Lampedusa: A Different Type of Pilgrimage

Where is Lampedusa?

This week I am in Lampedusa.  It’s an island that has at most 6,000 residents, was once part of Tunisia, and is considered Italy.  More specifically Sicily, but it is closer to Africa than Europe.  Although the island is small, not larger than 7 miles long and 2 miles wide , it has some of the most pristine clean warm waters I have seen and swam in.  It looks like paradise. How do more people not know of this place?

 As I post photos on social media, nobody seems to know where this is located.  None of my American friends or family have any clue where Lampedusa is.  I have been here in total for five nights, six days, and I have heard one American accent and one Filipino accent. Everyone else is Italian.  This is a place that Italians travel to, not the rest of the world, or so it seems.  But according to this article recently published in Forbes, the Italians are boycotting this island due to their stance on refugees. It’s revenge tourism.

What is Lampedusa known for?

The rest of Europe only seems to know of Lampedusa as a place that refugee boats from Africa land in.  Although there are other places where Africa seems to kiss Europe, such as the distance between Tarifa and Tangier, borders must be tight.  Lampedusa takes a humanitarian stance on this, and welcomes the refugees who land here.  The voyage is difficult, as one hears the stories of people risking their lives to get here.  Although the distance from Tunisia to Lampedusa is 206 miles/333kilometers, refugees escape from other parts of Africa just to get here.  Another article written this year noted “The Italian Interior Ministry says that in the first four months of 2023, more than four times as many people arrived in Italy compared to last year: 40,856 people compared to 10,188 in 2022.” On one particular journey refugees were fleeing from Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Ghana, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Gateway to Europe

I visited Porta d’ Europa, which is located near the airport, a point that looks at the edge of the Mediterranean.   Mimmo Paladino created this art piece in 2008. It is the Gateway to Europe.  Tourists stand and pose in front of it, there are old shoes and remnants of an old self phone.  I sat on these rocky cliffs looking at the archway and a nearby shipping boat, and thought of this journeys this area has seen.  It’s a different type of pilgrimage, one where you are leaving your home in hopes of a better more fulfilling life, while simultaneously risking losing your life.  Unlike the hero’s journey, one never returns home to “bring the boon” back to his or her community.  The boon is brought forward for those who took the voyage and their future family members. 

As I sat here, I heard a baby kitten meowing.  The kitten was only been several weeks old. She walked from the archway towards these rocks, where me and other tourists sat and watched the sun as it was nearing sunset.  One older man seemed really curious and worried about this cat. It was mutual.  As it neared him, he shook his fingers “no”, and moved his hands away in a shoe away motion.  Although he seemed to care about this cat, he didn’t know what to do with it. He couldn’t help this cat. He feared the cat would be injured, as it crawled towards the rocks on the edge of the water.  Would curiosity kill this cat?  

A Metaphor

Other people ignored the meows and some, including myself, watched not knowing what to do in this situation.  A young woman and her boyfriend approached, she pulled out a small container of cat food.  She opened it up and gave it to the meowing cat, and even offered water.  Was she a local?  Did she know about this newborn kitten?  Did she carry around cat food at all times for the other stray kittens found on the island?

Thoughts rolled through my head as I watched this.  Here was the metaphor. Some people may care for these individuals, but don’t know how to help. There is sympathy. They care, don’t want them to further worsen their lives, get hurt, or wind up in hopeless situations.  They push them away hoping tough love may serve them best, or others will deal with the problem.   Others either ignore the problem or some helplessly observe.  And thankfully there are others who offer support in however they know how, like donating food, water, or maybe some cash until life gets sorted.  Some even give there time to the cause with local organizations.  


 There was an interesting youtube video I watched about a man from an Irish church who flew with other volunteers from his church to help for several days refugees.  It was only several days long, but he connected with other people who were volunteering in Lampedusa longer with another church organization.  At least his video brought to light another side of how some Europeans are responding to this situation.  Instead of boycotting an island which is dealing with an influx of refugees, what other ways can we serve? How can we serve? 

I don’t have the answer. But I wanted to share this side.  Yes there is a side of humble and exquisite beauty that exists on the island, but there is this other face that exists as well. There is a sense of compassion on the island. Compassion should not be boycotted.  

Reflections for ourselves and ancestors

It’s such struggle to live in a land that you don’t speak the language or not know a soul. I have lived in four countries and have travelled to 64 territories and 53 countries.  My journey is more from a sense of adventure than desperation.  I am educated, privileged, hold an American passport, and am from a land that I do not “have to flee.” I simply chose to leave the past ten years in order to experience and immerse myself in the world.  Living abroad has the capacity to humble you, if you let it.  

As you take a stance on the refugee status, reflect on how your ancestors came to the land you are residing on.  What was their pilgrimage like?  How did others treat them? How did they overcome this?  What did they hope would be different?  Who were the people that helped them adjust to life in the new land?  Can you look at refugees in your land or others with the same eyes as you would your ancestors?  


*For info on the Forbes article I mentioned, check this out.

Read this previous blog post about preparations for a pilgrimage

For on a person’s experience assisting with the refugees, as mentioned earlier

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