Migrant Lives

Italy’s New Gospel Choir, Whose Members Fled Boko Haram

The six Nigerian women had each risked their lives like so many crossing the Mediterranean. When they found each other in church in northern Italy, they discovered they had something else in common.

The gospel choir
The gospel choir
Marcello Giordani

BORGOMANERO â€" Two months ago, they were desperately boarding boats along the Libyan coast to escape poverty and the revenge of Islamist terror group Boko Haram. Today they are "Dynamite," a gospel choir that in just two notes have the faithful in the northern Italian diocese of Novara hopping to their feet and clapping along.

Merrit, Sandra, Angela, Fabor, Victory and Sussex are Nigerian refugees who have emotional stories similar to those of so many migrants who arrive in Italy: Facing poverty, political or religious persecution, they fled their countries through the desert and paid $2,500 to cross the Mediterranean Sea in perilous conditions.

Arriving on the island of Lampedusa and in the Sicilian city of Ragusa, the six women were ultimately assigned to the town of Borgomanero, northwest of Milan. They were welcomed to a transitional housing refuge by volunteers of Mamre, an association that has dealt with disadvantaged and exploited women for 15 years.

Meeting on a new shore

The women all made their journeys alone and didn't know each other before making their way to Italy, as each hails from a different part of Nigeria. But when the volunteers arrived to pick them up, they began singing in the car. "They had beautiful voices, and singing for them has been a way of recovering their roots," explains one volunteer. "They are Christian and they sang many religious Nigerian songs, so we thought we'd let them sing in church."

Sussex, 30, is regarded as sort of the "mother" of the group. "We are like dynamite," she says. "We want to express our joy of life and thank God for giving us this opportunity. We do this by singing. We are alive, we're fine now, but in Nigeria there was the risk every day of being killed by Boko Haram."

So far their repertoire includes about 20 songs, and they have been performing in the churches around Borgomanero and Orta, and on the island of San Giulio for cloistered nuns.

Sandra is 19 years old and still has scars on her legs from her journey after a woman who offered to give her a ride to Libya in her Jeep had an accident in the desert. The woman died, and Sandra broke her leg. Despite the injury, she walked for three weeks to reach the border.

Merrit was a DJ in Nigeria, but with Boko Haram's arrival it became impossible to work. "Everything was risky," she says. "There I used to play Rihanna and Bruno Mars tracks, but here I have dedicated myself to religious songs. In Nigeria, I thought about disco, but here I sing about newfound freedom."

Fabor, 23, was a hairdresser in southern Nigeria. "It became impossible to work, and we lived in fear," she says, echoing her new friends. "In my country there is a regime incapable of providing security for the people."

Angela says that they have left behind not only the terror group but also an "unlivable" country. "We faced thirst, fear and gave our money to those who guaranteed our arrival to Europe," she says. "We saw the massacres in Libya, and we got on the boats without eating for five days."

The women don't like talking about the past. "Our new life begins here," says Victory. "We want jobs in Italy â€" we are learning the language â€" and we are taking courses in sewing and cooking."

When they start singing "Jesus, more of you," the faithful rise from the pews. For the young women, the choir may not be the job they'll need to make a new life in Europe. But they seem to need it just the same.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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