Lampedusa: A beautiful, perilous stepping-stone
March 1st, 2014
06:00 AM ET

Stepping-stones to safety: A family flees Syria's war - and finds refuge in Italy's islands

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Lampedusa, Italy (CNN) – Abdel clung to his pregnant wife, 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter as they sailed across an open stretch of the Mediterranean Sea.

They were in a dilapidated fishing boat with limited provisions and almost no sanitation, sharing a cramped space with some 400 other Syrians.

Abdel prayed quietly and recited verses from the Quran for two days and two nights as the boat swayed and motored precariously along the 180-mile route from Libya to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.

If they could make it, his young family would be one step closer to freedom.

He knew thousands had died making the same voyage.

Abdel prayed for safety. He hoped land would come soon. He worried his wife, 8½ months pregnant, might give birth before they reached land.

Abdel and his family risked their lives to flee Syria for Italy.

“Our faith in God grew stronger and stronger,” he said. “When you feel that death is very near, then you get closer to God and your faith increases.”

Eight months earlier, Abdel and his family had fled Syria’s bloody civil war. Desperate and destitute, they left behind cherished possessions. A former importer of electronics and appliances, Abdel knew it was time to go, but it still hurt to leave his homeland.

“We left because of the continuous bombing, all day and all night long,” he said. “We owned two houses and they were both destroyed.

"The Army invited us to flee and leave Syria," he said, suggesting the "invitation" was less than polite. "We had no choice.”

But his options were limited. The 33-year-old’s compulsory military service took place in a prison, where he said he was privileged to sensitive information, including executions by the regime.  As a result, he said, the Syrian government revoked his passport at the start of the conflict.

Relatives in Sweden wanted them to come there, but with no travel documents Abdel and his family had little choice but to flee to a refugee camp in Jordan. Two months later they arrived in Egypt, along with other refugees. From Egypt, they went to Libya, where they spent five months.

Abdel knew his family's best chance of getting into the European Union was by boat through Lampedusa.

After two days at sea, Abdel said, someone on the boat used a satellite phone to call for help.

An Italian Coast Guard ship soon reached the boat and guided it to Lampedusa.

At 4 a.m. on September 25, Abdel and his family arrived on the island before the sun rose over the blue waters of the harbor.

A boat arrives carrying Abdel's family and hundreds of Syrian refugees.

A medical team evaluated his wife and quickly whisked the family onto a helicopter bound for a hospital on the much larger Italian island of Sicily, an hour’s flight away.

Though they'd been traveling for months, in many ways their journey was only just beginning.

A haven for refugees and migrants

Lampedusa is home to 6,000 Italians and some of the world’s greatest beaches.  For decades, the 6-mile-long, 2-mile-wide island has been a destination for tourists in search of sun, sand and sea.

Except for Gibraltar, it is the closest part of Europe to Africa, less than 100 miles away. The island is closer to Tunisia than to Italy.

Since the late 1990s, Lampedusa has been a haven for refugees and migrants. When the Arab Spring caught fire just across the Mediterranean in 2011, the numbers of arrivals shot up.

With so many Muslims overwhelming the heavily Catholic island - and with Pope Francis making it the first pastoral visit of his papacy - CNN traveled to Lampedusa to explore the religious ramifications for residents as well as the new arrivals.

Depending on whom you ask, the name Lampedusa derives from the Greek lepas (limpet) for mollusks that cling to rocky shores, or - more likely - lampas (torch) for the lights that for centuries have helped mariners negotiate the island's treacherous coast.

Either way, the island is quaint to a fault.

In a marble-tiled square next to a church, boys play soccer during the day.  After the sun goes down, their parents dance to Italian accordion standards under twinkling lights strung from one end of the square to the other.

On a cool September night, as the peak tourist season winds down, the open-air restaurants, cafés and tourist shops along Via Roma are still bustling.  At one outdoor café, Italians gather near a glowing flat-screen television to watch a soccer match and sip espresso, while a handful of young African migrants cheer along from the outer edges of the café.

The migrants, from Somalia and Eritrea, recently arrived here on a boat out of Libya looking for a better economic life in Europe.  Among the new arrivals on the island are also refugees like Abdel - those fleeing persecution, war or religious or ethnic strife.

Just down the road from the café, on one side of the street, docks are lined with boats waiting to take tourists snorkeling and fishing. On the other side, a boat cemetery is filled with junked vessels that brought refugees and migrants to the island over the past few years.  The names of the dilapidated boats are hand-lettered on the sides in Arabic.

