Welcoming Christ in Refugees

A trip to Assisi and the first encounters with the Franciscan community place a small seed in the heart of Juliana Seelmann, born in 1983 in a village near Würzburg, in Bavaria. The contacts with the Franciscan nuns continue, Juliana meets the sisters of the community of Oberzell, she attends the orientation days and then the weekends in the community and the seed begins to sprout. However, the road to the entrance to the convent is still very long. Initially, the nurse is convinced that her path is to accompany the seriously ill and the dying; in 2009, at the age of 26, Juliana decided to join the handmaids of the holy childhood of Jesus of the third order of St. Francis or, in short, the “Franciscan of Oberzell”.

It so happens that in 2009 Sister Juliana was called to collaborate in the reception center in Würzburg. She accepts and after a few months she says: “I can’t leave here anymore.” Just the fact that she is there produces so much good.

In her work with refugees, Sister Juliana recognizes a great parallel with the work of the founder of the order, Antonia Werr, who in the middle of xix century is dedicated to women who come out of prison to help them integrate into society.

In the reception center for asylum seekers just outside Würzburg live about 450 people including women, men and children; age varies from newborn to elderly; a group of people takes care of them, like in a doctor’s office. In structure, when it comes to people’s life in common, origin or religion have no weight; what matters is to help those in difficulty. «Often – says Sister Juliana – what seems to us ‘foreign’ turns out to be ‘familiar’». Smiling, she tells us about an episode that took place with a young Muslim Iraqi. «We Franciscan Sisters of Oberzell wear a medal around our neck, on one side there is Saint Francis and on the other the Madonna. A young Iraqi asks me if that’s Maria. Surprise, I answer yes. Then he tells me that he too would like to have a medal like that. I smiled a little, then I told him that no, it is not possible because to have it you have to enter the community “and you are a man”. We had a laugh, but from there a very profound speech was born in which she told me how important Mary is for him but also in Islam. It was a moving and very special chat ».

The “Dublin-system” in force in Europe establishes that refugees must apply for asylum in the country of first reception. This means that all those people – and they are the majority – who arrive in Italy, Greece and Spain (the countries bordering the Mediterranean) cannot continue the journey to the northernmost countries where they would like to present their asylum request, and this means that in these places of initial reception there are also situations of inhuman “concentration camps”. Because of this very system, Sister Juliana ended up in the media headlines. Her fault is that of having granted the right of asylum in church to people who were obliged to leave the country after having reached Italy as the first host country to then continue to Germany. Sister Juliana recounts: “A few years ago, the community had decided to grant the right of asylum in church on principle: the community had already done so on several other occasions. To be entitled to asylum in church – he continues – an application must be submitted which is carefully examined, and the right to asylum is granted only in cases of true necessity. In the case of the judicial process mentioned above, it was a question of two Nigerian women who had become victims of forced prostitution after having suffered sexual abuse already in their childhood. Expatriation to Italy – explains Sister Juliane, giving the example of another woman – would certainly have meant a return to prostitution. She that woman was severely traumatized and she needed a place to rest for a moment, away from the fear of returning to prostitution and violence ». In 2021 Sister Juliana was sentenced, in 2022 she acquitted on appeal.

Sister Juliana takes the strength to move forward and to take to heart the fate of traumatized people every day, with incredible stories, from the mission of order. «The important thing in our spirituality is the fact that God became man, he made himself small. And since God shows himself vulnerable and powerless, we too let ourselves be touched by the reality of human life – adds the Franciscan – and this is the engine that drives me. This touches me, this involves me ».

It is the exchange of experiences within the team of the reception center for asylum seekers that allows Sister Juliana to elaborate what she hears and what she experiences. Without neglecting, of course, life in the convent. “I feel supported by my sisters – she concludes – who always carry my concerns and those of the people with them in their prayers”.

from Sabine Meraner


Welcoming Christ in Refugees – L’Osservatore Romano