2016-03-18 11:55:00

German nuns keep doors open to Syrian refugees

(Vatican Radio)  Back in 2014 the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer in Wurzburg, Germany gave asylum to a family who had fled the war in Syria and had sought refuge in Europe.  Through their 150 year-old ministry in the fields of healthcare and social work, the nuns were no strangers to suffering - but for them, that family opened up a new window onto a world of unfathomable pain and loss from a conflict that has passed its fifth anniversary.  

With hundreds of thousands of migrants risking their lives at sea in the attempt to find safety in Europe, more and more refugees began arriving in Wurzburg.  Together with German authorities, the sisters set to work adapting their spacious convent into a shelter for needy families. 

Today, they host more than 100 refugees, mostly Syrians, whom they call their “guests.”  So, when Pope Francis called last year on dioceses, parishes and religious orders to "express the Gospel in concrete terms" by each taking in at least one family, the sisters were well ahead in the game.

Petra Dankova, a postulant or nun-in-training with the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer, has worked for more than 8 years with refugees, mostly in Africa, and helps the sisters in Wurzburg.

Listen to Tracey McClure's interview with Petra Dankova:

“Maybe the biggest compliment I have heard for our work here was when one of our Syrian guests told me that even in Syria – and this was a Muslim man, so not even a Christian – he said even in Syria they had heard about Pope Francis and his message of peace and they always wondered about that.  And when they were forced to come to Germany and ended up in what they could only describe as Church, they said, ‘ now we see this message of Pope Francis lived out.  Now we see that the sisters do what the Pope is telling people to do.’”

Hospitality is not a one-way street

Giving hospitality to the refugees, says Petra, “has been an incredible blessing for everyone involved.  It has brought new life to the mother house; it has brought a lot of volunteers to us who may previously would never have thought of coming to a convent but wanted to help with the refugees and through that work have learned more about the sisters too.  It has brought this new ministry to the sisters who have traditionally been involved in healthcare and social services and now they [can respond to]… what are the most pressing needs in the community right now.”


A shelter for families with special needs

“Many of the families who come to us have special needs,” notes Petra who tells the story of  one Syrian family who made “this incredible journey overland, along the Balkan route, walking many, many kilometers for many days and weeks with a little girl who has cancer.”  “She’s six years old and very seriously sick.  When they came here to one of the regular shelters, the danger to this little girl was actually greater because of shared facilities: shared bathrooms – because oftentimes, there are hundreds of people living in one gym all together.”

A baby born at Christmastime: reminder that Christ was a refugee

Petra says many babies have been born in the convent since the sisters have opened their doors also to numerous pregnant women.  “I think it really brought a new understanding to me of the message of Christmas when I saw, right before Christmas, a very young family come to us – a young woman who was barely fifteen who was pregnant and delivered her baby just a few days before Christmas. I can honestly say I have seen the reality of what we sometimes forget: that Jesus also was born as a refugee to a very young mother who maybe was looked down upon for travelling so pregnant and being so young and having a baby…”  Getting to know these families and hearing how they lost everything, Petra says, we can more fully understand what is truly important in life: “they are so grateful to have each other.”

“When you see this new born baby and everyone around it light up, and realize that despite everything that the mother has suffered, this is such a precious gift for her to have this newborn baby in her arms.  Those are all moments that are really transformational.  And I have seen many of the volunteers and many of the sisters and people who hear these stories, really come to a realization that these are stories of human struggle … [not abstract stories]  or stories of ‘invasion’ as we sometimes hear.  These are real people who have struggled and suffered incredibly and who call us to offer hospitality and welcome.”

As EU clamps down borders, is identity of old continent changing?

Germany, which led the push to give asylum to Syrian refugees, has since retreated from its promise to take in more asylum seekers.  Other European countries are taking steps to build walls and close borders to prevent refugees from entering.

Asked if these measures are warranted and if the EU is changing its very nature by saying ‘no’ to refugees, Petra responds:

“I think it’s tragic that European countries who were really at the forefront of putting in place a system of protecting refugees from around the world, that these same European countries are now looking for ways to protect themselves from refugees. I think that it’s ironic and more than that, it’s just tragic.”

“Rejection” more dangerous than “welcome”

Petra downplays European fears that refugees are hiding terrorists in their ranks, saying that rejection, rather than welcome, plays into the hands of recruiters of militants.

“I see babies being born in these camps on the Macedonian border or families with small children huddling in the rain and I wonder if it’s this rejection that is really a dangerous step towards making people feel like they’re not worth anything and that really brings them into the arms of recruiters and people who are looking for future terrorists.”

“I don’t think it’s ‘welcome’ that is dangerous – I think it’s the rejection that really can be dangerous for Europe.  It just turns us away from this life-giving sense that we can be a community and do something for each other to this really base feeling that we have to protect ourselves – in order to keep our good life we have to keep other people away.  Even if it’s at the price of these people dying at our borders.” 

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