Rita Wall begins her report on church life in Malta, soon to greet Pope John Paul II, with a look at the work of the Catholic Emigrants' Commission
SUN and sea and sand are the main attractions for many visitors to Malta. It's a country with a history of visitors and some not so friendly. The Turks, the French, the Greeks, they have all made an impression on this small archipefago which occupies a strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
The tourists who flock there now are mainly Europeans, but not all foreigners who arrive in Malta come for summer holidays. There are many arriving for a different reason, fleeing persecution in their own lands. For Malta has a long tradition of hospitality to the refugees.
The United Nations Office for Refugees is situated within the Catholic Emigrants Commission. Each refugee arriving in Malta has to apply for official status.
Fleeing persecution is never an easy road to take and the Isak family from Somalia know all about the rough passage to freedom.
A soldier in the Somali army in eastern Africa, Hodon Mohammed Isak had to flee his land when the present regime came to power. He had been in jail for six years and on being released was warned that his life was in danger. With his wife Miriam and their two children they first escaped to Libya, and then to Malta.
The transient plight of the refugee is epitomised in the dilemma the Isak family found themselves in once in Libya. Changing relations between that country and Somalia after 1983 meant the Isak family had to take to the road again for fear of their safety.
Hodon had heard of the refugee commission in Malta and so managed to get his family to the Mediterranean island.
At the imposing Dar L'emigrant, the building where the refugee commission is situated, Hoden's application for refugee status was processed. Francis Frendo is the manager of the commission.
Hodon was assisted in securing accommodation on Malta and Francis arranged for the refugee's children to attend local schools. They are not Catholics, but Moslem. The refugee commission, like the people of Malta, welcomes all regardless of religious background.
The Isak family are lucky, however, in that they have been granted official refugee status by the United Nations, and the commission are now helping them to emigrate to Australia. Francis Frendo tells of people waiting for a year in Malta in the hope of gaining such official status, and ultimately not being successful.
"It is so hard to gain visas for countries particularly in Europe or America. People who are having difficulty living in their own country find a wider world with a closed door," he said.
It's heartbreaking for everyone involved at the commission when a family or individual is refused refugee status. "We build up a good relationship with the refugees over the year, and their dissappointment when they are refused the official status is wrenching."
Malta has welcomed families from troubled lands all over the world — including Poland, Syria, Jordan, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. Pope John Paul has repeatedly urged Catholics to take responsibility for asylum seekers and immigrants without legal status. This strong emphasis on aiding those "in flight" is in keeping with the flights of Jesus's own family to Egypt.
Certainly Malta's care and concern for refugees is an excellent example of the church working together for those who leave their homelands with nothing but bad memories and an insecure and frightening future.