Bridget's reflections

In September 2014 Ruud and I joined a  ‘Bearing Witness’ retreat for 7 days on the Italian island of Lampedusa – a small rocky island about 100 miles across the sea from Tunisia, and 150 miles from Sicily.

The retreat was organised by members of the ‘Zen Peacemakers’ community, and led by a Belgian ‘spirit holder’ Frank de Waele. It was open to anyone – some were Zen practitioners, some not. Frank offered leadership in an open and exploratory way. It was a new project and the plan was to decide together what to do each day.

Each morning the 11 of us meditated together in an olive grove at the edge of the simple camping-with-cabins where we were staying. Some of us dived into the warm Mediterranean before our shared breakfast – where we talked about the weird paradox of our purpose here, and our pleasure at being in this ‘holiday’ place. All part of the reality of the moment. Then we set off to meet people, and go to places, connected with the issue of migration into Europe by boat from North Africa.

Lampedusa, being the closest island to the African coast, has been for many years a target for the boats of people fleeing war, poverty, and violence in their own countries. They make treacherous journeys overland from many places, such as Eritrea, Somalia, Syria and Gaza, before embarking on the even more treacherous crossing of the Mediterranean, hoping to be the lucky ones who arrive in Europe, knowing they may drown on the way.

One impact on me of being there is I now know so much more about the facts…Unpleasant facts. Facts that implicate us as tax-payers in the European Union. And as people sharing this planet with those on the move.

One of these facts is that far, far more people die trying to enter Europe than trying to enter all other countries in the world put together. See our ‘Maps and Data’ page for the statistics.

People far outside their situations sometimes say, ‘They are trying to take advantage of our benefits system’ etc. But when you think about it, which of us would be willing to risk our lives, and even the lives of our partners and children, to live on benefits in a far off land? The focus is put on what people are moving towards, “They want our…this and that….”. But most of these people are on the move because of what they are trying to escape. The horrors and trials and tribulations of their daily lives back home. Yes - this is for some mixed in with hope. A hope of a life worth living, even if it is away from loved ones, away from their roots, away from what is familiar. Maybe the hope includes hope of a good education, or of a meaningful job. Hopes we share as human beings lucky enough not to have to give up so much to try to find these things. But don’t forget that some of those risking all on the boats leaving North Africa on a daily basis, overloaded with people, are professionals who have a good education, who had meaningful jobs. Let’s think of each one as an individual. Meet them. Know them – even if they died en route.

So, on our retreat we did what we could to confront ourselves with these realities. We sat in meditation among the rotting fishing boats from Africa, piled up roughly on the edge of the harbour in the town. We visited a local Museum created by a group of artists, from found objects washed up on the beaches of Lampedusa, or left in the rubbish dump where boats were disposed of. Photos, tapes of music, water bottled, shoes, life jackets, religious icons…On one wall was a large world map, made from the clothing of migrants. Powerful.

One pair of young woman’s trousers in that museum touched me inexplicably, as if I felt her very personally. I felt I could see her, exactly what she looked like. I sat on the floor next to those trousers for some time, letting myself link to her parents and family. Very likely they did not know what became of her. I tried to send them solace. Of course I didn't know how to do this. But it felt good to try. And was in the spirit of ‘Not Knowing’ and ‘Bearing Witness’….

The three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers are

-       Not Knowing

-       Bearing witness

-       Action (i.e. action that arises out of the two ways of being above)

This act of continually pressing the ‘refresh’ button of my ideas, my understanding, my feelings even, felt a good way to be present on this island. Sometimes I doubted our being there – a weird cross between tourism and religion. Were we trying to help? Or not. Or what?

But actually, it was palpable each time we spoke to someone involved in the migration stories, that something happened internally not just for us, but for them.

A local boat man who had travelled around the world as a ship’s captain and was now running various boat trips for tourists, took us at our request to the place where, on Oct 3rd 2013 a boat with 500 people on board capsized (in sight of Lampedusa) and around 300 of them drowned. He told us with energetic rage how men of the sea have it as a basic way of life – if someone is in trouble on the water you help them. You don't ask questions, hesitate, check the protocol. He was frustrated by various protocols about what local fishermen and tourist boats must do if they see refugee boats in the water. He had once called in to the coastguard on seeing a boat perilously full of refugees, only to be fined 1000 euros because he was outside Italian fishing waters!

He told us many stories as his boat rocked gently on the almost flat sea, and then joined us in the ceremony we did. I liked this ceremony. Based on a Buddhist ceremony for the dead it felt open and respectful of all traditions. Chanting, praying, speaking the names of the dead. Since neither we – nor anyone – knew the names of most who had drowned, we said repeatedly, ‘unnamed name, unnamed name’. After a while we began to say it in other languages we knew. I said it in Farsi. Maybe some Iranians or Afghans had been on that boat. We said the Lord’s Prayer too. We threw flowers into the water.

The boatman saw and felt our sincerity. He told us to find Vito, who had an ice cream shop on the main street, and speak to him. So once back on the island we walked up to the main street and asked around till we found Vito’s ice cream shop. He was busy but found half an hour to come and sit with the ten of us at one of his tables in the pedestrian main street. He spoke, as everyone we met had done, in fast Italian. I could catch about 60% of his meaning. Luckily Ruud was able to translate for our group.

Vito told us about a fun outing he had been on with friends on his boat one night. A camp fire in a cove, eating fish. Sleeping on the boat. Waking to hear strange and horrific cries. So strange and so inexplicable they could only imagine they were seagulls. But they started up their boat and moved out of the narrow cove to be confronted by the worst sight of his life. Hundreds of people and bodies in the water. His story was gut-wrenching and he spoke with the power of an aural tradition, describing his experiences vividly as they unfolded. He and his friends were able to save the lives of 46 people, even as other drowned around him. You can hear him tell his story in one of the videos on the video page. We listened to him for half an hour or so. Then he pulled himself up, wiped his hands over his face, shuddered and said, “Back to work now!” Some of us went back to meet him again another day.

At our ‘council’ the next morning, we shared the impact of all we had heard from the boatman and Vito. These ‘councils’ are a usual part of Zen Peacemaker Bearing Witness retreats. An annual Bearing Witness retreat has been held at Auschwitz, for the last 20 years. The form has matured there. The council gives a structured space for sharing in depth, in community, without ‘chatter’, with great heart-listening to each other, as the days of the retreat intensely affect each person. 

That morning after Vito’s speaking to us, one person put a photo of Brother Roger – one of the leading monks at Taizé – in the centre of our circle. His wrinkled face seemed full of compassion, sadness and joy, all at the same time. I thought “ I want to look like him as I grow old’. In the ‘council’ form, at the end of each person’s sharing everyone bows. That morning, each time we bowed together, I felt so connected to all 10 of us. Like we were one organism. The petals opened and closed in unison. Our bows were that opening and closing, uniting us. It was a special experience.

Since coming home Ruud and I have continued to read and share about the retreat, and about the wider issue of people on the move on this planet. This website is one result – one action – coming out of this. And we’ve kept in touch with others from the retreat. Monika, who was the mover and shaker who generated the impulse and the action to make the retreat happen, wrote an email to Vito. His reply answered one of my questions – whether our presence had any lasting meaning or v for others. Among his very touching words he wrote to Monika (in Italian of course!):

"I found your emails very touching and I could feel you very close to the pain accompanying me. I am appreciating all of you and thank you for your being here."

© Ruud and Bridget 2014