And now for some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent…

Malta Independent - - LIFESTYLE & CULTURE -

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.

mbenoit@in­de­pen­dent.com.mt

The chapel of The Good Shep­herd Con­vent

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