As I see women and children arriving in safe havens in European Union Member states, including Ireland, I am reminded of Columban John Meaney’s arrival in Mindanao and coping with the tragedies of settlers.
After the liberation of the Philippines from the Japanese, Mindanao sparsely populated island about the size of Ireland became the destination of thousands of Filipinos from the Northern part of the country and the islands in between. It was labelled the promised land, giving the impression of being unpopulated with plenty of arable land available for settlement. Most of the population of Mindanao lived along the coastline making a living from fishing and subsistent farming. The hinterland of Mindanao was thinly populated by groups of indigenous people. A significant Muslim population occupied a large section of the island making a living from farming, fishing, trading and a variety of crafts.
First to arrive after the war were logging companies taking advantage of the pristine forests laden with some of the most valuable timber anywhere in the world. As the loggers cleared the forest, the new settlers staked a claim, ran up temporary shacks, began to clear the debris and produce basic foodstuff necessary for survival. There was little, if any, government services in the hinterland. The nearest town on the coastline was accessible usually after a long walk along an abandoned rutted logging road or on horseback.
This was the situation that John Meaney, a young Columban missionary, experienced on his arrival in the coast town of Baroy in Lanao del Norte in 1947. Being the provincial capital it had the usual government offices with little resource to meet the needs of the unplanned arrivals seeking a new future. There were few services available and those were understaffed, lacking resources and stretched to the limit. There was no electricity, public water supply or sanitation services. Disease, tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, scabies and worm infections were rampant. There was a local doctor, midwife and a small clinic in the town. People struggled to survive from one planting season to the next.
One day as John was going about his pastoral tasks, he encountered a young destitute widow, her two little boys of about six and seven years old and their baby sister. John blessed the corpse of her husband who died of typhoid the previous day. Not only was she destitute, but like all migrants, she had no extended family to lean on. She pleaded with John to take the two boys and the baby girl. After a conversation with the widow he called his general factotum, Philipe and his wife, Maria.
After discussing the plight of this family, John suggested that the mother leave the two boys with Philipe and his family. He suggested that the mother and baby girl should return to her hometown in Cebu at his expense. John promised that he would take responsibility for the education and welfare of the two boys who would reside next door with Philipe, his wife and their children. That he did.
The two boys attended with Philip’s children the local elementary school. Each evening after school John would sit the children around the kitchen table in the rectory where he would help them with their homework. When they graduated elementary school, John sponsored them at the local high school. Graduating from high school, John sent them to the prestigious San Carlos University in Cebu where they both graduated with degrees in engineering. Meanwhile he sponsored their baby sister though high school at home in Cebu with her mother and then through University from which she graduated as a state registered nurse. After they graduated and were employed they returned annually with their families to visit John and help with any repairs needed in his house or in the church.
John lived a very frugal lifestyle. Probably the most valuable household item he possessed apart from his Raleigh bicycle and a scythe was a paraffin-fuelled fridge that seldom held more than a few bottles of water. John considered himself an expert in repairing these undependable appliances. Being a tall strong man he believed that turning them upside down was a solution to get them operating again. Frequently it was a temporary solution.
His frugality and simple living was highlighted by one of his Columban colleagues who on passing, decided to visit John and have a cool drink of water. On arriving at John’s rectory he discovered that John was out in one of the barrios. Eyeing the fridge he noticed the door hanging ajar. He approached it for refreshment. He fully opened the door only to find John’s cat inside! He had been cooling himself there with the jars of water.
What John did all those years ago is repeated in Europe and elsewhere in a troubled world today. Mothers fleeing with children leaving their menfolk behind to defend their homeland are arriving in adjacent free countries bereft of everything they took for granted as integral in their lives. Memories of a horrid past experienced or recounted are a savage reality visible in their faces in the places they arrive. People are stepping up with a welcome which tells them they are in a safe haven. Their memories of home are raw. They have little time for the luxury of looking back. Hopefully, a welcome will open to them an opportunity to look back, heal, and look forward more in hope than in anguish.
Those welcoming them are trying to match the hope in their eyes offering them not just physical safety but the opportunity to begin trying to make some sense of the turmoil in their inner landscapes. Sadly, Europe is not as civilised as it was thought to be. It seems the only certainty we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.