And now for something completely different…
Sister Agnes Azzopardi has been working with refugees at the Good Shepherd Open Centre for over 26 years. She is now eighty-three and tells me that by the time she was a 15-year-old she knew that she wanted to become a nun.
The Good Shepherd Sisters came to Malta when their foundress Saint Mary Euphrasia Pelletier was still living. Born in France she had founded the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd – known in Malta as ‘Sorijiet Tal Bon Pastur.’ They are renowned mainly for their pastoral and philanthropic work among single mothers, battered wives and lately refugees too.
At the beginning of this week Sister Agnes was waiting for me and a mutual friend, who wishes to remain unnamed but who helps her out weekly. As we set foot on one of the doorways of this enormous building there was Sister Agnes surrounded by boxes of vegetables and bags upon bags of used clothes. She is warm, energetic and radiates kindness. “My heart is still young,” she assures us. We move along the corridor, away from the doorway, and sit on chairs round her desk. “At the moment there are almost 100 refugees living in this Open Centre. Many are families and most are Moslem or Orthodox… there is only one Catholic family at the moment.”
She recalls that the first refugees who came were a couple from the Sudan. “My job is to give them courage. I ask them to remember the following: to pray, everyday, for prayer is essential. You cannot run a car without petrol and in our lives we need prayer. I also ask them to try to be happy in spite of adverse circumstances; I warn them to keep away from the police and to keep their conduct clean; if they find a job, even a part time one, they should keep it but go on looking for a better one. I urge them to eat to remain strong. When they go to sleep they must drive away their negative thoughts. All of them call me Mama, big and small!” She believes that through her God opened a door. “I have touched God’s heart and mercy. I know he is there. When I have no money I go before the Blessed Sacrament and I tell Him: ‘You know I only have you and no one else.’ And something invariably turns up whether it is money or food.”
She relates how some months ago a gentleman turned up at the door and told her ‘I hear you have refugees,’ and handed her 500 Euros. “I have no idea who he is. It was so generous of him. I was so touched. Yes, there are anonymous benefactors. But I note down everything I receive in a notebook and if I don’t know who the donor is I simply write: ‘anonymous benefactor’. I pray for all the benefactors and their families every day.”
Generous benefactors are not new to these nuns. Perit V. Busuttil built the chapel at his own expense. Other famous benefactors who helped the sisters include Cardinal Ferrata and Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth who was still a princess when she visited the convent.
Sister invited me to have a look round to see how these families live. We walked outside and through a gate where there was security. No one can simply walk in and out anymore but has to pass through security. She explains that before security became compulsory refugees used to disappear overnight, swished away by the traffickers they had met and paid to take them to some bigger country in Europe.
The premises are very big. Each family has a room and a kitchen shared by three families. (Burnt cassaroles are the order of the day. It is a miracle there has not been a major fire, Sister Agnes assures me). They also have a shower and toilet kept under lock and key, for each family.
The 100 or so refugees living there at present come from 13 different African countries. There are others who come from Bangladesh and Pakistan. “Every Wedneday I give them a hamper. One family has ten children.” Indeed many of the women are pregnant. They don’t seem to be deterred by the circumstances in which they are living. One Syrian family we visited has four pretty daughters and the mother is pregnant, probably in the hope that she will have a son. “They love babies. If I kiss a newborn the other mothers expect me to kiss their babies too!”
Sister Agnes and her helper, a lady who has four of her own children, have a glowing sense of compassion and humanity which leaves you instantly feeling that you are in the presence of two holy women.
Many of the refugees have lost loved ones. Others have had to leave family members behind. “Yes, it is not only food and shelter that they want. They also open up their hearts and cry for their families and their children. I try to encourage them and give them hope,” says Sister Agnes.
We are introduced to a Syrian family – the women dressed in black from head to toe, with not the slightest hint of vanity. They look like nuns. Some of them are doctors, engineers, university lecturers. “Everything is part of God’s providence. If one of them comes to ask for more food and I don’t have anything to give them I ask them to be patient and come on the morrow. Invariably God’s providence either provides me with a cheque or food.” A box of potatoes might be dropped off by some grocer. Sometimes blankets,
A statue of Saint Mary Euphrasia Pelletier fridges or cookers turn up. She has to rely on donations and volunteers.
This is not a detention centre, Sister Agnes emphasizes. Those in the Open Centre are free to do what they like when it comes to religion. In fact as we visit more families there is an overall feeling of tolerance and acceptance permeating the home. “Here they are living in a home and we do not impose ourselves on them, they are free to think as they like. They can cook and eat just as they do in their country. Some eat on the floor. Another threw his fork and knife away. ‘God gave me hands,’ he told her. ‘I wash my hands before eating and after.‘ We do our best to help them, to encourage them to be a part of society, to get a job and take responsibility.”
She speaks with affection of young Mohammad (many of them are called Mohammad). “I brought him up. I tell him you have lived with me longer than you have lived with your mother. He has no papers. He has an uncle in Canada and has been trying to contact him but without success. He is still here.”
Having visited several African countries myself including Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia (where we lived for a year) as well as Haiti, I empathise with these people for fleeing.
In Ethiopia those suffering from mental illness or leprosy are running around the streets, some of them naked. The handicapped crawl under your car seeking your attention and money. In Addis Ababa alone there were 5,000 armed policemen. The only newspaper available was the government gazette.
In Tanzania one could not buy anything and I remember people queuing for hours for a bottle of oil or a bar of soap. One part of the country had plenty of fruit and vegetables but means of transport was not readily available. If a truck broke down with produce to deliver from one part of Tanzania to another, spare parts were often not available and the produce would be left to rot on the side of some road in the middle of nowhere.
Many, the world over, no longer sympathise with these thousands of refugees however, we need to put ourselves in their shoes. Imagine suffering the horrors of a senseless war as the Syrians in particular are doing, or the oppression of persecution. Civil war, ethnic cleansing and hate force families to be uprooted. Some have escaped as they do not want to join rebel armies and kill their compatriots. Their desire to seek refuge elsewhere is quite natural. Wouldn’t all of us, finding ourselves in similar circumstances, want to do the same? Many simply want an honest day’s work so that they can send the money to their family in the country of their birth.
It was mostly accident that landed them in Malta and the future for most remains uncertain. The present is at least a lot more encouraging and consoling than the past thanks to people like Sister Agnes and so many others many of whom wish to remain anonymous. Our friendship and trust make a difference to these people who are often marginalized within most societies including ours and mostly on the basis of colour.
“I have to give account to no one but to God,” Sister says, pointing out that through our activities and in the media we have to remind one and all of their duty to build a better, fairer and more compassionate world.
I would like to make a plea on behalf of Sister Agnes. Please send her a cheque, no matter how small, as you can rest assured it will be put to excellent use: Sister Agnes Azzopardi, Good Shepherd Convent, Idmejda Street, Balzan. Thank you.
The chapel of The Good Shepherd Convent