The Lampedusa concerts cast a beam on a growing humanitarian plight.
By Steve Houk
Lampedusa is a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea, about 70 miles off the coast of Italy. Its name has a few known connotations, including “rocky” given its stony shores, and yes, those well-known Lampedusa oysters, found in the waters surrounding the seven square-mile island.
But surely its most evocative meaning, given the island’s history as a passage for refugees, is “torch,” named so because of lights that were often placed on the shores for sailors to find their way. Since ancient times, Lampedusa has been both a bright beacon of hope for some, as well as a flickering ember of sadness for others. Most recently, hundreds of souls perished there in different boat sinkings offshore, all as they were fleeing the horror of their homeland. Coincidentally or not, Pope Francis, during a visit to Lampedusa soon after the 2013 boat tragedy said, “May (Lampedusa) be a beacon that shines throughout the world, so that people will have the courage to welcome those in search of a better life.” Torch, indeed.
Those words of hope from the Pontiff prompted the Jesuit Refugee Service to embark on an effort now in the second year of a five year campaign to raise $35 million to increase educational services to refugees in both camps and urban settings. Currently, JRS serves some 750,000 refugees in 45 countries annually — and 130,000 attend JRS school programs. “We want to be able to double that number by 2020,” said Gail Griffiths, Director of the JRS’ Global Action Initiative. “We often say that an education is the only thing you can offer a refugee that cannot be taken away.”
Advancing this Lampedusa beacon was the “Lampedusa: Concerts For Refugees” tour, which blazed through eleven cities in October, completing its run at Washington’s Lisner Auditorium. Featuring such luminaries as Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, The Milk Carton Kids, Joan Baez and Robert Plant, the ever-present power of music helped both raise funds and cast its own ray of light, illuminating the gravity of this worldwide crisis.
Griffiths, Harris and Earle had combined forces in the past with the “Concerts For A Landmine Free World” tour in the late 90’s, so it was a natural fit to do another tour in service of the refugee plight .
“For me, (Lampedusa) was this place where so many have tried to find refuge,” said Harris, who had previously visited Ethiopia to see the predicament first hand. “Refugees who have tried to find a place to go to get away from, you know, the war, the fact that their homes were gone. It’s a place of safety, or limbo, in a way, where so many people have died trying to find another life. In one sense it’s a place of sorrow, and in another, it’s a place of hope.”
“This issue’s about all of us,” said Earle, who’s always been politically active. “I think it’s like America itself, a constantly evolving thing. The Irish that came here originally were refugees. World War II sent alot of people here. It’s who we are. And I hope this tour shed a little light on that.”
The concerts, which featured all the musicians on stage at the same time alternating songs, were lauded for being able to maintain the delicate balance between awareness and preachiness, often a challenge in such settings. In the end, the players just wanted people to hear great music and come away with some knowledge they didn’t have before. And by all accounts, they succeeded in their mission.
“If they weren’t aware of the issue, then it’s just the information that they got, just the sheer number, the 65 million refugees,” Harris said. “This is a terrible crisis and there are awful things going on, but I want them to remember these are people full of promise. All we can do is raise the issue and see it in a positive light and make them realize that this is the right thing to do. We are all in this together.”
“I hope they take away from it that it’s OK to stand up for who we are, for immigrants, and refugees, even though that’s become a political football in this cycle,” Earle said. “I expected a little flak from this tour, and there really has been almost none.”
And once again, it’s music that’s proved to be an enlightening beacon of its own.
“These particular musicians come from the same musical tradition as folk icons of conscience from a prior generation,” Griffiths added. “Artists who are willing to use their incredible gift to change the world for better. Music is the ultimate connective tissue, in my view. You can use music to distill a complicated policy issue, and reduce it to its essence. In fact, we co-op’ed Steve’s song ‘Pilgrim,’ because it does just that. As he says at the close of the concert, ‘We are all pilgrims, and everyone deserves a home.’ ”
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