Rhodes: "I was a stranger and you welcomed me"

20th April 2015 is a date to be remembered for the inhabitants of the island of Rhodes. On that day, many of them saw a boat crash into the rocks near the beach of Zefiros: there were 93 refugees aboard, all of whom were recused by the local population. Since then, the Franciscans have also never stopped helping them.

Since that event, several boats have taken the same route and the landings, although sporadic, continue. Coming from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries of the same tormented geographical area, they are fleeing from war, persecution, and violence, trying to gain freedom through flight. Together with other international aid and the care of the local people, the Catholic Church is also helping in this situation. From the very beginning, Fr. JohnLuke Gregory, the Franciscan parish priest of Rhodes, started to collect food and there was no shortage of benefactors: pasta, rice, sauces, lentils or other cereals, but also shampoo, soap and toothpaste.Fr. Gregory also started a fund-raising campaign by sending Christmas cards to friends who are increasing every year and from these various activities many donations and offers started to arrive which are used exclusively for the poor who turn to the parish for help and for the refugees.

"The truth," says Fr. John Luke "is that food and goods are not important. The only concrete thing that we can do is give them some moments of joy and serenity, The fact that I speak Arabic also makes them feel that they are in a less hostile environment. This is how I try to make my contribution.” The parish priest, supported by a number of volunteers, often visits the centre, speaking to the people to understand their experiences and where they come from. Usually, they are very strong stories, as well as highly personal: young people who feel they no longer have a future, men who have left their families in the hope of a better future,  but they are all deeply grateful to still be alive, despite everything. “Father Luke is a good man,” says Omar, from Iraq, "when we see him we are sure of having a moment of peace; this is why he is always welcome and loved by everyone.”

The pastoral care of the parish of Rhodes is not only for the migrants but also for the island’s poor and the prostitutes. "Some of them come to Holy Mass now and again,” says Fr. Gregory "even though they do not exactly understand the form and the gestures, when they enter the church, they greet me out of politeness, even though I am in the middle of celebrating the Eucharist. In the long term, they feel the need to have contact with something greater and we try to offer them occasions to meet."
Another weekly meeting is that during the distribution of goods offered by tourists and parishioners. At the weekend, the volunteers prepare between 290 and 320 bags full of food, as well as fresh bread. On Tuesday morning, it is ready to be distributed to anyone who knocks on the door of the convent from 9 in the morning, when there are a blessing and a choral prayer of thanks to God.

For all the volunteers, the commitment is not only material. For a few years now, at the parish of St Francis, a classroom has been set up for free lessons of Greek and many foreigners decide to attend these winter courses to then be able to find work, relying only on their own efforts. This is the aim of pastoral care: to work so that everyone has a future, they continue to have hope and above all have a clean and decent present. The volunteers, under the guidance of Fr. John Luke, are available every day for this, deeply happy to do good.

Giovanni Malaspina