Q & A with Sr. Rosemarie Milazzo: 'Borders, in the end, cause all sorts of problems'

Read Sister Ro's column: Letter from Lesbos refugee camps

Sr. Rosemarie Milazzo of the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic at Maryknoll Center in Ossining, New York (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

Sr. Rosemarie Milazzo, 86, exemplifies the missionary spirit of her congregation, the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, based in Ossining, New York.

A native of Brooklyn, Milazzo, known to all as Ro, has pursued missionary work in a number of locales, including 30 years in Kenya and Tanzania. More recently, she has joined Christian Peacemaker Teams that minister in northern Canada, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kurdistan. Her most recent assignment with Christian Peacemaker Teams was to the Greek island of Lesbos, where she worked in 2016 and from April to July of this year.

Milazzo's base of operation was the PIKPA Camp, a small refugee camp near Moria Camp. Moria is an old prison site originally built to accommodate about 2,000 people but may now hold as many as 7,000, Milazzo said.

Asylum-seekers "live in limbo, trapped in conditions so deplorable Pope Francis likened them to a concentration camp," The New York Times reported earlier this year.

In a more recent report, the Times noted that the camp is overwhelmingly crowded.

"The overcrowding is so extreme that asylum seekers spend as much as 12 hours a day waiting in line for food that is sometimes moldy," the Times reported.

The majority of those in the camp are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, "many of whom have suffered wartime traumas that are then exacerbated by the overcrowded and static conditions, which fuel their despair," the Times reported.

PIKPA, which houses about 400 people, was intended to accommodate refugees fleeing violence in the larger camp. In a June letter to her fellow Maryknoll sisters, Milazzo noted that 360 refugees "landed at our camp fleeing ... violence" at Moria Camp but then were returned to the larger camp.

"Such a sad day for all," she wrote. "We, at our camp, had gotten to know them, hear their stories, etc. and so, after three weeks in our camp, we, too, were reluctant to send them back, especially knowing that there is still violence in Moria Camp. The busses arrived and bags were packed and thrown onto the bus. I was on one of the leaving busses and saw the most forlorn faces, sadness etched all along their faces. I wondered how much they could withstand. It is so difficult to be a refugee without a safe home and then when the camp becomes a place of violence, it seems to be unbearable."

Now back at the Maryknoll Center in Ossining, Milazzo says it is likely she will return to Lesbos at some point — she wants to continue doing mission work outside the United States three months of the year.

Sr. Rosemarie Milazzo of the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic at Maryknoll Center in Ossining, New York (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

GSR: How would you describe the experience in Lesbos overall?

Milazzo: What is happening there is very upsetting. There's not enough food, not enough water. And people bring their histories with them to a camp, so it is not surprising that Kurds and Arabs have tensions in that kind of environment.

What I and others try to do is just try to make people feel as safe as they can just by being with them. It's your presence that's important. What is heartbreaking, though, is that everyone in the camp, regardless of nationality or culture or race, has the same goals: to be safe, to have their children educated, to prosper.

What's the difference between now at Moria and when you were first there?

The big difference is that there are now many, many more refugees than there were before. There is a lack of supplies for so many vulnerable people. It's just horrendous. And the experiences people have had in getting there from what people call "war countries" like Afghanistan — crossing seas, walking for days in mountains.

One young man from Afghanistan told me, "I'm angry. I'm angry. I was born in war, I grew up in war, I ran away from war. I'm angry." He's right. He's right to be angry.

And yet there remains a lot of soul in these people. When I was there, a group of refugees led a peaceful protest outside the camp, drawing attention to bad medical conditions. But a group of residents who don't like the refugees — they called themselves fascists — counter-protested and threw stones, got violent. Some of the storekeepers' businesses were damaged. The refugees apologized to the storeowners about the counter-protests and even cleaned up the damage on their own.

Those who have left Moria are afraid to return there. They call it "going back to death." But the system puts them there, and they remain there, in limbo. Life in the camps, it's a life of waiting — wait, wait, wait.

The refugees have great resilience.

They do. Resilience and kindness. And people often don't find out their strength or resilience until they are put in extreme situations. I put myself in their situation and think, "Could I go on a raft across the Mediterranean with my family?" I'm not sure. I wouldn't get on a boat without a life vest.

It takes courage to face your reality, your next step. But when you reach the end of a situation — of a country at war — there's often only one other option left. People will say, "Our options have been totally taken from us." So they go. It's tough stuff.

I was in a church on Lesbos, a Roman Catholic church, and it was packed with African refugees, and their service was full of song, full of hope, that gusto, that zest. They were looking for a way to be hopeful. The fact that they could do that showed a tremendous strength.

But though people are resilient, people are also scared. They are scared for life. You see that with the children. Kids need a sense of security, and when they are in the camps, they are holding on to their parents, not knowing what is going on. They are looking for a routine, but they don't have it. They are traumatized.

Stepping back from the situation in camps like Moria, how do you assess the situation with refugees internationally?

I don't think we should have borders. What are borders for? Borders, in the end, cause all sorts of problems.

Wouldn't people say, though, "Sister Ro, you're crazy for suggesting that"?

It goes back to my time in Tanzania, when Rwandans fled the genocide, and they were welcomed by Tanzania. People in Tanzania, they complained and said, "We're poor, we can't support these refugees." But former President Julius Nyerere said at the time, "God never made borders." He said man made the borders and everyone belongs on the same land, everyone. I agree. That took courage, but I think he was right about that.

In your travels, has there been an underlying question that guides you?

All of my life, I've been dealing with the problem of American privilege. I bear privilege with me. It's a conscience bug.

I'm an American. The sins of America, I carry. And so with privilege comes responsibility. It's why I protest at the School of the Americas [now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation]; it's why I go to climate change rallies, to marches for gun control. I sign petitions, I protest. It doesn't do me any good to be filled with rage.

I'm a Christian, and Jesus preached hope. If we believe that message, there's hope. God is a gracious God. You have to look at the big picture. We walk with people, those who are broken and oppressed. You carry it. It's nothing. When you are with the people in the struggle, you join the struggle. But I have to say, too, as a sister, as a Maryknoller, if things get difficult in a place, we can go home anytime we want.

Are you hopeful about the activist generation coming up?

I am, oh, yes. When I go to rallies, I see a lot of young people. I'm optimistic about them. I'm very hopeful about the grassroots things, the kids involved with gun-control efforts, the fact that so many women are running for office. My only concern with activism is that we need to keep it going, that energy, so it doesn't drop off.

What sustains you?

Every day, I do a centering prayer. I love nature. I practice yoga. We have Eucharist every day. I have a loving family and community. I take a long, loving look at the real, and I try not to be dragged down by it. Of course, Jesus is my companion. He journeys with me. I call on him. I think something new is emerging in the world. And we can't throw Jesus out!

[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is cherlinger@ncronline.org.]