Boats that carried refugees and migrants sit in a graveyard off the harbor.

One local restaurant owner said she hardly realized migrants and refugees were still arriving. “Compared to 2011, things changed,” she said. That's when boats overloaded with migrants and refugees would pull into the harbor at all hours.

Now, she said, “the boats are not arriving here because the coast guard and the navy rescue them at sea, before they reach the island.”

She only knew about the Syrian refugees arriving the night before - the boat containing Abdel and his family - because she heard about it on a local radio program.  Their trip was big news here because now the island was seeing Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war.

A week after Abdel’s boat was rescued off Lampedusa, a boat overflowing with African migrants sank less than a mile off the island's southern coast. Passengers had set blankets on fire to try to signal for help. The fire quickly got out of control and led to the disaster. More than 300 people died. The Italian government treated the catastrophe as a national tragedy and declared a day of mourning.

The loss of so many lives underscored the danger of the journey and the desperation of those who make the trip.

In 2011, more than 60,000 people arrived illegally in Italy by sea, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported. Tens of thousands of them came through Lampedusa.

The U.N. refugee agency estimated that 1,500 people died or went missing at sea making the journey that year, based on distress calls from boats and reports from survivors.

As North African countries began to return to relative peace after the Arab Spring, the number of refugees and migrants through Lampedusa dropped dramatically.  In 2012, just 13,300 people arrived in Italy by boat, according to the United Nations.

But the arrivals shot up again in 2013. Through the end of November, 40,200 arrived in Italy by boat. More than 10,000 of those were Syrian nationals fleeing the war, the U.N. said.

“The Mediterranean is once again the ‘asylum route’ into Europe for people who are forced to leave their countries due to war, persecution (and) violence and risk their lives at sea,” said Barbara Molinario, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Rome.

“In this sense, sea arrivals to Italy can no longer be considered an ‘emergency’ as they are a more or less stable phenomenon that needs to be managed with ordinary measures.”

The vast majority sailed from ports in Tunisia or Libya, Molinario said. For the chance to set out on rickety boats overflowing with passengers, some of the refugees and migrants we met on Lampedusa told us they paid smugglers handsomely  — some more than $1,500 a person.

The smugglers usually don't make the trip themselves. Instead, they send the refugees and migrants out on their own into open water with few or no supplies.

Using satellites and sailors to save lives

Rescue operations off the coast of Lampedusa have grown more sophisticated over the past three years. As a result, the number of those who have died or gone missing at sea while making the illegal entry into Italy has dropped dramatically.

In 2012, some 500 people died or went missing at sea, down two-thirds from 2011. Prior to the sinking in October that killed 300, only 40 people had died in 2013.

Recently, smugglers have been sending the boats with satellite phones and explicit instructions to someone on the boat to call the number programmed into the phone after they get out to sea. The number is to the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome, the Italian navy said.

Soon after this practice started, the center and the satellite phone company, Thuraya, coordinated efforts. Now, when a call comes in from a stranded boat, the company can pinpoint its location and send the GPS coordinates to Italian authorities in less than an hour. Previously, authorities depended on passing commercial or military vessels to spot refugee or migrant boats.

Under the new system, once the refugees use the satellite phone, the Italian rescue center dispatches the closest coast guard or navy ship for a search and rescue mission.

“We are sailors, and the first law at sea is to save the life,” said Capt. Emanuele Di Franco, commander of the Italian navy patrol ship Sirio. When we spoke to him in September, he said his ship had rescued 521 migrants and refugees in 2013.

The navy has seen a marked increase in Syrian refugees this year, he said. Many of the Syrians, like Abdel, are businessmen, doctors, engineers and lawyers, a more highly educated group than past migrants or refugees, he said.

Di Franco and his Sicily-based crew of 70 sailors spend most of their time patrolling the waters around Italy, cracking down on illegal fishing and cleaning up after oil spills.

Italian Navy Capt. Emanuele Di Franco commands the Sirio patrol boat.

When a rescue call comes in, the ship sends out helicopters to find the migrant boat and lead the naval ship to it. Teams of frogmen in smaller boats approach and assess the migrant vessel.

Health concerns often come first for the migrants, who may have been out at sea, exposed to the elements, for anywhere from two to seven days.

The most common symptoms are dehydration in the summer and hypothermia in the winter, says Tenente di Vascello Angelo Cartelli, a doctor on the Sirio.  He also treats skin burns from contact with fuel.

“The fuels spill from [tanks] because of the waves,” he said. “It accumulates on the floor of the boat, where women and children usually stay.

