Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Men's Camp

They come mostly from East and West Africa, fleeing war and/or poverty.  From the frying pan into the fire of the Sahara Desert, which they most cross to get to the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.  Many die in the crossing. 

On entering one of these countries, they may get stuck working for years, or in prison without proper paperwork.  Those who survive to this point eventually get on a boat, or something resembling a boat, and hope for Italy.  (It is easier to enter Europe through Italy than Malta.)  Many die in the crossing.

In the sea, they are picked up by the police and herded into detention centers--prison--where they must be identified and issued paperwork, given refugee status or deported.  This can take days, weeks, months or years. 

I talked to the main security guard at the Marsa Men’s Camp—how did he come to work in such a place?  What was it like for him?  How did he keep morale?

“I was career military, patrolling the waters, working at the detention center.  This is nothing.” 

“You were one of the ones fishing people out of the water?”

Yes, then we’d have to process them through the detention center—hundreds at a time.  Locked up—that’s what we were told to do—just lock them all up.  Once they had papers they could be released to the refugee centers, after a month, a year, five years…”

Refugee centers aren’t known for their amenities.  The staff works in bare, overheated rooms, although our contact, the manager, had an air conditioner. There is a tiny café, with a pool table, a tiny shop, with next to nothing in it, a mosque, a barber shop and a room for Christians to meet in.  (As in many European countries, the church here is small and well-divided.)  The mosque dominates, followed by the Education Center, equipped with a few computers and desks.  It’s clear where the priorities are.

“We can’t let them get comfortable here, or they won’t integrate.”

But integration seems almost a fantasy, with prejudice running high.  Moving on for many means the Continent or the States.  Until word comes back via text and Facebook, from those who resettle elsewhere: America is violent, Europe too expensive.  Some return to the camp.

We offer them a few minutes of diversion perhaps, inviting them to a drawing or music lesson.  Some bite, many pass.  For those who stop to chat, draw, play music or learn a few English words, we offer a listening ear, a few tips and insights for those emigrating soon to the States, and often talk of the differences between our two faiths.  Our questions become routine: "What is your name?  Where are you from?  How long have you been here?  Are you Christian or Muslim?"

They come from Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, or Nigeria, Burkino Faso.  They ask us where we are from, and what we know of their country—“War?”

“Yes,” we answer, “What is your story?”

Monday, July 30, 2012

Clever Cats are in Control

On the bus to the prayer house, I notice billboard after billboard proclaiming, "Clever Cats are in Control." 

Indeed.  The Maltese cats, at least in Valletta, seem to have conquered their unsuspecting citizens:  

Park Cats

Port Cats

Refugee Center Cats

The Cat Cafe

Even Art has its place in the Cat Cafe: The Matisse Salmon and Tuna Show

Outfitted with food, drink, houses, blankets, toys and art, the Maltese cats have indeed played their cards right.  Whenever I come across a 'street cat,' they show little of the the usual feral, fearful behavior, but coming running, expectant, looking for a handout!   They have captured the hearts of the Maltese, or at least enough of them, to know they may receive a treat.

I arrive at the prayer house expectant...may I 'conquer' the King.  May I capture his heart.  May I be as spoiled as these clever cats.  Surely the Father of heaven has more than a makeshift house, a few kibbles and bits, and a windowsill.  I have nothing to fear. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Colin the Lion-Killer

It is a long hot drive out to the family camp, where we’ll have a dance workshop and art class.

We ride singing “Jesus love the little children” to the adorable Annabelle, two-year-old daughter of our host family.

“Jesus loves the little children, all little children of the world…”

Past the airport, past the cactus, bourganvillea and broken-down walls, past the many roundabouts…it is much further out than any of us anticipated, and we arrive dripping in sweat, at 10 am. 

A suspicious guard and a shy, playful boy watch us from the gate, the boy hiding behind a stone pillar, checking us out, hide-and-seek style.

“Be they yellow, black or white, they are precious in His sight…”

“Say hello to the little boy, Anna!”

“Hello lit’el boy!”

We park, unload art supplies, food, drink, boom box and the swing flags, and bring them into the room we’ve been given—the only room available to the camp families to use communally, a room smaller than a Starbucks coffee shop, and with a fraction of the amenities.  Eve goes off to collect children, Michelle sets out her flags and scarves, I pull out the art supplies.  Linda fidgets with boom box.

Within minutes, children are arriving, and one pregnant mother, who sits passively while the children burst into what will be a two-hour rampage of acting out.

Colin is my first ‘customer’—four years old, with a nose that looks like it got sawed off and healed perfectly.  After a few minutes—a very few—of coloring with markers in a book, Colin hurls the pen cap across the room, looks at me and runs, scrawling marker on furniture, floor, and walls.  Someone grabs him, and the marker.  Colin flees across the room, only to scream at us and show us he is going to swallow the cap.  Agh.  Someone else rescues the cap and dance class begins.

I go get Colin and bring him back to the table, where he sits peacefully on my lap, applying stickers into the book…for about 30 seconds.  Then he charges into the dance circle screaming.  Someone hands him a balloon, I go on to my next ‘art student’ and a fight breaks out.  Someone has stolen someone else’s favorite scarf.    

Balloons are soon bursting in air, to delighted squeals or terrified screams.  Scarves are being tugged and pulled and spit on.  Crayons are flying, and a baby is crying.  Blocks are being hurled through the air, and the boom box is now off—we are all in ‘crowd control’ and the mother leaves.  I wonder what Sudanese/Somalian/Eritrean discipline of children looks like under ‘normal’ conditions, and what it looks like in the camp, when visitors aren’t around.

I begin sketching the children, which brings a few of them in a line, each wanting me to draw them.  Someone brings out the snacks and that draws another crowd of grasping hands.  Colin hurls a fist at Linda.

I am drawing and affirming each child, praying for them as I go, praying for us.  Some of the younger members of the team are overwhelmed. 

Our time is up.  I turn to find Colin pointing a metal bar at me (where did he get that?!), fierce anger in his eyes.  I stare him down, wondering which one of us can move faster, and that unless I want a shiner, I better win this one.

“You are not to hit me, Colin.” 

Colin brandishes the bar.  

“Let me have that." 

“NOOOOO!!!!” he screams and slashes it to the side, then aims it back at me.



He roars, and I seize the moment to jump behind him, grab both his shoulders and roar back, “Kill the lions, Colin!  Save me!”

Colin springs into action.  With amazing (disturbing) skill, he wields that metal bar like a Ninja at an imaginary lion a few feet from us, and returns to me smiling. 

“There, Colin!  Get that one!!!”  I point, he charges, the sword flies, and Colin runs back beaming.

“Another one, Colin!” 

This scenario repeats until Colin is fairly bursting with pride, and I am able to tell him how brave he is, how he will grow into a strong warrior, a mighty protector of women and children from lions, and he is glowing.   And then I have to leave.  Colin bursts into tears, and Linda whispers to me as we get in the car, “I think I need trauma counseling.”  

 It is a quiet ride home.

“Jesus loves the little children of the world…”