August
11
2020
Author
Jennie Pollock
The flood and the trickle

Yesterday I read an amazing story on Twitter. It was a story that could have turned out so differently, had it not been for the wisdom, compassion and leadership of a few key people.

It began on 7 March 1991, when a dangerously overladen ship entered the port of the small Italian town of Brindisi. Its cargo, crammed on deck, hanging out of portholes, balancing on every surface, was human: 5,000 men, women and children fleeing from Albania, where Communist rule was at last coming to an end. That ship, the Lirja, was followed by three more, and several fishing boats.

Then came the first wise decision: the Italian Coast Guard decided not to try to stop the ships or turn them around, for fear that they might capsize, causing great loss of life.

As soon as they reached the dock, people poured off the ships into the dockyard. They were dirty, tired and hungry. Many were suffering from dysentery. It was a cold and rainy early spring day, and the Italian authorities were totally unprepared to cope with such a vast influx of desperate people.

Red Cross volunteers did what they could, but the scale of the need was simply overwhelming.

During the night, the police made the second wise decision: as people attempted to break out of the port area where they had been contained, the police decided not to try to stop them, but instead helped to manage the flow of people safely.

Nicholas Whithorn reports: “By daybreak the city of Brindisi has at least 25,000 Albanian refugees wandering its streets. The Mayor of the city, Giuseppe Marchionna, realises that the situation could get out of hand. If desperate hungry people break into a food shop, violence could ensue.”

For the sake of perspective, Whithorn notes that Brindisi is approximately the size of Hastings, with around 90,000 inhabitants. Its population rose by more than a quarter overnight.

How would the town respond?

With remarkable insight and leadership, the Mayor recorded a message to his people, to be broadcast on TV and radio at 8am and every fifteen minutes thereafter throughout the day. His message? "They are just hungry and cold, help them."

And they did.

At first, people simply threw bags of food down to the refugees. Then they started giving them money to call their families, and clothes to replace those they had lived in for who knew how many days.

Then, the Italian townspeople started opening their doors and letting the Albanians in to use their showers and their phones. They cooked meals for their guests. Those with spare rooms offered them to women and children.

The Albanians were there for three weeks, put up in homes and schools, fed from hastily set-up canteens. When the government finally stepped in with a plan, thousands of people from across Italy offered to house the refugees. “Most of them made their lives in Italy & still live here,” says Whithorn, “Others made their fortune & returned home once their country was free. They certainly all recall the solidarity of Brindisi, thanks to those simple words of humanity, ‘they are just hungry & cold, help them.’”

In some ways it is easier to respond boldly and courageously to an enormous crisis than it is to a small, if persistent, problem. A disastrous flood will mobilise more volunteers than a steady trickle of water. But the trickle must also be addressed. When desperate people trying to escape the coronavirus outbreaks in refugee camps in France enter the UK – sometimes actually in Hastings – a couple of dozen at a time, the message to the public is that they will be assessed to see if they have any medical needs, interviewed, “and their cases dealt with in line with immigration rules, transferring to detention where appropriate.”

If all the current migrants landed on British shores thousands at a time, perhaps the response would be different.

Perhaps.

But do we have an equivalent of Mayor Marchionna, who can act with wisdom and compassion, and who can call us to serve those in need in the way he did?

Notice the progression of how it happened: first, the Mayor opened his people’s eyes and hearts. Then, cautiously, the people opened their store cupboards and opened their windows to share of their excess. As they grew in confidence and compassion they began to open their doors, giving a little more of themselves, then more, then more, until many had fully opened their lives and their homes to these neighbours from across the sea.

We don’t need to wait for a Mayor Marchionna; we have a servant saviour who has already told us, when we see those who are hungry and cold, to help them. We all know we’d rise up in a moment to help out in a time of flood; will we also help in the daily, persistent trickle?

 

If you’ve been inspired by the story of Brindisi, and want to learn more about how you and your church can respond to the needs in your community, both our forthcoming book and our November conference will be full of inspiring ideas and practical tips.

And if your heart is particularly stirred by the needs of refugees and others seeking a better life for themselves and their families, check out the Jubilee+ Refugee Network to find out how you can help.

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Image: Nicholas Whithorn