Back to Top

Rejoicing with Refugees in Italy...For Now

“Praise God, I received my documents!”

One of the beautiful things we experience  in Italy pastoring churches with large populations of congregants from various countries in Africa (but predominantly from Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast) is the tradition of giving personal testimony for what God is doing in one’s life in front of the congregation during worship services.

There is great power in having “valid documents” when you are a foreigner in a foreign land.

Last week was no exception in our church in Trapani, when five people stood to give their testimonies and to thank God for one thing that is really important in the lives of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers: documents giving them permission to stay. You see, there is great power in having “valid documents” when you are a foreigner in a foreign land, and Italy is no exception.

As Reformed Church in America Global Missionaries, we have experienced this first hand, and we are fully aware that for almost half of our time serving in Italy over the past four years we have had irregular documents. This was not by choice or lack of following the proper laws and procedures to have valid documents, but because the wait time to receive permits of stay in Italy are very long, or because our names were misspelled and we had to start the process over again, or the microchip in the plastic permit card did not work and had to be returned to Rome to print another, etc. Yet the obstacles we experienced in our pursuit of valid documents pale in comparison to those faced by our brothers and sisters from Africa and the Middle East.

For almost half of our time serving in Italy we have had irregular documents.

Once migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers reach one of the ports in Italy after having successfully made it across the Mediterranean Sea from Africa or the Middle East to Italy, they begin the painstaking process of requesting protection and requesting permission to stay in Italy. Protection from what? Aren’t they really “just” economic migrants who are flooding Europe to make money? The short answer is no. The long answer is much too complicated to tackle here.

The hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters who arrive on the shores of Italy asking for protection and permission to stay are leaving their home countries for a myriad of reasons that are devastating. Wars and armed conflicts, persecution, famine, natural disasters, severe poverty, scarcity of resources, corruption—these are only a handful of the reasons people are leaving their homes in Africa and the Middle East in such large numbers.

Aren’t they really “just” economic migrants?

They then endure a death-defying trek from their homes to Libya, where they are told that there are jobs, clean water, food, and possibilities to resettle or to make enough money to continue on their journey. The horrors of Libya I also will not address in this article, but by the time they make it to Italy, the layers of trauma they have endured are etched on their faces, and way too often, are evident on their bodies. There are too many people we meet with large scars from knife or machete attacks, with missing arms or with crass pieces of metal holding their ankle bones in place because it was the best medical care they could receive in Libya.

They arrive in Italy with the hope that their European brothers and sisters will help them in their time of need and provide them with refuge. They will share the most intimate details of their horrifying journeys with a panel of complete strangers, who will then determine whether or not the person seeking refuge will be given permission to stay in Italy. The fortunate ones will receive asylum seeker status and will be granted 5 years of permission to stay in Europe. We see this outcome more frequently for those coming from the Middle East, from countries where armed conflicts are more internationally recognized (such as Syria, Iraq, etc.). Other fortunate ones will receive permission to stay, but will receive a lower level of international protection with a shorter stay period (from 6 months to 2 years generally). The unfortunate ones have their requests for permission to stay denied and are given expulsion letters or are detained and sent back to their country of origin. We see our brothers and sisters from African most frequently experience the second two options.

I know that in two short years they will once again have to start the process all over again.

The five people who gave personal testimony in church last week had all been waiting in suspense for the answer to their requests for three long years (living in migrant camps the entire time), and thanks be to God, all five received two years of permission to stay in Italy. The eruption of clapping and cheers from the congregation was a joyful occasion, but it was tinged with sadness for me, because I know that in two short years they will once again have to start the process all over again.

For now, however, we celebrate with those whose cries for help are answered with yes, we mourn with and advocate for those whose cries are answered with no, and we continue to look for a more Christ-like response to our brothers and sisters who are seeking refuge.


The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

In order to steward ministry shares well, commenting isn’t available on Do Justice itself because we engage with comments and dialogue in other spaces. To comment on this post, please visit the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Facebook page (for Canada-specific articles) or the Office of Social Justice’s Facebook page. Alternatively, please email us. We want to hear from you!

Read more about our comment policy.