.
While there, Pope Francis dropped a floral wreath on Lampedusa’s aquamarine waters, final resting place of more than 20,000 immigrants at that point who never reached Europe.
The Mediterranean continues to be a cemetery: last October, hundreds on a boat from Libya drowned just off Lampedusa, so tragically close to the island of “safe haven.” After this tragedy, Italy established Mare Nostrum centered on assistance to those arriving off Italian coasts. Italy has taken in over 60,000 immigrants to date in 2014, already blasting away the record year of 2011 when 63.000 immigrants reached “safe haven” here.
But as Interior Minister Alfano pleads, all of the European Union must assist Italy in providing succor to the immigrants: Lampedusa cannot be the only “port of safe haven.”
Over 5,000 refugees from Africa have arrived on the Italian coast in the last two months. This week-end, nearly six hundred arrived on a boat from Libya but not all arrived alive: 29 died of diesel inhalation closed in the hold (where passage costs less – about $1500). And the tragedy continues. Syrians and Palestinians now joining the ranks of those seeking “the port of safe haven.”
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