'No matter what, I don’t feel we can choose security over helping them'

Italian Holocaust memorial begins second year as migrant shelter

Beneath Milan’s Central Station lies a makeshift haven for fleeing refugees — housed in a Nazi-era train platform that deported Jews to death camps

Refugees are provided a place to sleep, a breakfast, and a to-go lunch before leaving for the day at the Holocaust Memorial beneath Milan's Central Train Station. (Rossella Tercatin/ Times of Israel)
Refugees are provided a place to sleep, a breakfast, and a to-go lunch before leaving for the day at the Holocaust Memorial beneath Milan's Central Train Station. (Rossella Tercatin/ Times of Israel)

MILAN — It’s seven in the morning and two-year-old Noam is ready to start a new day. She happily runs back and forth between her mother and her father in her red sweat pants, clutching a snack she has been given for breakfast. Noam and her family are from Ethiopia, and the snack is a bag of Bamba, the peanut-flavored Israeli mainstay.

She seems to enjoy it very much, and she is not the only one. Together with bread and marmalade, milk, cookies and juice, Bamba is a favorite for many of the 43 people fleeing from war, persecution and hunger who have spent the night at the shelter in the Memoriale della Shoah di Milano, Milan’s Holocaust Memorial.

Located in the vast space underneath the city’s Central Train Station, the Memorial stands on the secret Platform 21 where Nazis and Fascists loaded the trains to death camps during World War II.

In summer 2015, when thousands of refugees reached Milan by train after arriving at the shores of southern Italy, the foundation that runs the Memorial decided to turn part of it into a shelter which ended up hosting a total of 4,500 people from 26 countries between June and November.

“Last year, most people would stay only for one night, before leaving to get to northern European countries. This year, with the closure of the borders, many of them are stuck here and they come back night after night,” Roberto Jarach, vice-president of the Foundation for the Memorial tells The Times of Israel.

‘This year, with the closure of the borders, many are stuck here’

Something else has changed since last year — many of the latest terror attacks that hit western Europe were performed by terrorists who made their way there together with migrants and asylum seekers, causing the public to view new arrivals with fear and suspicion.

“Security is certainly an issue, especially after what happened in these past few weeks. How can anyone not think about it? However, I do not expect any danger coming from these people. They want to eat, shower, wash their clothes, these are their concerns. And no matter what, I don’t feel we can choose security over helping them,” stresses Jarach.

“For sure the people here are aware of what has been happening in Europe, the attacks, the closure of the borders,” explains volunteer Matteo Caravatti, while he serves breakfast to the refugees.

A group of refugees sleeping at the Memorial. Since the rise in terrorism in western Europe, many migrants have been effectively immobilized. (Rossella Tercatin/ Times of Israel)
A group of refugees sleeping at the Memorial. Since the rise in terrorism in western Europe, many migrants have been effectively immobilized. (Rossella Tercatin/ Times of Israel)

“I remember a group of young Afghan Hazaras that got here few days ago,” he says. “They had met and become friends during their exhausting journey to Europe hidden in a truck. They told us that their dream is to settle in France. It was the night of July 14, when the Nice slaughter took place. Many here wonder how to go ahead with their plans.”

As he speaks, the refugees pick up their breakfast and sit eating before leaving the shelter, which is closed during the day.

Among the organizations providing food is also Beteavon, the Chabad-Lubavitch Soup Kitchen, “which has been essential in enabling us to provide also a to-go lunch for the refugees to be eaten during the day,” Stefano Pasta explained in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel.

While the shelter at the Memorial is closed during the day, they have been able to provide refugees with a lunch to take with them. (Rossella Tercatin/ Times of Israel)
While the shelter at the Memorial is closed during the day, they have been able to provide refugees with a lunch to take with them. (Rossella Tercatin/ Times of Israel)

Pasta is the coordinator of the project on the behalf of the Catholic charity Comunità di Sant’Egidio, one of the partners of the Foundation for the Memorial together with the Union of Italian Jewish Community, the Jewish Community of Milan, the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center, Milan Municipality and many others.

“The interfaith cooperation is an essential character of this initiative. Among the institutions helping us running the shelter are also the Anglican Church of Milan, and several Catholic parish churches, while the only three people who are employed to spend the night here and assist the refugees are Muslim,” he points out.

‘We send a message against indifference and in favor of solidarity’

“We do not want to draw any parallel between the situation of the refugees and what happened during the Holocaust. For us it is important to emphasize that they are two very different things. However, we do want to say that, taking inspiration from the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust, we send a message against indifference and in favor of solidarity,” Pasta says.

On August 2, the major Italian daily Corriere Della Sera reported that over 90% of the migrants who reached Europe’s borders in the last three months arrived in Italy, and the majority of those residing in temporary shelters are in Milan’s Lombardy region.

Far from this being a deterrent, in the first 24 hours since the Memorial shelter started to operate again on July 11, over 200 Milanese citizens had gotten in touch to volunteer there, to the point that they had to turn people down.

“Reading the papers or watching TV, one might have the impression that the locals do not want to help the refugees, but in my experience this is not true. There are so many who are willing to help,” says another volunteer, Pierangelo Soldavini.

Soldavini works as a journalist in major Italian daily paper Il Sole 24 Ore and during the winter he volunteers with the homeless.

Migrants breakfast at the Memorial shelter. Between June and November of 2015, over 4,500 people have taken refuge there. (Rossella Tercatin/ Times of ISrael)
Migrants breakfast at the Memorial shelter. Between June and November of 2015, over 4,500 people have taken refuge there. (Rossella Tercatin/ Times of Israel)

“When I heard about this initiative last year I offered to help, and this year I wanted to do it again,” he explains.

As they eat, some of the refugees agree to speak a bit about themselves.

Mohammed is from Guinea. He has been in Italy for several years and he has recently obtained a work permit, but he has not been able to find a job yet, so he asked to sleep at the shelter.

“I am deeply grateful to God for allowing me to find such a good place, instead of being forced to sleep on the streets,” he says.

Over 80% of the shelter-seekers came from Eritrea in 2015, though nationalities run the gamut from Africa to the Middle East. (Rossella Tercatin/ Times of Israel)
Over 80% of the shelter-seekers came from Eritrea in 2015, though nationalities run the gamut from Africa to the Middle East. (Rossella Tercatin/ Times of Israel)

A few meters away, a table accommodates a group from Eritrea. Over 80% of the people who found shelter in the Memorial in 2015 came from Eritrea, one of the poorest countries in the world. The African state is ruled by a bloody dictatorship and an interminable military conscription is compulsory for every man, leaving many no choice but to flee.

Among them is also Amir, one of the very few who speak a little English. He left Eritrea eight years ago, traveling to Sudan and Libya. His goal is to get to Belgium, where he has some friends.

“I have two children in Eritrea, a nine-year-old and a 12-year-old. I haven’t seen their faces in eight years. Bringing them to Europe is my dream,” he tells The Times of Israel.

“I know that many people here have problems with so many migrants getting in every day,” he says. “I understand them. If I was in their place, maybe I’d feel the same, because we are in need of everything. However, they have to understand that nobody wants to leave their country, people do it because they have to. If only I could, I would love to go back to Eritrea. Helping us is the humane thing to do.”

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