Sarah Jane Weaver: Feeling Responsible Before God, Helping Those in Need – Church News and Events
ROME, Italy — Fasasi Abeedeen’s notebook was unforgettable. Pencil drawings recorded his tenuous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
Each page offered a glimpse of his story: A screaming child, passed between adults in a safe place. A boy, struggling in a devouring sea, out of breath. The lifeless body of a woman, taken out of the water.
Abeedeen showed his sketches to Tom and Anita Herway, Latter-day Saint Charity missionaries who had been serving in Rome for a year when we met in 2018.
Along with a photographer, I was assigned to cover President Russell M. Nelson’s First World Ministry in April 2018. I had planned to spend a few days in Jerusalem. But shortly after arriving at the BYU Jerusalem Center, we were informed of rising tensions in the area. Amid the conflict, President Nelson and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles decided to cut short their visit and left Jerusalem.
With some colleagues, we flew to Italy. We had an unexpected open day and schedule. I emailed local Church leaders, who put me in touch with Brother and Sister Herbay.
We will never take for granted what happened next.
In one day—without notice—they showed us the breadth and depth of the Church’s humanitarian work for refugees in Rome. One of the people we met was Abeedeen, who was receiving help from Casa Scalabrini, a program run by the Scalabrinian Missionaries, a Roman Catholic religious order.
I thought of Abeedeen this month when I returned to Rome, where President Dallin H. Oaks delivered a landmark address on global religious freedom. At the 2022 Notre Dame Religious Freedom Summit, President Oaks called for “a worldwide effort to defend and advance the religious freedom of all of God’s children in every nation of the world.”
When I had a few hours of free time, I visited the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center – one of the places Brother and Sister Herway took me to in 2018. The important work that continues there continues , always accomplished with partners, including the Church.
It is a symbol of what can happen to people who feel responsible before God and come together to help those in need.
We received a powerful picture of these efforts in 2018.
At the time, Brother and Sister Herway explained that the Church cannot provide services to all refugees, so they partner with organizations – including the Red Cross, Intersos and the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center – to accomplish collectively what cannot be done alone.
In the Red Cross camp in Rome, we saw shelters built in partnership with Latter-day Saint Charities. The Better Shelters campus was particularly helpful when snow fell that year in Rome.
I remember seeing the Latter-day Saint Charities logo on an Intersos van. These vans picked up at-risk refugee populations – women, children and young adolescents – and transported them to their transitional accommodation. While in the transitional housing, the refugees had showers, hot meals and time to reflect on their goals and their next move.
The volunteers we met at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center emphasize respect and empathy when providing services to the refugee community. That day, Latter-day Saint volunteers from the center were giving cooking, Italian, and English lessons.
It was getting dark on our whirlwind day in Rome when we reached Baobob refugee camp. The camp consisted of over 130 men and a handful of women and children living in over 100 tents or shelters.
Hygiene, food and housing were huge problems for the camp population, but when I asked a few refugees what they dreamed of, their answers calmed me down. “A place to come”, “a place to put my things”, “a place to sleep without being woken up”.
That day in Baobob refugee camp, we learned that respect and dignity are far more important than anything tangible.
The Latter-day Saints in Rome already knew this. Several had gathered at the camp that evening to serve dinner. But they also found time to play football with many of the refugees and talk to them. One of my favorite photos taken at camp is of one of our members reaching out to a child.
We had one day — and no notice — to work in Rome. Church members did not know that Latter-day Saint media would be there. They were just doing what they always do.
I’m not sure, but I suspect Brother and Sister Herway could have kept us busy for a week.
Abeedeen was one of the lucky few in Rome who found refuge and inclusion at Casa Scalabrini.
The sketches in his notebook – which he used as a guide to create sculptures – were titled “My Journey”.
I was thinking about the images that communicated sadness and grief, when he shared another notebook – sketched since arriving at the center. They were titled “Hope” and depicted not only refugees, but also other marginalized populations, such as the homeless in Rome.
Her notebooks reflected what happens when people become empowered – they turn their thoughts to others.
While offering an overview of the Church’s humanitarian work in Rome in 2018, Sister Herway summed it up best: “We feel like we are offering hope to people,” she said. “We’re here saying, ‘Maybe we can help. “”
— Sarah Jane Weaver is editor of the Church News.