L’operatrice del progetto Mediterranean Hope, Marta Bernardini racconta la sua visione sui confini tra il Messicio e gli Stati Uniti facendo una comparazione con l’esperienza di Lampedusa.
Marta Bernardini is learning that the immigrants on her side of the world aren’t much different than the immigrants on ours.
Bernardini, 28, came from her home on the Italian island of Lampedusa to Sahuarita last month, where she is staying with the Rev. Randy Mayer and his wife, Norma, of Good Shepherd United Church of Christ.
The Milan native works with immigrants making the dangerous voyage from North Africa and the Middle East to safe ground in Lampedusa and beyond.
She met the Mayers in October when they were on the island attending an interreligious event marking the second anniversary of the deaths of 400 immigrants off the coast of Lampedusa. The Mayers were in Italy at the invitation of the Waldensian Church, which sent leaders to Sahuarita a year ago to learn how local groups respond to immigration issues along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Her work began with a church in Bologna and has expanded. She now works with the Protestant Federation of Churches, the Waldensian Church and Methodist churches in Italy. The job has taken her from Milan to Rome, and to Lampedusa in 2014 to work with a humanitarian project called Mediterranean Hope.
In the early 2000s, Lampedusa became a prime transit point for illegal immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. At just under eight square miles, it is the largest of the Italian Pelagie islands in the Mediterranean and, as Italy’s southernmost island, is the closest for migrants.
In 2009, Lampedusa’s temporary immigration reception center, built for 850 people, was housing close to 2,000 migrant boat people.
In 2011, during rebellions in Tunisia and Libya, more arrived, and by August, 48,000 packed the island. Most were males in their 20s and 30s, and Lampedusa’s problems received broad coverage in the media.
The stampede from violence came at a cost. Last year, an estimated 3,500 migrants died trying to reach Lampedusa.
Hoping to help
In Italy, Bernardini collects and shares information about the migrant flow with churches throughout Europe.
“Here, I hope to learn how other churches face border issues and help migrants and how a church, witnessing the kingdom of God, can help with humanitarian and political activities,” she said.
“We do first aid, we welcome and say hello, give food and the humanitarian approach,” she said.
Bernardini said many who reach Lampedusa are from Libya, where smugglers can charge $2,000. Sometimes migrants are arrested and must ask their family for more money, she said.
“When ISIS started it was thought migrants might include terrorists. No country wanted migrants. But these are people who want to work, to study, to have a better life, to escape human trafficking,” she said.
The overwhelming number of migrants was causing problems for Lampedusa’s 6,000 residents, who make their living in fishing, agriculture and tourism. The situation keeps changing, Bernardini said. There are a lot of migrants in Lampedusa now, and the islanders are not as welcoming as they were 20 years ago.
Mayer, who has worked on immigration issues in the area for decades, sees a lot of parallels between Bernardini’s work on the sea and the work here in the desert.
“There are all sorts of similarities, everything from the struggle and the coyotes and people just preying on the poorest of the poor as they’re trying to make their way,” he said. “That’s universal. When people are poor, everybody’s going to go after them, especially when they’re vulnerable and don’t know their surroundings.”
“It’s amazing, the things we find in the desert are the same things they find in the boats – water bottles wrapped in burlap, toothbrushes – the things that make people human.”
When she returns to Lampedusa in April, Bernardini’s work will focus on helping people get into the country as part of an Italian pilot project offering 1,000 visas.
Working with the Italian embassies in Morocco and Libya to identify potential migrants who have clean backgrounds, Bernardini said churches will pay for transportation and arrangements to help migrants assimilate and be successful.
Mayer calls the idea a “humanitarian corridor,” and says it has potential to work on this side of the world to get people safely from Central America to the United States.
Migrants at the border
Bernardini said stories of migrants are the same all over: They want to work and have a better life.
“It’s about humanity and people born in the wrong part of the world,” she said.
She regularly visits a migrant shelter near the Mexico border and listens as they talk about their lives. Every week, she and members of the Green Valley Sahuarita Samaritans drive through the desert checking water supplies, following the path of migrants.
On her blog, “Across the borders: From Lampedusa to Mexico,” she tells of meeting a young man from Honduras at a shelter in Nogales, Mexico, run by the Kino Border Initiative.
“He wants to work to support his family because life in Honduras is too difficult. The young man has tried to climb the wall five times but is arrested by Border Patrol and put in prison where he remains for several months before being deported,” she wrote.
One of the activists at the shelter told Bernardini that at least 125 people have died in 2015 crossing the desert.
“This kind of job changes your life,” she said. “It changes your perspective on life.”
Mayer agrees that the perspective is universal.
“Even though we may have this crisis on our border,” he said, “this crisis is happening all over the world.”