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18 September

Saint Joseph of Cupertino

Marist Calendar - September

Project Lavalla200>


International Community in Siracusa

La Valla 200>

02/05/2017: Italy

Br Brendan Geary, Provincial of West Central Europe,  visited the Lavalla200> community in Syracuse from 2 - 5th March, along with his friend, Moira Macfarlane. Moira worked as British Consul in Florence for more than ten years and continues to be involved in cultural events in the city. Moira wrote an article about her visit when she returned to Scotland.


A stunned silence descended on the lounge of an elegant hotel in Bologna.  Plates and glasses were pushed aside as customers and staff stared in horror at a TV screen.  A boat carrying over a hundred migrants had sunk in the Mediterranean.  There were no survivors and more than half the passengers were children.  Everyone in that lounge felt the immediate need to do something – to write to governments, to donate to aid organisations.  Perhaps they did.  In the years since that first, shocking sinking, the endless images of Man’s inhumanity to Man have dulled our responses.  Hardly a day passes without media reports of terrified children in bombed out buildings, families trudging through snow seeking refuge in Western Europe, schoolgirls kidnapped, people beaten and packed like cattle onto leaking boats.  ‘How awful’ we say as we carry on with our daily routines. ‘Someone should do something about it’.

The Marist Brothers have done something about it.  Project Lavalla200>, marking the bi-centenary of the Order, was set up to provide support to children and young people living in precarious circumstances throughout the world.  A new community has been established in a former orphanage in Siracusa (Syracuse) offering support to unaccompanied minors who have fled war-torn lands.  The community is led by Brother Onorino Rota and supported by two young lay volunteers, Gabriel Bernardo da Silva and Mario Araya, who have put promising careers on hold to devote two or more years of their lives to Project Lavalla200>.  I was privileged to spend four days with the community in the company of Provincial Brendan Geary.  These days have had a very profound impact, reigniting that first response felt so long ago in a Bologna hotel.  The men in the Community bring different and complementary strengths and experiences to the project.  In a few, short months, they have shown great sensitivity in establishing constructive contacts with the civilian authorities, aid agencies, churches and religious orders involved in providing support to young refugees, identifying how best they can add to and integrate with existing provision. 

Most of the unaccompanied minors are severely traumatised following long and dangerous journeys culminating in months subject to every form of abuse imaginable at the hands of traffickers in Libya, before being forced onto unseaworthy boats for the final crossing to Sicily.  They have witnessed things no child should ever see.  They have no family, no possessions, no officially recognised identity.  They are grieving for lost loved ones, beset by nightmares of the past, scared and uncertain about the future.  Most of all, they are terrified of being refused asylum and sent back to the inferno of Libya. As they await formal decisions from the Italian authorities about their status – a process that can take up to 18 months, they need shelter, care and understanding. To prepare them for life in Western Europe, they have significant learning needs.  Some cannot read or write, others can read and write but in Arabic, some have some French or English in addition to their own language.  Few have any awareness of European cultures and traditions.  All have significant learning needs, but after all they have been through, formal programmes won’t work.  The answer is to be responsive to mood and moment in working alongside them and, in this the Marist Community excels.

The Community is engaged in outreach work at Casa Freedom, a residential centre for 90 teenage boys. The first thing a visitor notices on arrival is the happiness and trust with which young people relate to the members of the Community.  By joining in activities and helping with learning members of the Community created an opportunity for young people to open up about issues they would have been unable to discuss in a more formal setting. The Community is also involved in outreach work with young people at a local church, a role which also brings them into contact with young migrants, helping them to access local medical or advisory services.  The Community’s base at Casa Caritas is also home to a small number of young, unaccompanied migrants who have found work but still need to be in supported accommodation.

The great strength of the Marist Community in Siracusa is that they did not come with a fixed programme in mind, but have taken time to understand the context, cooperate with other agencies and, most of all, to accompany rather than direct the young people they meet.  They have gained the trust of teenagers who have very good reasons to trust no one.   

Project Lavalla200> in Siracusa is challenging, emotionally draining and demands great wisdom, sensitivity and patience.  In the four days I spent with the community I saw all these qualities and wish them well as they develop this vital mission.  It was a great privilege to spend four days with such fine people and to see something of their work.  Like all privileges, it demands a constructive response!      
Moira Macfarlane, March 2017

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La Valla 200>