We hear the word “refugee” and think of someone who flees their native home land for a better life somewhere else. While technically true, the despair, poverty and lack of hope refugees to Sicily arrive with is staggering. Sicily happens to be the end point for refugees fleeing religious persecution and other civil rights atrocities in North Africa and the surrounding area. In fact, in 2015 alone, more than 180,000 displaced North Africans arrived on Sicily’s shores. Sadly, more than 3,000 have been lost at sea, including women and children. Of the many thousands who have arrived already this year, 2,000 have lost their lives in search of freedom from oppression and civil war. The total number of refugees by year’s end is expected to hit 250,000. A quarter of a million people who are here for a better life: they don’t always get it.
One man — Giuseppe Collesano – and his organization Act Now Ministries strives to make that transition a little bit easier for refugees who are flooding the shores of Sicily every single day. They often have no clothes other than what’s on their backs, not even shoes. The refugees pay as much as $4,000 to make the trip across to Sicily for a better life.
As if being a refugee weren’t bad enough, many of the 3,000 daily refugees that arrive on Sicily’s shores are women who are unsuspectingly being drawn into a life of prostitution. Prostitution rings and madams run rampant, from Benghazi to Algeria to Tunisia. The women (as well as teenage girls) don’t know that once they arrive, they are expected to live a life of sexual servitude in order to pay back any debt they incur – a debt many of them never get out of.
Even the men are promised a better life here, where the jobs are said to be plentiful. Because these refugees are believers, many of them Christians who have been praying for a second chance, they readily agree. The truth is, the job situation in Sicily is dismal at best. There aren’t even enough jobs for Sicilian citizens, let alone refugees. However, many refugees do secure jobs here due to the extremely low wages they accept. Forty percent of people in Sicily have no work. Citizens who have bettered themselves through higher education to become doctors and lawyers are forced to go overseas to get jobs. Thus, this creates a big problem for the existing workforce as well.
Another sad truth is that Sicily has neither the capacity nor the resources to house these refugees – let alone care for them. Each refugee costs about $150 a day to house. Thing is, there aren’t a lot of spare places to put them. This means every available structure is tapped to accommodate them, from old hotels to abandoned buildings. Refugees get a cell phone to call home and three Euro per day from the Italian government. This understandably creates tension between the citizens who already live here and the refugees who arrive every single day.
Lending a Helping Hand
With overcrowding comes neglect. That’s where Giuseppe comes in. Act Now Ministries visits refugee camps up and down the coast delivering the basic necessities like clothing, toiletries – even flip flops. Giuseppe sets up tables at the camps with these necessities, along with free Bibles. However, he doesn’t just pass them out; he reads the Gospel aloud to the refugees – many of whom crave the word of God since their reason for being there in the first place is often times religious persecution. Giuseppe says he’s not there to convert anyone or force anything on anyone. “I’m not trying to change their hearts or their minds,” he says. It’s useless, he points out, to preach the word of God to people who are literally starving. They need food and clothing first and foremost – which is the main mission of Act Now Ministries.
Rather than force the Gospel on anyone, he gives them a choice. Long before this, he read the Bible himself for the first time and came to the understanding that in order to go to heaven, he needed to make a difference here, now – not after. “We are all human,” he says. “God has a purpose for your life and mine.” And it’s that universal truth that gives the refugees peace and hope for the future.
Giuseppe and the rest of the team are not there to proselytize, but to share the Word of God to them. Their main goal is to share the Gospel of peace to everyone they come in contact with, no matter what religion, ethnicity or background. “We live in a global world now and His message is for the entire world,” says Giuseppe. “When we meet their physical needs, by giving what we take for granted, then we can address their spiritual need. Then we share God’s love.”
In the past year and half, Act Now Ministries has given out 5,000 Bibles in many different languages. In addition to Bibles, Giuseppe and his team meet the immediate needs of the refugees. One time he spent $1,000 on new underwear and bras for the females, who have been deprived of this basic need upon arrival. Another time, he bought 140 pairs of flip flops for refugees who didn’t even have shoes on their feet.
Refugees stay within their primary and secondary camps between six months and two years in order to go through a proper vetting and screening process of disease and legal identifying documents. Once that information checks out, they are given some money and put on a train to integrate into the rest of the country on their own.
Because refugees don’t always stay in one place for very long, Giuseppe doesn’t get to form lasting relationships with them and often loses touch with particularly sad cases that he sees pass through. His only hope is that Act Now Ministries made a difference in their lives, helping with the transition from a life of strife and turmoil to a new one filled with hope and promise.
You can learn more about Act Now Ministries’ work in refugee camps by clicking here or visiting RefugeeBible.com and ItalyforChrist.org.