HomeFeaturesMalta center readies for pope but its real VIPs are refugees

Malta center readies for pope but its real VIPs are refugees

"When you have a person who can sit near you at the table, you're not only giving him shelter, but we are treating him as a brother"

Pope Francis may be about to drop in, but 91-year-old Friar Dionysius Mintoff is more concerned his migrant center in Malta is ready for the imminent arrival of young Ukrainians.

Under the trees by a cluster of small buildings near the southern tip of the Mediterranean island, concrete foundations have been laid for four new huts.

“In each room, six boys. So 24 boys to start with,” said Mintoff, as he showed AFP around the all-male Pope John XXIII Peace Lab where he has lived and worked for five decades.

Nearby, huge boxes containing flat-packed parts for the huts from the UN’s refugee agency are stacked against a wire fence.

The Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion will join 55 young men from across Africa who already live on the site, after arriving on Malta without legal papers.

Mintoff, a Franciscan friar, founded the Peace Lab in 1971 as an education center, inspired by a call for peace from Pope John XXIII, who died in 1963.

Since 2002, he has taken in migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean, often on dangerously overcrowded boats, to seek a new life in Europe.

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Pope Francis, who will visit on Sunday during a trip to Catholic-majority Malta, has repeatedly highlighted the plight of those who flee conflict, poverty or the effects of climate change.

Mintoff hopes he will send a message that other countries must help share the burden of migration into Europe, which disproportionately falls on Mediterranean states.

“The Europeans, unfortunately when they meet, they make many promises… but very, very few things come out,” he said.

Mintoff proudly displays a hand-written note the pope sent him last year on his 90th birthday.

And he hails Francis’ efforts to work for the poor and disadvantaged, comparing him to John XXIII, an Italian reformer known as “the good pope”.

“There were other popes who tried to follow Pope John. But not with the same push as Pope Francis did,” Mintoff said.

Religious statues are pictured on the desk of Franciscan Friar Dionysius Mintoff at the John XXIII Peace Lab he founded in 1971 in Hal Far, Malta, on March 26, 2022. Pope Francis is visiting in days, but Friar Dionysius Mintoff is more concerned that his migrant center on Malta will be ready for the imminent arrival of Ukrainian refugees. (AFP Photo)

Place of war

Malta — then a British colony — was used as a strategic base for the Allies during World War II and was under constant attack.

Mintoff founded the lab to offer a “program for peace” for his traumatized country, located on Britain’s former Hal Far military airfield.

“I say Mass in the same corner where these leaders have supervised war,” he said, as he showed off his church, decorated with paintings of peace icons from Martin Luther King to Gandhi.

Tens of thousands of migrants have arrived by sea to Malta in recent years, peaking at 3,400 in 2019, but dropping to 832 last year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

NGOs have accused the EU’s smallest country of ignoring calls for help from boats in its waters, while Council of Europe experts in 2020 condemned some of its detention conditions as “bordering on inhuman”.

But Malta, a country of 516,000 people, claims it takes the bloc’s largest share of irregular migrants per capita.

Franciscan Friar Dionysius Mintoff, 91, makes his way across the John XXIII Peace Lab he founded in 1971 in Hal Far, Malta, on March 26, 2022. (AFP Photo)

Treated as a brother

Most migrants are held in government reception centers, but Mintoff’s lab provides a home for those who slip through the system’s cracks and end up on the streets.

“My boys are all rejects,” he said.

Run by Mintoff and a few volunteers, with aid agency Doctors Without Borders managing a medical center, the lab is a welcoming place.

Next to the little church is a lush garden, a pen of goats and an outdoor stone theater where Pope Francis will speak.

Behind a fence with unlocked gates, the migrants live in a handful of cramped huts which open onto a tree-filled garden — each hut named, “so they have belonging, an address.”

There are benches, a couple of discarded bed frames and an outdoor gym, while at the back of the site is a makeshift school and a tiny mosque, painted yellow with a carpeted floor.

Mintoff said he tells new arrivals, many from Muslim countries: “Nobody is going to call you John instead of Mohammed, and nobody is going to give you the Bible instead of the Koran.”

The friar himself lives in a tiny room behind the office, and emphasizes the importance of proximity to those who need his help.

“When you have a person who can sit near you at the table, you’re not only giving him shelter, but we are treating him as a brother,” he said.

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