On Palermo's lively Corso Dei Mille near the train station, you may not always get reliable directions when you ask the way to Padre Biagio Conte's mission, but you will hear plenty of praise and anecdotes about the Franciscan monk.
With his unusual forms of assistance for illegal immigrants from North Africa, the 46-year-old son of a well-known Sicilian building tycoon in Palermo has been attracting broad international attention for years. For this reason Sicilians have come to know him as "the brother of the poor" or "the Robin Hood of the Catholic Church".
Originally he was supposed to take over the venerable family business. But Conte had a falling-out with his father, unwilling to follow in his professional footsteps.
In the footsteps of Assisi
Shocked at the extreme poverty, the property speculation and corruption in Palermo, the wealthy Conte foreswore all earthly pleasures, living as a hermit in the mountains of Palermo before turning his back on Sicily entirely in the early 1990s. His goal was to reach the grave of St. Francis of Assisi by foot and devote the rest of his life to the poor and disenfranchised.
In the end, however, nothing came of his original plan to travel to Africa or India as a missionary, the devout Franciscan monk explains:
"I had absolutely no interest in returning to Palermo to achieve something there, because I knew that there the bureaucratic hurdles were too high. But then there was a kind of divine decision, an inner voice that told me to try it in my home town after all, since I knew the suffering of the poor there all too well and knew where to help."
Squatting in the service of the uprooted
Carrying nothing but food and drink, he set out for the slums of Palermo, distributing bread and blankets to the homeless and uprooted, setting up his headquarters with them at the main train station, in the open air between train cars and freight trains. But no end to their plight was in the offing. In Palermo the numbers of the poorest of the poor, those who must live every day from hand to mouth around the train station, were growing constantly.
Biagio Conte felt called upon to act quickly and unbureaucratically: in 1993, in the dead of night, he and his supporters unceremoniously occupied a derelict former disinfection center near the railway station and founded his "Missione di Speranza e Carità".
Support from the public
"We went on a six-day hunger strike to draw attention to our plight and keep the building", Conte recalls. "Of course there were conflicts at first with the local authorities, but ultimately the police respected us, and we got encouragement from the Cardinal of Palermo and from the public."
In the following years the plucky "brother of the poor" managed to thoroughly renovate the building with the assistance of his supporters and donations from the public. His project met with such enthusiasm among the people of Palermo that just a few years later the city provided him with an additional building on the nearby Via Garibaldi, where Conte established a center for homeless women and single mothers.
Together with his volunteers, the Franciscan monk helps where the need is greatest and where the city of Palermo is not living up to its social obligations.
A wave of immigrants from Africa
But that is exactly what nearly doomed his mission: in the late 90s more and more African boat refugees began landing on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, often after week-long, grueling voyages, and the authorities frequently sent them to Palermo to await a decision on their entry requests. After all, there was Biagio Conte's mission "Hope and Charity" at the main train station. But Conte's little mission was ill-prepared for the growing flood of African refugees.
"More and more boat refugees were coming from North Africa to Sicily via the island of Lampedusa. At first we didn't think this problem would affect us, though it did make us very concerned," Conte says. "However, we thought the Italian state would have to take care of the problem, since it also set up the camps for the refugees. But after a few months a knock came at the door, and there were all the people who had come to us from all parts of Africa and from Iraq. And we quickly realized that these refugees urgently needed our help."
Such as Osman Mussa from Darfur, who first fled to Libya from the civil war in Sudan, soon thereafter reaching the Italian Mediterranean island of Lampedusa in an overcrowded dinghy before finding refuge in the "Missione di Speranza e Carità" in Palermo. Still traumatized by the bloody conflict in Darfur, he reports:
"In Sudan there are so many problems, so much violence – everyone knows that. They force their people to flee abroad. I came here to earn money because I have to feed a large family in Sudan, and there's not enough money there."
Occupying the Italian Army's air force base
Ultimately the two mission buildings cannot cope with the huge demand. Where at first only 60 people found a roof over their heads and were provided with clothing and food, now more than 200 were packed into overfilled rooms, sleeping in hallways and under stairs.
But this time the Franciscan monk met with deaf ears when he asked the city authorities for an additional building for the mission. So in February 2002 Conte took the initiative once again: together with mission volunteers and refugees he occupied the air base of the Italian Army in Palermo, which had been vacant for over 40 years.
Despite initial protests from the army, the city of Palermo and the military authorities ultimately relented and offered the Franciscan monk half of the barrack facilities. Thanks to the help of volunteers from around the world, the dilapidated barracks have now been almost completely renovated.
Helping people to help themselves
Thus, for the time being there is enough space to offer temporary shelter to the approximately 450 refugees from Africa, most of them young people. Now the buildings of the "Mission of Hope and Charity" are equipped not only with dormitories and cafeterias, a clinic, a kitchen and a language school – to offer the young refugees professional training and facilitate their integration, the mission also has its own pottery and auto workshops, recycling yards and language schools.
But Conte does not stop there. His team also offers refugees free legal advice on immigration questions. "Until a decision is made about the right to stay for many boat people from Africa who come to us via Lampedusa, quite a few of them find shelter with us," explains the lawyer Dario.
"We give the asylum seekers information about residence permits on the basis of humanitarian reasons, or on refugee status in Italy. The state is very strict in these matters. We also review the case of each individual refugee and talk to them to understand their real problems as asylum seekers."
With his "Missione di Speranza e Carità", Biagio Conte has fulfilled a life-long dream in the spirit of St. Francis: providing help for refugees and the homeless in his home town of Palermo.
In the process he relies more on the generosity of Palermo's citizens and the social commitment of his supporters than on financial support from church and state. "We don't want anyone to dictate to us, we want to take the initiative ourselves. That is the only way to achieve more in life." That is his credo.
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Isabel Cole