“Letting oneself be ‘scratched’ by the other”: scalabrinian missionaries’ summer youth camps on migrant routes

“In the face of men with gangrenous feet from the cold, families with children at the spread in the mined forests of Bosnia, young people bitten by the dogs of Croatian law enforcement, we cannot remain indifferent, we must be responsible for the other”. Father Jonas Donassollo is 38 years old, comes from southern Brazil and is a Scalabrinian missionary of the Congregation of St. Charles Borromeo. He lives his vocation together with young people and migrants. “At the age of 15, I entered the seminary: at first I was attracted to the relationship that missionaries had with Jesus. Later, I got to know their charism and understood that it could be the path through which God was calling me: to serve the migrant people with the Scalabrinians.”

In his family history, emigration has always been a part: “My great-grandparents were born in Veneto and Trentino. They emigrated to Brazil in the late 1800s. This hybrid identity is part of me, it has shaped me. I understand that it is an asset and sometimes it can be a difficulty. That’s why today we also help second generations, kids born in Italy to foreign parents.”  

Since 2015 Father Jonas has been spending his summers organizing camps with the Scalabrinian Agency for Development Cooperation in the most significant places of immigration in Europe. The project, titled “ATTRAVERSO” (Through) began in the early 1990s with the goal of bringing young people and migrants together, promoting encounters with other cultures. From July through September, the youth, along with Scalabrinian leaders, serve people on the move along borders and alongside seasonal workers in the countryside. This summer, camps were held in Ventimiglia (IM), Oulx (TO) and Trieste to talk about Italian and European borders; in Sabaudia (LT), Cuneo and Foggia to raise awareness of the reality of “caporalato” [a sort of forced labor]; and in Cosenza with second generations.  

Feeling responsible for the other and to the other

“There are moments of formation, sharing and service – these are the simple ingredients of our camps. We make young people work who know that they have to put themselves on the line here,” Father Jonas continues. “We want the young person to be scratched, to have a small or large scratch left in his or her heart, to cherish for a lifetime the beauty of this experience and the sense of responsibility, that is, feeling responsible for the other and to the other. We try to raise awareness so that the youth take concrete action where they live and make a difference.”  

Jonas’ first camp was in Puglia among seasonal laborers working in the fields. He, too, allowed himself to be ‘scratched’ by the other’s pain. “Every year in Borgo Mezzanone I meet Asim, he comes from Togo, lives in a shack and speaks very little. Yet there is great esteem and trust between us. What strikes me about him is his care for the volunteers. We go there to teach Italian in a small bar near the church. Every afternoon he comes, arranges the chairs, cleans up. He has care and attention toward others.” 

Listening to pain and bringing out the value of the brother 

In 2019 with the “Unbroken Humanity” project, missionaries and young people from all over Italy left Syria to come to Trieste, following the migrant route. “This year we brought 100 volunteers to Trieste. We are supporting the civil society that welcomes migrants in transit: we prepare backpacks, distribute meals and try to bring some comfort to the people who will continue their journey. In the face of suffering, we are tempted to run away because the pain of the other, of whatever nature, refers us back to our own pain, to the wounds we each carry within us. The first step is to give voice to my own pain, my own wound. Then the second step is empathy, listening to the other person’s struggle. Of course, it is difficult when face to face with Mohamed, clubbed by Croatian security forces, arriving with gangrenous feet in Trieste, but we must not lose sight of the life that vibrates within each one: while his feet are being treated by volunteers in the square in Trieste, Mohamed is thinking about the destination he wants to reach, his family in France. I try to connect with this aspect of the person, with his dreams, his potential, his gifts. Pain and injustice fuel my commitment so that every migrant person can express his or her worth in a freer and more just world. I try to react in this way to the various situations I face.”

Fighting for the rights of all 

This year’s summer camp in Sabaudia was also attended by Gurpreet, an Indian boy who was a farm laborer for 11 years. “When I arrived in Italy I was almost 18 years old, my father was already living in the province of Latina and had lost his job,” Gurpreet says. “I met through my father an Indian chief and thus began my work in the fields and nurseries. Italian employers choose a person and pay him twice as much as a simple laborer. They gave me 4 euros per hour and I worked from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. every day, only on Sundays for half a day. The Indian bosses were trying to scare me into working faster. They were giving us a gray contract: they only pay contributions for ten days a month. This meant that half of the money was paid off the books and half with the paycheck. The rare times there were controls by authorities, the employers would threaten us not to talk.” Today Gurpreet works as a mediator. “I met the Scalabrinian missionaries and started working with them and the Sikh community. These summer camps are important because they allow the young people to see with their own eyes how agricultural laborers live, how they are exploited. We all have to fight together for their rights.”  

Scalabrinian charism looks to the future

The Scalabrinian camps have changed the lives of many young people, as Father Jonas testifies. “Every year we meet more than 200 young people. I am moved to think about the miracles I have witnessed: I have seen people change their mentality and sensitivity, choose other paths of study, become volunteers in Caritas, in the parish, or get involved in promoting welcoming. I see the spread of the culture of encounter.” 

Sara is 23 years old and attended her first summer camp when she was 17 years old. Today she works for the Scalabrinian Agency and has decided to give back what she has received, “Summer is a time for fun, yet many kids choose to do a week like this because they feel it is a special opportunity to make their time something that bears fruit and to get involved. You go home with the Scalabrinian way of life, which is to not be indifferent to others.” 

In their activities serving migrants, the Scalabrinian missionaries try to change reality starting precisely from the younger generations, as Father Jonas continues to relate, “I am not immune to pain, I live the stories of the people I meet and I feel them inside. Migrants are a humanity on the move, suffering, fatigued and full of life. Sometimes I have asked myself, ‘Are we touching the root of the problem?’ What more can we do? Is it worth it?” Then I said to myself, “Yes, let us continue to work in the best possible way, as Saint Scalabrini taught us who had a shepherd’s heart and cared for the people entrusted to him. Let us sensitize the young people who tomorrow will have the political power to improve the laws and affect the mechanisms that produce so much discrimination and suffering”.