ROME, Italy — While living in Europe for nearly three decades, Tom and Anita Herway took frequent trips to Italy. Sometimes they were work-related, with Tom based in Belgium as the NATO's chief of contracts; other times, they were personal vacations. Like other tourists visiting Italy, they would see refugees in the streets and plazas, never paying them much attention.
Fast forward to 2017. Living in Rome following retirement, the Herways see refugees in a different light.
For example, they recently met with a young man who fled his native Somalia, fearing for his life. Family members there had been exploited, then killed when they resisted. With no immediate relatives remaining, he gestured to others in the temporary camp — fellow refugees and Italian volunteers — and called them “my family.” His only desire was to work in a store and have a safe, peaceful life.
The Herways — now Elder and Sister Herway — see refugees with a greater purpose, as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' first-ever senior missionary couple in Italy assigned specifically for humanitarian and refugee service. They’re joining the LDS Church and its members in Italy, as well as other charitable partners, in helping refugees.
"Many of them are scared to talk," Elder Herway said. "They have been deceived, abused and exploited both at home and in their journey, so this is understandable. Refugees are very vulnerable to exploitations. But when we've been able to talk to them, it's always an eye-opening experience to hear first-hand what is really going on."
Sister Herway said working with refugees is something that would be beneficial to all people.
"Their needs are so great," she said. "They literally have nothing. They have left it all behind in reaching for a better life. Their gratitude for the smallest kindnesses shown them is wonderful. I wish everyone could have this experience. Their worlds will never be the same."
Understanding the Herways' assignment, along with the role played by LDS leaders and members in Italy, involves understanding the Church's long involvement in local humanitarian efforts.
For several years, Italy has been in crisis mode when it comes to refugees pouring into the country. Much of the nation is coastline, thanks to a peninsula that sticks out like a boot kicking a soccer ball in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, along with scores of scattered islands, large and small.
The result is Italy has become one of Europe’s pre-eminent arrival points — whether as a purposeful destination or by accident — for refugees fleeing African and Middle Eastern regions for political, religious, economic or life-saving reasons.
Consider last year’s numbers, alone: An estimated 180,000 refugees reached Italy in 2016, mostly from western sub-Sahara and eastern Africa, and most arriving by boat or raft to Italy’s southern coastlines and islands.
About one-third of them — or 60,000 — registered to stay in Italy, with the Italian government and charitable organizations scrambling to provide food, housing, medical care and other basic necessities.
The other two-thirds? After arrival, they tried to pass through Italy into northern-neighboring nations to register to stay, before being formally documented, fingerprinted and processed. They’re referred to as “transient refugees” or “refugees in transit” — they’re more mobile, somewhat invisible and difficult to track and provide care for.
Some “transient refugees” get started but don’t get far. They include long-time refugees who have been living for years in slums and squats in Rome, trying to survive day to day.
The Herways say their call has a three-fold purpose — to help the refugees and to help the Italian people deal with them, to involve local church members and leaders in the refugee efforts so they can feel God’s love for his children, and to help the LDS Church and its LDS Charities in partnering with local charity organizations.
Italy has no alternative but to be a player in the immigration issue, with a monthly flow of arriving refugees easily reaching five digits. After determining refugee status and needs — and returning migrants back to countries deemed safe, such as Tunisia — Italy provides up to six months of assistance for refugees in receiving centers.
"The care for the refugees is pretty good as they pull them from the boats," Sister Herway said. "What is needful is the recognition of the trauma they have experienced and the need for psychological help after their physical wounds have been attended to.
"The outward damage is obvious and, as humans, we see it and fix it. The mind, however, can be dismissed and not seen as important of a need that needs mending. Basically, they are all experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, and that medical need is just as important."
The Herways’ late-April visit to Lampedusa is representative of their efforts. At 7.8 square miles, Lampedusa is the largest of Italy’s three Pelagie islands and is the country’s southernmost point. It’s closer to Tunisia (70 miles) and the island nation of Malta (109 miles) than to Sicily, Italy (127 miles); the Libyan capital of Tripoli is not much farther — just 184 miles away.
It was only a handful of miles off the shores of Lampedusa where 368 migrants died in an October 2013 shipwreck of a boat carrying refugees from east Africa. Since that and other tragedies involving migrants, the people of Lampedusa have tried to reach out in a more positive, welcoming manner.
That’s aided in part by Mediterranean Hope – Med Hope, for short — a program sponsored in part by the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy and the ecumenical organization Community of Sant Egido. More recently, Med Hope funding has been supplemented by access to a state tax on Italians, where they can specify a small part of their tax should go to a certain religion or charitable organization.
The Herways were hosted by Med Hope and shown the Italian coast guard’s rescue boats, the receiving docks, the reception center and the local cemetery, where drowning victims are buried if their identities are known. If not, a plaque acknowledges the unidentified who have died at sea.
They also met with local charitable and religious leaders who reach out with food, clothes, shoes and even introductory lessons on Italy’s language and culture, to help assimilate the estimated 74,000 refugees who have arrived since April 2013.
“This island has a completely different feel than anywhere else. The refugees are delighted, thrilled, happy, relieved, amazed that they are on land and in one piece,” Sister Herway said. “It’s sad to know that their journey is still long and hard, and there will still be suffering to experience.”
LDS Church efforts
The LDS Church has 27 humanitarian and refugee projects in Italy. Most have been developed and are managed by local leaders and public relations directors in the Church's 10 stakes in Italy. (Stakes are comprised of 5-10 congregations or "wards" and are similar to a Catholic diocese.)
“In Italy, we do a lot,” said Elder Massimo De Feo, an LDS General Authority Seventy, the Church’s first from Italy. “We are on the front lines to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. ... We have done this for a long time — we have established a lot of projects even before we had stakes in Rome."