“The hardest thing is assisting children and newborn babies with fuel burns and lesions related to the cold. These situations are very hard, but they are also motivating me in my job,” he explained from the tiny infirmary aboard the Sirio.

Since many of the refugees and migrants are Muslim, the Navy has adapted some procedures out of religious sensitivity, such as having female sailors interact with female migrants and providing foods that are halal - permissible under Muslim dietary law - such as rice, tomatoes and chocolate.

If a boat is not seaworthy and cannot be escorted into port, the refugees and migrants board a navy patrol ship and huddle on the deck for the next leg of the trip.  In less than a day, DiFranco said, they are taken to a harbor such as Lampedusa for processing.

A cross section of faiths

When Abdel and his family arrived in Lampedusa, a flurry of social workers, U.N. monitors and immigration officials greeted the 400 Syrians on the boat.

While their family was helicoptered to Sicily, the other refugees were put on buses and taken to the Centro di Primo Soccorso e Accoglienza (Center for First Aid and Reception). The former World War II field hospital is tucked away in a valley at the end of a long dirt road.

The center can house around 300 people comfortably, officials said. But the new Syrian arrivals brought the number of residents to 1,250.

Despite repeated requests, we were not allowed into the center. Officials cited safety concerns with overcrowding.

From the gate, we could see Syrian families huddled under pine trees, their clothes hanging out to dry on a line.  Two young Syrian boys kicked a soccer ball with a guard along the main road, while young girls lugged two-liter bottles of water back to their family’s makeshift camps, where they slept on the ground on silver emergency blankets. Other people strung blue tarps between pine trees  to create a makeshift tent.

The Italian government provides food, water, cigarettes and phone cards for the migrants and refugees when they arrive.

At a nearby hotel, we met Lilian Pizzi, a psychotherapist who works inside the center for Terre des Hommes, an international humanitarian relief organization focusing on the rights of children. She said there were more than 130 children in the camp at the time.

Lilian Pizzi is a psychotherapist with Terre des Hommes.

“We just try to create a space where they can feel safe. So they just start coloring. That [helps] them regain a sense of control on their own reality,” she said of the Syrian children. “They draw peace and they draw war.”

She showed us some of the children's drawings. One drew a boat in the ocean; another drew tanks and a soldier shooting a child holding a blue balloon.

The center is filled with a cross section of religions. Relief workers mingle with Muslims from Syria and Somalia and Orthodox Christians from Eritrea as they wait to be transferred to another immigration center in Sicily or mainland Italy. Most refugees and migrants are hoping to settle in Europe, but that process can take months or even years.  Their alternatives are few. Some we spoke to hope to return home one day, others said they were in Europe to stay.

From shipwrecks to a Pope's pulpit

While reporters and locals may not be allowed into center, residents are free to leave and walk the two miles into town.

Most nights young Eritrean men, all Orthodox Christians, could be seen kneeling in prayer at the door of the Church of San Gerlando of Lampedusa. As in most small Italian towns, the Catholic church is one of the biggest and tallest buildings in sight.

The Rev. Stefano Nastasi, the priest here for six years, wears stylish red glasses. He maintains a distinct salt-and-pepper goatee, smokes a steady chain of Marlboros and flashes a sly smile.

Times were tense between local residents and migrants at the height of the Arab Spring, he said. Violent protests sometimes broke out at the center. As refugees and migrants poured in, locals saw no end in sight and no solutions from the Italian government.

The Rev. Stefano Nastasi talks about the Pope's visit to Lampedusa.

“In a few months, over 20,000 people arrived here,” he said. “In March 2011, over 7,000 immigrants were on the island, which has a population of 6,000 people.”

Most locals say the situation is better now, though there’s still a ways to go. On some occasions locals refer to migrants and refugees by the pejorative “clandestini” or “illegals.”  Locals and transients rarely mingle.

Many migrants, even Muslims, seek out the church, the priest said. “They were looking for shelter, for a contact, for consolation,” he said, and it's “a place that would recall prayer and silence, despite the different faith.”

Members of the church offer food, clothing and shelter to the migrants. In doing so, they’re living out the Gospel of Matthew’s call to “carry each other's burdens,” the priest said. “That is the expression of the existential communion we have to reach.”

Over the summer, Lampedusa’s migration issues garnered global attention when the newly minted Pope Francis visited the island. Nastasti was instrumental in arranging the trip - he sent a letter to the Pope soon after he was elected in March.

