Father Vincent Borno talks about his experience of going beyond the peripheries into ‘no man’s land’ – the dark corners of humanity, filled with abuse and exploitation – to reach out to the young who have been left to fend for themselves.
Since Pope Francis’ arrival, it has become fashionable to speak of peripheries. But for us, of the ‘House of Anna’, who have lived in the peripheries for the last 23 years, it is high time to go beyond, to go much further, into the ‘no man’s land’. It is a terrain full of ‘landmines’, where life counts little because at any given time, it can be blown up by a mine – alcohol, drugs, or crime, to list only some of the threats.
During those long years living in the peripheries, we have met street children – runaway teenagers who, after being abandoned by family and state, ran away from everything and everybody, feeling as if they were being choked. We have set up a solidarity network which welcomes these youths, supports them, and integrates them afresh into family and society. And our Red House is the first-ever ‘centre of acceptance’ for street children.
In this centre, the children are given access to workshops, therapies, and consultations with specialists. These support options have the objective of integrate the kids back into their own families. In cases where this is impossible, because the family situation has degenerated beyond any possibility of reconciliation and dialogue, the older ones are welcomed to The Yellow House and the younger ones are admitted into The Brick House. In these houses, the youths are mentored until they complete school and receive their diplomas. The remaining group – those who cannot go back to their parents and do not wish to go to school – are helped into work at The Green House. An average of 200 youths complete our programme every year.
According to the official statistics of the city in which we live, every year there are about 2,000 boys/girls who abandon school and their families – runaway children. And where are the children who are not with their families, in school, or at our welcoming centres? They are in no man’s land. There, they run the risk of destroying their young lives at any moment by falling victim to a range of problems, including alcohol abuse, prostitution, theft, violence, imprisonment, and abuse. When we discovered this frightening reality, we said to ourselves: “They are not coming to us. So we must go to them!” That is how we decided to leave the peripheries and enter the twilit zones in which about 1,800 youth are wandering about, aimlessly and dangerously.
Thus, the AGIT Movement was born with just a few resources: a colourful van, a tent, two tables and four chairs. In the evening, from 7pm to 2am, away we go, walking along the roads of death, desperately searching for youths to help. We are not many, but we are all driven by a passionate love for young people. You could say that we are all a bit crazy – but they are worth our love.
Personally, I can say that since we started this project, my sleep has been reduced, but my life has been expanded to new horizons which are both dramatic and magnificent. In this no man’s land, there appears to be no room even for God, because it is crammed with violent brawls, abuse, and worse. But I, like Moses near the burning bush in the desert, have found a new face of God – a God who tells me: “Take off your shoes, because this is a holy place”. Yes; this is a holy place because God’s adored children are here, and He is here with them. He never abandons them. Therefore, I myself have decided to leave the peripheries and go beyond, to the no man’s land, to stand side by side with these young people.
On one dark and cold night, a tiny fifteen-year-old girl tied a small bracelet, made of humble cotton thread, to my arm. She said: “Every time you look at this gift, please, remember to pray for us.” And I, who do not even wear the beautiful golden chain that my dear parents gave me as a loving present on the day of my priestly ordination, have always worn this flimsy bracelet of cotton thread since, because it ties me to the many – too many – young people who have been left to themselves.
AGIT follows Jesus’ style of leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the fold and going to look for the lost one among the dangerous mountain precipices. This is our mission.