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Sarah Jane Weaver: Feeling accountability to God and linking arms to help those in need

Remembering how, in one day — and without prior notice — missionaries shared the the breadth and depth of the Church’s humanitarian work in support of refugees in Rome


ROME, Italy — Fasasi Abeedeen’s notebook was unforgetable. Pencil drawings recorded his tenuous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.

Each page offered a glimpse into his story: A screaming child, passed between adults to safety. A boy, struggling in a consuming sea, gasping for air. A woman’s lifeless body, lifted from the water.

Abeedeen showed his sketches to Tom and Anita Herway, Latter-day Saint Charities missionaries who had been serving in Rome for a year when we met in 2018.  

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Latter-day Saint Charities missionaries Tom and Anita Herway look over refugee and artist Fasasi Abeedeen’s sketches at Casa Scalabrini in Rome, Italy, on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. Abeedeen is a refugee from Nigeria and draws scenes about refugees.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

With a photographer, I was assigned to cover the first global ministry of President Russell M. Nelson, in April 2018. I had planned to spend a few days in Jerusalem. But shortly after arriving at the BYU Jerusalem Center, we received word of rising tensions in the area. Amid the conflict, President Nelson and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles decided to cut their visit short and left Jerusalem.

With a few colleagues, we flew to Italy. We had one day and an unexpected open calendar. I sent an email to local Church leaders, who connected me with Elder and Sister Herway.

We will never take for granted what happened next.

In one day — without prior notice — they showed us the breadth and depth of the Church’s humanitarian work in support of refugees in Rome. One of the people we met was Abeedeen, who was receiving help from Casa Scalabrini, a program run by the Scalabrinian Missionaries, a Roman Catholic religious order.

I thought of Abeedeen this month when I returned to Rome, where President Dallin H. Oaks delivered a historic talk on global religious liberty. During the 2022 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit, President Oaks called for “a global effort to defend and advance the religious freedom of all the children of God in every nation of the world.”

When I had a few hours of free time, I visited the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center — one of the places Elder and Sister Herway had taken me in 2018. The important work there continues, still accomplished with partners, including the Church.

It is a symbol of what can happen with people who feel accountability to God and link arms to help those in need.

We received a powerful picture of such efforts in 2018.

Back then, Elder and Sister Herway explained that the Church can’t provide services to all refugees, so they partner with organizations — including the Red Cross, Intersos and the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center — to collectively accomplish what cannot be done alone.

In the Red Cross camp in Rome, we viewed shelters built in partnership with Latter-day Saint Charities. The “Better Shelters” campus was especially helpful when snow fell that year in Rome.

I remember seeing the Latter-day Saint Charities’ logo on an Intersos van. Those vans picked up at-risk refugee populations — women, children and young teenage boys — and moved them to their transitional housing units. While staying at the transitional housing, the refugees got showers, hot meals and time to ponder their goals and next move. 

The volunteers we met at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center focus on respect and empathy when providing services to the refugee community. Latter-day Saints volunteers at the center that day were teaching cooking, Italian and English classes.

It was getting dark on our whirlwind day in Rome when we reached Baobob refugee camp. The camp included more than 130 men and a handful of women and children living in more than 100 tents or shelters.

Hygiene, food and shelter were huge issues for the population at the camp, but when I asked a few of the refugees what they dream for, their responses stilled me. “A place to come,” “a place to set down my belongings,” “somewhere to sleep without being woken.”

On that day in Baobob refugee camp, we learned that respect and dignity are so much more important than anything tangible.

The Latter-day Saints in Rome already knew this. Several had gathered at the camp that night to serve dinner. But they also found time to play soccer with many of the refugees and talk to them. One of my favorite photographs taken at the camp is of one of our members holding out her arms to a child. 

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Latter-day Saint Charities missionary Anita Herway, left, and Church members Ariane and Kate Woods play with a refugee child at Baobob refugee camp in Rome, Italy, on Monday, April 16, 2018. Latter-day Saint Charities contributes volunteers, dining tents, and money to the organization.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

We had one day — and no advance notice — to work in Rome. Church members didn’t know that Latter-day Saint media would be there. They were simply doing what they always do.

I am not sure, but I suspect Elder and Sister Herway could have kept us busy for a week.

Abeedeen was numbered among a lucky few in Rome who found refuge and inclusion at Casa Scalabrini.

The sketches in his notebook — used by him as a guide to create sculptures — were titled “My journey.” 

I was pondering the images that communicated sadness and heartbreak, when he shared another notebook — sketched since arriving at the center. They were titled “Hope,” and depicted not only refugees, but also other marginalized populations, such as the homeless in Rome.

His notebooks reflected what happens when people become self-reliant — they turn their s thoughts to others.

While offering a glimpse of the Church’s humanitarian work in Rome in 2018, Sister Herway summarized it best: “We feel like we are offering hope to people,” she said. “We are there saying, ‘Maybe we can help.’”

— Sarah Jane Weaver is editor of the Church News.

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