Most teachers take the summer off, just relaxing and doing nothing. One teacher here in Mineola has taken the teacher's road less traveled by doing something. But Julie Erb didn't do just anything - she taught all summer. While this says much of her passion for teaching, when you hear the story, you'll see that it says much more of her passion for God's forgotten children. Julie, a first-grade teacher at Mineola Primary School, spent the summer in Italy teaching Eritrean refugees of God's unfailing love for them.
Julie's parents, Susan and Geoff Pennock, had spent most of the time from September to November 2005 sharing the gospel and passing out religious books in Italy. While there, they came upon a park in Bari full of refugees from Eritrea, in Africa. These young people fled their country to escape being forced to fight and kill their countrymen. After a grueling journey to Italy in which many died, the refugees were left homeless, without documentation, and unable to find work, homes, or even dignity. Susan and Geoff returned home at the end of March for a six-month stay, but couldn't forget the bright young men and women that had left universities and studies for park benches and homelessness back in Bari Park. When they announced their plans to return to Lecce, Julie began planning to leave as soon as possible to help. She began by contacting The Live it Foundation, a nonprofit corporation in Bell County, Texas that the Pennocks had been working with during their stay in Italy. They named the project CIAO, for "Caring Individuals Aiding Others." The Live it Foundation set up a blog for Julie to share her experiences, as well as an avenue for people to donate to the cause of the Eritrean refugees.
When she got to Rome, Julie discovered an abandoned building with over 400 people living in "deplorable" conditions. She reports in her post of June 17, "There are seven floors. Two bathrooms per floor. Cold water. Electricity only if someone can rig something up. Seven or more people per room. They sleep in shifts, I was told. But one person told me that more and more people are so discouraged and depressed that they just sleep all day and night." The majority of the refugees are from the countries of Eritrea and Ethiopia. The two countries have been at war with each other since 1961. Eritrea declared its independence in 1991, but war broke out again in 1998. Each child, male or female, must join the Eritrean army in the 6th or 7th grade. Many flee having to join the "killing forces" by crossing the Libyan dessert, then sailing across the Mediterranean Sea. The refugees tell stories of 34 people packed in a small car crossing the dessert, and tiny plastic boats overflowing with people crossing the sea with no food and no water.
According to the refugees, upon entering Italy, they are fingerprinted and registered, for which the Italian government receives money from the United Nations to help them. Julie shares what she has been told by the refugees: "After being fingerprinted, the people are housed in refugee camps for a short time. Then they are turned out to "live" in Italy for different lengths of time, depending upon what their paperwork says. For some, they only get permission to stay in the country for eight or fifteen days." Most refugees arrive without documentation, which means they cannot work or find housing. Some escape to other countries, and even find work and live well, until they are discovered and sent back to Italy, where they were originally registered. There they are registered again in Rome and given 30 Euros for train fare back to the refugee camp, only to be subsequently put back on the streets again. In each city they enter, they must register with the local police. If they do not have paperwork, they cannot register, so they are sent back to Rome, where they have to begin the process again. The refugees believe that the Italian government receives money from the United Nations for each day one of them is in Italy.
Julie has spent her summer trying to help these refugees break this cycle of unethical "help" and to find their lives again. She is also teaching them, and the Italians, that "Jesus loves me, too!" Shirts bearing the message in Italian are handed out to the refugees, as well as food, water, Bibles, and Christian literature. She, Susan, and Geoff also pass out Bibles and Christian literature to anyone that will take them on the streets of Italy. They take every opportunity to teach others about Jesus' love and sacrifice for them. Much money is needed for this work, so the Live It Foundation that named the CIAO mission project has set up a CafePress online store to sell the "CIAO, Jesus loves me, too" shirts. Donors can also mail checks to Live it Foundation, Inc., c/o Treasurer, 335 Schrader Road, Killeen, TX 76542, or give via PayPal.
Those that know Julie are familiar with her compassion, caring, and eloquence. To many of us, this trip came as no surprise. To so many others in our town, it is just now coming to their attention, thanks to the ad published in the Mineola Monitor on June 27. Her journal at liveitonline.org/ciaoblog has provided many faces to the tragedy of the refugees. There are stories that will make you cry in pity, some that will make you angry at injustice, and still others that will make you praise God for His wondrous works. While Julie is returning home soon, Susan and Geoff will stay on, continuing the work. Julie promises to continue posting updates to the blog as she receives them from the Pennocks. The Live it Foundation will also continue to take donations. For anyone that thinks the Paris Hilton jail saga is big news, go read the CIAO blog to read the real news.