Elder De Feo was called to be the first stake president in Rome in 2005. That stake was divided into the Rome East and West stakes in 2013.
The Church’s Mormon Helping Hands humanitarian program arrived in Italy in 2006, in part to help at the Torino Winter Olympics that year. Other longtime humanitarian programs include the compilation and distribution of hygiene kits and emergency kits as well as wheelchair donations.
Then came the onslaught of refugee needs.
In the arrival areas of southern Italy, LDS-donated emergency and hygiene kits were part of the initial aid given to arriving refugees. For refugees in transit, LDS relief offered, with partnering organizations, hygiene kits, food, clothes and legal assistance. For refugees settling in the more northern parts of Italy, aid came in the form of self-sufficiency assistance.
“We’re building, with some local entities, centers for self-reliance, to help the refugees to get an education and to get jobs,” Elder De Feo said.
The effort of helping refugees is a sensitive political issue, with many people not wanting them in Italy, Elder Herway said.
“But we have not found the church leaders and members focused on the political issue in the least,” he said. “They see a need and, with Christlike charity, they have gone to work. Many of them are passionate about it.”
The Herways can list project after project. For example, Barbara Venturea, the Rome West LDS Stake public relations director, set up meetings for them with the Red Cross Rome, Italy’s Federation of Protestant Churches, and community and government leaders.
Another is Angelo Melone of the Rome East State, who organized a refugee relief project in the city of Pescara, inviting representatives from four local community organizations and the mayor’s office to speak about needs and opportunities. Those representatives then stayed after speaking, to join local LDS leaders and members in the project.
Elder Alessandro Dini Ciacci, a LDS Church Area Seventy living in Rome, said member involvement in refugee and humanitarian efforts brings many benefits.
“First and foremost, people forget about their own little worries and troubles because they are rallied to serve others,” he said. “And they realize, yes, we do have problems, but when compared to these people’s problems, we can overcome our own.”
The projects and efforts also bring members together in sharing a common goal.
“It’s helping them become less selfish, and it’s giving help to those who need it,” he said. “The love Jesus Christ asks us to have for other people is a unifying force.”
Partnering with organizations, individuals and religious groups with differing beliefs, shows “when it comes to helping people, we’re all in the same boat, and we can find common ground,” Elder Dini Ciacci said.
The purpose of the LDS Church partnering with other entities is to help in developing and funding refugee projects and to foster good relationships, both with the partnering groups and with the local communities being served.
“The church has established great relations with some key partners in the humanitarian help,” Elder Dini Ciacci said. “We don’t go out and do it ourselves. We partner with established, big organizations, and that’s proven to be the best option.”
One key partnership is with the Italian government, helping with the arrival of and initial assistance to refugees.
“The Puglia Stake, the Sicily Stake, the Palermo Stake — these are the places where they come,” Elder De Feo said. “These are the places where we help the government to do something, to organize the work for the refugees.
The LDS Church benefits from local leaders meeting regularly with members of the Italian senate and the Ministry of the Interior.
More than just government relationships, the LDS Church and LDS Charities have created beneficial, long-lasting alliances in partnering with other religious and non-profit organizations in refugee and humanitarian aid in Italy.
That includes but is not limited to, Italian Red Cross, Red Cross of Rome, Centro Per L’authonomia (Center for Autonomy), MEDU Italy or Medici Per I Diritti Umana (Doctors for Human Rights), Community of Sant’ Egido, Italy’s Federation of Protestant Churches, Catholic Relief Services, International Rescue Committee and more.
For example, these projects have happened in just the past couple years.
In 2015, LDS Charities partnered with MEDU Italy on two refugee-related projects. One was helping provide psychological care for refugees dealing with mental and emotional health issues, particularly as victims of abuse, exploitation or trauma.
The mental health clinic involving MEDU and LDS Charities was in Sicily, a common arrival point for refugees. The other was donating a mobile health clinic to be used in and around Rome, serving refugees — transient and homeless people — who don’t have documentation or are hesitant to go to a hospital or clinic.
Rome was where President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the LDS Church’s First Presidency, donated $3 million to the World Food Programme of the United Nations, to be used to provide food for refugees and displaced persons worldwide. It was during the three-year period LDS Charities partnered with UN organizations to fight hunger.
Last summer, the Church donated a mobile kitchen — capable of cooking and serving 900 meals a day — to the Italian Red Cross.
The original purpose was to help with the refugee crisis by aiding Red Cross of Rome with offering meals at refugee reception centers or helping pockets of transient or homeless refugees and other people in and around Rome.
Another possibility was for the donated camp kitchen to be used by the Red Cross elsewhere as needed. That happened in late 2016, when it was relocated from Rome to the city of Amatrice, where late August earthquakes in the Rieti region resulted in 290 deaths and thousands of homeless people.
After initially serving refugees, the kitchen was used to serve schoolchildren, as it was parked at a school and helped provide meals to students in kindergarten, elementary and secondary grades.
In response to the same earthquake and landslide devastations, the church also sent 10 pallets of plastic plates, cups, cutlery, napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, boxes of soaps, detergents and disinfectants to the Red Cross camps for those left homeless.
Then there are the regular — and frequent — stake projects to pack emergency kits and hygiene kits by the thousands, then deliver them to critical locations throughout Italy, particularly points southward. Members old and young unite to pack the kits with essential items, which are then given to partners, such as the Red Cross, the Community of Sant’ Egido and the Federation of Protestant Churches for handoff to refugees in need.
Elder Herway thinks back to the young Somalian man he and his wife met.
“This young man’s goals are simple and achievable — happiness is within his reach,” he said. “Being able to help these people in some small way, and foster goodwill toward the Church in the process, makes all the sacrifices we have made to come on a mission a small price to pay.”