Refugees from the Middle East and Africa have become the first-responders to the 6.2-magnitude earthquake on Aug 24 that shook central Italy, killing at least 290 people. Hundreds of refugees housed in reception centres not far from the epicentre of the earthquake answered the call to help Italians in their host country.

“Solidarity knows no social roles. Suffering knows no colours.”

Such statements reflect the realities confirmed by the fact that thousands of volunteers have gathered at the sites devastated by the Italian earthquake last week to offer a helping hand.

These refugees came to rescue, to assist, to help and to save human lives, regardless of the ethnicity or religion of the victims lying beneath the rubble.

“The refugees that came to offer help have demonstrated what it means to combine idealism and pragmatism in tragic moments like these. They are angels, they helped because they know what it means to suffer, to lose everything,” said one analyst.

Groups of refugees dressed in orange fluorescent suits or vests, helped clear villages levelled by the earthquake.

They joined their Italian hosts to search for survivors and victims trapped beneath downed buildings. Together with the doctors, men and women from government agencies, they built tent camps to house the people who had lost their homes.

The refugees weeded and cleaned up an area designated to be an emergency operations centre, and even donated money.

Reuters reported that in the southern region of Calabria, more than 70 refugees and asylum seekers gave up a daily allowance for personal expenses of 2 euros (US$2.30) to help survivors.

Letizia Bellabarba, a coordinator of GUS (a charity that hosts asylum seekers), said they had come up with the idea themselves.

“They said that Italy welcomed and helped them, and it was now their turn to help Italians. We hope these kind of initiatives help fight stereotypes and misconceptions about refugees and migrants.”

The world is facing an unprecedented displacement crisis especially from prolonged conflict zones in Syria, the Middle East and Africa. In 2015 alone, over 1 million people have made their way to Europe. Millions of refugees are suffering in refugee camps around the world.

With their lives destroyed and their loved ones murdered, they have been forced to travel thousand of miles to escape persecution and find a safer life.

In Italy, there are more than 130,000 migrants living in reception centres. In 2015, over 50,000 migrants arrived in Italy amid open anti-migrant sentiments.

Many Italians are angered over a poor economy with great concern about Italy’s future and fair share of the economic cake. Neo-fascist groups openly revolted with anti-immigration protest in which some have turned violent.

However, some richer European Union (EU) counterparts have turned a blind eye to the real cause of this massive human displacement. Interviews by Human Rights Watch (HRW) with 50 unaccompanied child refugees aged 9 to 17 in Sweden reveal the scale of the trauma.

They tell of imprisonment, rapes, beatings, witnessing people dying in the Mediterranean and being held captive by Islamic State (IS). These children’s testimonies expose a litany of abuses and tragedy.

The interviews were conducted in order to better understand the needs of young people fleeing by themselves to Europe. These same young people have been projected by many to cost the host states, dent their public finances, increase violence and polarise society even further.

However, the volunteers for the Italian earthquake — natives and non-natives, refugees and citizens alike — clearly demonstrated that buckling down to help people who are suffering brings everyone together.

The refugees, who came from all over Italy to offer their services to the earthquake victims, dug through the rubble and helped those who had lost everything.

After all, these conditions such as removing rubble with bare hands are no stranger to them. The refugees offered their hands because they know what it means to suffer and to lose everything.

Just as importantly, they helped to say thank you, demonstrating to the world that they are not the monsters assumed by some European pessimists.

As EU battles to define its role in assisting the refugees, the latter’s assistance in the earthquake emphasised that most are peace-loving, decent human beings who have themselves witnessed unspeakable brutality.

Dr. Paridah Abd. Samad is a former lecturer of UiTM, Shah Alam, and International Islamic University Malaysia, Gombak

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