“Being that his parents were immigrants, I thought he would understand what it means to go through migration. So, I sent him an auspicious letter and I imagined that in his tears of joy there were the tears of suffering of the whole mankind.

"I drew a parallel between the tears of people living everyday life, of the people living on the island, of the immigrants, and the Pope’s tears,” the priest said.

“Then I invited him to visit Lampedusa, as it can be considered as the heart of the Mediterranean, from where it is possible to speak to Europe and Africa and share a moment of prayer.”

Pope Francis arrived in July. It marked his first papal visit outside of Rome.

He prayed for those who had died at sea, comforted migrants staying at the center and laid a wreath in the water for those who lost their lives before reaching land.

The Pope also celebrated Mass at a local soccer field that was transformed into a giant open-air chapel for his visit.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass on Lampedusa.

“We have fallen into a globalization of indifference,” he said from a lectern made from a ship's wheel and other wreckage from the boat graveyard.  His words rocketed around the globe and brought renewed interest in the plight of migrants.

Gallery: Pope Francis visits Lampedusa

It was also a huge boost for the island and those working with migrants, Nastasi said.

“The church can’t refer only to itself and be closed; the situation compels us to a confrontation and encounter," he said. “The church enters daily human suffering and needs in order to be a support, a guidance and consolation in the first place.”

Cell towers light the way

Religious differences played a role in compelling Abdel and his family to flee Syria.  They are Sunni Muslims, whereas Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, which is a mystical religious group of Shia Islam.

“Before the revolution broke out, in Syria there were no distinctions or tensions,” Abdel said. “In the past, we used to live together in a peaceful coexistence.”

But that changed with the civil war.

“It turned into a war against Sunnis, thanks to the support of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Abdel said. “The government thinks that all the people against it are Sunnis.”

Once on European soil, Abdel and his family found themselves in the minority again. It was worse in some ways, because they spoke no Italian and were separated from their group of refugees as soon as they reached Lampedusa.

In Sicily, the hospital’s doctors determined Abdel’s wife and unborn child were in good health. The family snuck out of the hospital soon after. They feared that if they stayed, officials would force them to settle in Italy - and their dreams of reaching relatives in Sweden would be over.

Under European Union law, refuges have to stay in the country where they are identified as they go through the process of seeking asylum.  The law is designed to prevent refugees from being shuffled between countries and stop refugees from submitting multiple requests for asylum.

Abdel and his family may not have known all the intricacies of the the law, but their goal was clear – to reach Sweden undetected and settle there with family.

At the hospital, they met a Somali Muslim who told them they could get help from a mosque in Catania, a city on Sicily’s eastern coast. Follow the lights on the cell phone towers, he told them, and you will find it.

At 9 p.m. the night they arrived on the island, Abdel, his wife and two children headed into the darkness on foot.  They walked for much of the night, he said, stopping only to sleep for a few hours in the doorway of a church.

After they woke, they walked for another six hours, he said. Abdel couldn’t calculate the total distance they traveled because he didn’t know the name of the town or the hospital where the coast guard had flown the family.

Once they reached their destination, he gushed about his wife’s bravery.

“Despite [the fact that] she is pregnant, she still wants to continue traveling,” he said. “She has walked for hours to reach Catania.”

Taking shelter in a mosque

The city usually isn’t featured in tourist brochures for Sicily or Italy.

In the center of Catania, graffiti covered the base of a statue of a saint, whose neon halo was both tacky and ratty. A taxi driver offered us detailed instructions on which parts of the city to avoid because of recent stabbings and robberies.

Catania is home to a large government center for migrants and refugees.  It is often a second stop along the way after emergency centers like the one in Lampedusa. As with that center, residents can come and go with a great deal of freedom as they sort out what to do next.

Not all refugees or migrants, though, take shelter at the center. Some make a temporary home at the Mosque of Mercy — Moschea della Misericordia — which is tucked away on a quiet street across from a gambling parlor and a piazza. The mosque and the center seem to coexist peacefully, with some refugees and migrants moving between the two facilities, while others essentially hide out in the mosque, hoping to avoid government detection.

Two men pray at the Mosque of Mercy in Catania, Italy.

In Italy, refugees seeking asylum “have the right to be hosted in a [government] reception facility for the duration of their asylum request. These facilities are not detention centers,” Molinario, the U.N. spokeswoman, explained.  That, she added, is different from centers in other countries, “whose purpose is identification and expulsion, where migrants are legally detained for forced repatriation purposes.”

Each night, refugees and migrants pour into the mosque for evening prayers, and on Friday nights there's a free community meal.

