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In Search of a Life: An Experience in Malta with the JFRC

In Search of a Life: An Experience in Malta with the JFRC

Students & Faculty from the JFRC in Valletta, Malta. Not Pictured: Cindy Bomben & SLA Pedro Guerrero

By: SLA Pedro Guerrero

I’ll be honest with you, a weekend spent coming face to face with one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world was not easy. I mean, why would I expect it to be, having an idea of what I was getting myself into? I had read the headlines, seen the news clips, listened to first-hand stories, but never did I try to come face to face with it until now.

On our first day in Malta, the group visited the Jesuit Refugee Service branch offices in Birkirkara. There, we met Fr. Mark Cachia, SJ. He stood in front of us without a script, telling us about the history of the refugee crisis in Malta. He indicated that Malta is a country built from a synthesis of its various colonizers. He talked about how the Maltese people treated the refugee influx as another invasion. Malta, due to its location to Northern Africa, played the role of the “gate-keeper” for those seeking refuge in mainland Europe. He spoke with resentment toward the government’s gut reaction to hold refugees in detention centers for 10-18 months at a time. Malta, in short, was a limbo of sorts for refugees.

I come from a family of asylum seekers. Even though I don’t remember, I myself was an asylum seeker before I had even reached 2 years old. After being targeted by the Sendero Luminoso, a violent group of insurgents seeking to overthrow Peru’s conservative authoritarian government, my family fled to the United States in the early 1990s. The idea of re-establishing a life in a country where they don’t speak my native language is, to this day, unfathomable to me. We were some of the lucky ones.

Fr. Mark said something that really struck home for me: “Often times, refugees are not in pursuit of a better life, but in pursuit of a life.” I can’t help but feel resentment toward governments and individuals that see history repeat itself. My father went from being a practicing doctor one day to waking up at 4AM every morning to throw out newspapers on the streets of Miami the next. Today we see people like Munira, a mother of 2 from Libya, go from working and living a prosperous life one day to fleeing through the Saharan desert with her two kids the next. Munira and her family are some of the lucky ones.

History continues to repeat itself. This idea of pushing away the stranger based on differences (e.g. race, religion, country of origin) is nothing new. We saw it in the United States with the imprisonment of the Japanese people during World War II. We saw it with the Red Scare in the United States and the birth of McCarthyism. We saw it after 9/11 and the manifestation of Islamophobia shortly after. We see it today with our refugee brothers and sisters fleeing from war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East.

This idea of being in search of a life is so foreign to us. As students, faculty, and staff of a university, we’ve become so accustomed to going through our daily lives. Despite moving to a different country, we live in a privileged state in which we are able to choose our homes, sometimes even choose where we want to sleep each night. We live in a community where lunch is served from 11:45-2:15PM and dinner is served from 5:45-7:30PM, without question. We sometimes fail to recognize that our expectations reflect our comforts. The weekend in Malta taught me that while we expect to live in a world of peace, happiness, and prosperity, some people may not even expect to live.

“We can all be refugees, Nobody is safe, All it takes is a mad leader, Or no rain to bring forth food. We can all be refugees, we can all be told to go, We can be hated by someone for being someone.”

-Benjamin Zephaniah