M otionless, I sat in the basement of the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center with eyes transfixed on the twelve students from Yale performing a cappella in front of me. But I paid no attention to the enchanting melodies of an undoubtedly renowned musical group. My heart was restless and in my mind I was replaying over and over the conversation I had finished moments earlier with a refugee from Afghanistan. Amidst a lively performance that had the rest of the audience staring in amusement, I sat alone, stewing over an encounter that made me rethink religion, poverty, and Western culture.
J oel Nafuma Refuge Center is the primary outreach of St. Paul’s Within the Walls Episcopal Church and offers “radical hospitality to refugees in the heart of Rome” by creating a safe space for refugees to congregate, relax, and access a host of integration-oriented services. We were invited to learn about JNRC by engaging in conversation with some of the refugees who stayed there. While their stories would likely be traumatic, I was eager to listen and discover how the opportunities in Europe eased the pains of their treacherous journeys.
I first approached a man from Senegal who spoke French and Italian, but not English. Our interaction consisted of me asking him to repeat nearly every sentence and then responding in choppy phrases using my rudimentary knowledge of Italian. We exchanged plenty of laughs as we clumsily confronted the language barrier. Despite the fact that his attempts to describe his life in Italy to me were largely unsuccessful, he smiled throughout our entire conversation. Considering he was a homeless man who left his family behind in Senegal, he appeared to hold a pretty positive outlook on his present situation.
I walked away learning little about the man’s experiences in either Senegal or Europe, but patting myself on the back for piecing together a conversation with only four months of Italian classes. I glanced quickly around the room, unsure of who to approach next. I noticed an Arabic man sitting in the corner near a stack of books, motioning for me to approach him. I grabbed a cheap, plastic chair and sat down with him and one of the Yale a cappella singers. The man made a few attempts to tell me his name…I wasn’t sure he was speaking English. After I failed to understand his native name, he conceded defeat – “Just call me John.”
Giving a slight chuckle, I asked John how long he had been in Italy. He was quick to reply.
“Italy is a shit country, filled with shit people.”
Well, this was off to a different start than my last conversation. John continued.
“In this country, so many people sleep in the road. I’ve slept in the road or outside the train station every night. People walk by every day and no one is willing to help.”
My heart sunk as I reflected on my interactions with the homeless on the streets of Rome that week. How many people had I passed by?
Photograph from Christine Medina
“In Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, no one will let you sleep in the road,” John proclaimed. As I leaned in to decipher his thick, Arabic accent, he grabbed my arm to demonstrate, “They will say, ‘No, you will sleep in my house tonight. You won’t sleep in the road.’”
John asserted that in these and other Muslim countries in the Middle East, many people have a room in their home reserved for “special guests” they take in off the streets. No one is left without a roof over his head.
“I’ve traveled throughout Europe and in all these Christian countries, many people sleep in the road. Why don’t Christians help? Why don’t they respect the homeless?”
The Yale student and I sat in silence, exchanging uncomfortable glances. A palpable tension hung in the air as we contemplated if and how to answer such emotionally charged demands. When neither of us dared offer a response, John went on.
“Europe is filled with strong, Christian countries. Here in Rome, the Pope lives on the other side of the city, but it doesn’t make a difference. No one helps. So you tell me: Which religion is better?”
I felt crushed under the weight of his accusation as a deafening silence filled the room. His sharp stare was unrelenting. This question was a condemnation of me and the entire Western religious culture. I didn’t know what to say. What kind of solace could a 19-year old, middle class Christian offer to alleviate the desperate frustration of a homeless Muslim refugee?
This ambush came on the heels of a carefree and good-spirited interaction with the Senegalese man. I was utterly unprepared to answer such a question. My surprise was a symptom of both my own naivety about the issue and the complexities of refugees’ experiences once they reach the EU. I expected that any source of sorrow for the refugees would originate in the trauma involved with fleeing one’s own country. While John certainly suffered from this kind of trauma, his immediate anger stemmed from the sting of being ignored by the very people he thought would welcome him.
“Which religion is better?”
In that moment, I had no way of assessing the validity of John’s claims, nor later even, as my fact-checking Google searches proved quite futile. Nothing I found backed up his testimony, though I’m not sure Western media would extensively cover Middle Eastern customs regarding homelessness anyway. Eventually I muttered something about how admirable the Muslim culture’s treatment of the homeless is, but that it’s tough to assign value to a religion based on those experiences.
But John was not satisfied; he couldn’t be. Those experiences were from a man who made the courageous decision to leave his family and friends behind in search of a safer life, only to be met with the stark reality of poverty and homelessness in Europe. Those struggles compounded with the condescending stares and sharp words of passersby on the streets of Italy culminated into the formation of the hardened man sitting across from me.
Fortunately for me, the Yale choir director gathered the group together and they soon burst out into a gleeful rendition of a Beatles’ classic, bringing an abrupt yet much appreciated end to my interrogation. I breathed a sigh of relief, but my encounter with John was not finished.
He took out a pen and piece of paper and asked for my name. To my surprise, John wanted to add me on Facebook. I relaxed a bit — this extension of friendship demonstrated that perhaps John viewed our interaction in a different light than I initially did. I assumed that John was condemning me, but maybe he simply wanted to make a point. Maybe he wanted me to reexamine the cultural norms I take for granted.
Were Muslim countries really that hospitable to the homeless? What prevents Christian countries from behaving similarly? Many religious comparisons focus on acts of terrorism, but what about our acts of compassion towards the most vulnerable in society?
Both religions preach about the responsibility of followers to care for the poor. Mosques frequently serve as shelters for the homeless, just as Christian churches often act as epicenters of local social aid. Zakat, the third pillar of Islam, requires faithful Muslims to give 2.5% of their wealth to charity each year as a form of spiritual cleansing, drawing parallels to the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable tenet outlined in Catholic Social Teaching.
I have a tough time believing not a single homeless person sleeps on the streets of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or Pakistan. I may never know how valid John’s claims are, but my goal here is not to juxtapose Islamic and Christian teachings about charity. To John, currently living on the street in Italy, all that matters is how the predominantly Christian Europeans treat him as they walk by. As a Christian, I cannot shrug off my role in this. Before assigning blame or taking credit, I must ask myself what I have done lately to welcome people like John.
A s the students’ sweet harmonies filled the room, John collected his belongings, shook my hand, and left. Our encounter was brief, but left me paralyzed in thought. John had aroused in me a great discomfort with Western cultural norms and my place in it. I sat motionless, deep in self-reflection, brooding with sympathy for his unfortunate situation, shock at the brashness of his verbal onslaught, and embarrassment for my own inaction in it all.
So which religion is better? What seemed like an ad hominem attack from a disgruntled homeless refugee transformed into a challenge–a challenge to examine the claim that our culture has neglected to care for our fellow man. John gave me an opportunity to examine whether my daily actions perpetuate that culture, or combat it.