On one Friday evening we visited, volunteers added table after table to accommodate growing numbers of guests. They chatted in Arabic and broken Italian as they shared plates of cinnamon rice and chicken prepared in a huge pot. Black Arabic tea so sweet it rattled our teeth was shared in small plastic cups.

Imam Kheit Abdelhafid described the Muslim community here as a mix of permanent and transient members.

“There are Muslims from different countries and ethnic groups, mainly Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, Algeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said.

The mosque grew largely from word of mouth and its efforts to reach out to new refugees and migrants coming to Sicily.

This night, a group of Syrians were the latest refugees to arrive. To accommodate them, the mosque transformed a back room into a makeshift hostel.

Families sat on rugs, resting for a few hours or days as they made their journey. There were toys and dolls for children and fresh clothes for adults.

When it rains, the refugees and migrants have nowhere to go, Abdelhafid said.

“We provide them with food, clothes and the support they may need,” he said. “We also asked other [civic and religious] associations for their support, for example, by providing mattresses and materials which could be useful.

“Most of the migrants arriving are families with children, and there are pregnant women as well,” the imam added.

Imam Kheit Abdelhafid prays at his mosque in Catania, Italy

Abdel and his family were among those sitting on rugs in the back room. They’d been staying at the mosque for a few days since their long walk from the hospital - essentially keeping a low profile and hoping not to be identified by the government as they tried to figure out how to reach Sweden.

We met them here for the first time. Over the course of three days and multiple interviews, Abdel slowly revealed more and more details of their perilous journey:

His wife’s due date was fast approaching and they were still trying to make it to Sweden. Relatives there had sent money, but without a passport he couldn’t access it from Western Union, Abdel said.

As the family worked on a way to reach Sweden, members of the mosque offered them cellphones, meals and shelter.

Imam Abdelhafid said he and other members of his mosque felt like they were on the front lines of a battle, assisting those “fleeing from genocide.”

“We have the duty to help them, and the whole international community needs to understand that these people were forced to leave their own houses, their jobs, everything they had in Syria.”

The imam looks to the Quran for inspiration as he figures out how best to help the migrants.  It's a task that seems to change daily.

“I usually recall what the Prophet used to say about the believer: ‘The believer is like a body. When a part of this body feels the pain or fever, then the whole body will suffer from that,’” the imam said.

“The Holy Quran says: ‘Help each other for the good and not for the evil. ... If someone seeks shelter, give him shelter, even if he doesn’t belong to your community.'”

A Syrian family rests in the backroom of the Mosque of Mercy in Catania, Italy.

As dinner in the back room wraps up, the call to prayer sounds. The men slip out of their shoes and head to the main worship space for prayer. The women, not far behind, climb the stairs to the balcony.

The imam, Abdel and the other men bow their heads to the floor. They join together as Muslims; the distinctions between Sunni and Shia fade away.

As they pray, rain starts to fall outside.

The entryway in the mosque begins to fill — 30 more Syrian refugees.

They had just arrived from Lampedusa.


Days after we met Abdel and his family, they left Sicily for Sweden with the help of members from the mosque. They were stopped while traveling across Germany, where they were identified as refugees. As a result they began the resettlement process there. Now they have German travel documents and a house provided by the German government. After an asylum seeker like Abdel is identified in the European Union, they must stay in the country where they are applying for asylum. Typically, the process takes about three months.

Shortly after they arrived in Germany, Abdel’s wife gave birth to a baby girl, Rina.

Abdel said they were happy to settle down. They are attending German language classes as part of the integration process there.

He and his family fear for the safety of relatives and friends back in Syria.  Still they hope to return to their homeland one day, when the war finally ends.

About this story

In late September, Eric Marrapodi and Elisa Di Benedetto traveled to Lampedusa and Catania.  They spoke with dozens of migrants, refugees, relief workers and government officials to compile this report. Like Abdel and his family, many of the refugees and migrants we interviewed asked us to withhold their surnames for fear their families might be harmed in the countries they had fled. The majority of the interviews were conducted in English, Italian, and Arabic.

Marrapodi is the co-editor of CNN’s Belief Blog. DiBenedetto is a freelance journalist based in northeastern Italy.  They were awarded Henry Luce Foundation fellowships to promote excellence global religion coverage through the International Center for Journalists, which paid for their travel.  CNN maintained editorial oversight of the story.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Christianity • Europe • Islam • Italy • Libya • Mosque • Muslim • Persecution • Pope Francis • Poverty • Religious violence • Syria

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.