From 2011 to 2013, students who went on service learning trips to Italy have worked closely with Elisabeth Mager, a Dutch-born missionary who works with Afghan refugees in Rome, and her ministry, Kyrios. Mager recently visited campus to speak about the work she does in Rome.
Service Learning Trips
For the past three years, a group of Malone students have gone on service learning trips to Italy each May and worked with Mager and Kyrios. Ann Lawson, instructor of communication arts, led the groups.
“It’s been three years and we’re planning to go [back] in 2014,” Lawson said. “Elisabeth and I have a good working relationship.”
Lawson and Mager connected in 2011, when the service learning group planning to go to Egypt had to change plans because of the Arab Spring, which made Egypt too dangerous to visit. Since the group had already spent the year raising funds and preparing for a trip, Lawson still wanted to go somewhere.
Lawson heard about some opportunities in Rome through Geneva College, her alma mater, and eventually decided to work with Mager.
Those on the trip spent the two Saturdays they were there helping prepare and serve a meal to as many as 150 Afghan refugees, mostly boys and young men ages 14-24. Students chopped vegetables and fruit and cooked, packed and loaded the meals to be taken to the park where the refugees would be served.
After serving the Afghan refugees, the students spent time talking with them and getting to know them at a basic level. The focus for the service learning group was not to share the Gospel with the refugees, since the trip was too short to establish a lasting relationship with them.
“We’re not the ones going and evangelizing, because we’re not building the relationship,” Lawson said. “Elisabeth and her crew are building the relationship.”
“It was a powerful experience,” said Brittany Marion, a senior early childhood education major. Marion participated in the May 2013 trip.
Marion talked about walking down a street in Rome where many of the refugees would approach her trying to sell her things. At first, she said she would just keep walking and act as if she could not see or hear them. [pullquote]“Elisabeth and her crew are building the relationship,” Lawson said.[/pullquote]
Marion’s experience on the trip gave her a better perspective. After she saw what the refugees had to go through every day, she saw them in a new light—as people who do what they must to provide for themselves and for their families.
“It will challenge you in ways you never through possible,” Marion said.
On considering taking part in a service-learning trip, Marion said that students should go with an open mind and a no-expectations attitude.
“My best advice would be…to trust that God will reveal himself to you in wonderfully creative ways as you travel and encounter a culture so different from your own,” Marion said.
Mager has been working with the Afghan refugees for more than ten years.
“My normal attitude [was] to become sad, turn around, and go on with my life,” Mager said.
Upon learning of the refugee situation in Rome, however, her response was different.
“This time I got really mad,” Mager said. “Here were these [young] guys, after a horrendous life, war for all their lifetime, and an even more horrendous trip to Europe, and they were sleeping out on the streets. And not for one night or two nights…but for a year, sometimes even two years.”
“A lot of these people are the second generation of refugees,” Lawson said. “They originally fled to other nearby countries, Iran or Pakistan, so they’ve been raised in refugee camps, and now they’re fleeing there [to Rome].”
Because of the time Mager and the other missionaries get to spend developing relationships with many of the refugees, she has witnessed the transformation of many lives and, in several cases, conversion to Christianity.
[pullquote]“I would just like to encourage people to start doing something,” Mager said.[/pullquote] Not everyone needs to leave home to be involved with missions or volunteering. Italy is thousands of miles away for those on the service learning trips, but Mager works full time right in the city where she lives.
“Missions does not necessarily mean to go abroad,” Mager said.
According to Mager, the main problem is simply getting up and taking action, in whatever form and whatever place possible.
“I would just like to encourage people to start doing something,” Mager said.
“[It’s about] finding where you’re called,” Lawson said. “That place where the world’s need and God’s gift to you intersect. That’s what you need to find.”
While not all people are suited for long-term missions work, Lawson also said going somewhere new once can be a good thing.
Mager was confident that the service learning groups learned and grew from their interactions with the refugees.
“They have been impacted in an enormous way by what they’ve experienced,” Mager said.
Lauren Ward is a contributing writer for The Aviso AVW.