Festive joy at refugee centre market

Rector Austin Rios and Santa sing along to the piano. Photo by Helena Leslie

ROME - Truly representative of the spirit of Christmas is volunteers giving up their hours on a chilly December weekend to raise money for the needy. The Joel Nafuma Refugee Centre (JNRC) hosted their annual Christmas market inside the brightly-lit gothic St Paul’s Within the Walls Saturday.

 It was your traditional church bake sale with a twist. Warm and spiced mulled wine and delicately iced chocolate cakes welcomed visitors, but attention-grabbing was the holly-jolly Santa singing along with the children under the 19th century golden paintings. Little chocolate brown teddy bears were granted to victors of a coin toss as the angelic voices of the Children’s Choir of Rome filled the room.

 The rector of St Paul’s and director of JNRC, Rev. Austin Rios, was easily recognised with his reindeer headband and spoke with The Insider in a pause from belting out Christmas carols. He explained that the JNRC is the only day centre that is open in the mornings, a real necessity for refugees braving the winter cold without any housing. He described the church’s visitors as “political refugees who find themselves in Rome and are looking to receive basic necessities and also build a new life in a new country.”

 He has seen the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean becoming “definitely more acute” over the last few years, and hastened to thank the 60 volunteer workers that provide language lessons, direct migrants to lawyers, and help the 200 daily visitors to find work in the bustling city of Rome.

 Many of the local artisans selling their wares inside the church were, in fact, those whom the centre has directly helped, terrifically talented individuals who are thankful for the aid they have received. Rector Rios was quick to point out that the centre makes a point to give “hospitality without proselytizing,” and a glance at the variety of types of cultures meshed together in the church validated his point.

 The Hummus Town was a firm favourite of The Insider, a table boasting different varieties of Damascan chickpea leblebi and flat breads dipped in tangy beetroot hummus. The humanitarian project ScART offered delicate handmade recycled purses, keychains, and books to the crowd. Horti Conclusi was the work of a musician, giving his hand to producing mason jars filled with greenery and stones. A Syrian refugee organisation presented hand-embroidered materials woven by women. The rector’s daughter even manned her own table, selling ceramics, and planning to give all the proceeds to the centre.

 Almost hard to hear over the twinkling of St Stephen’s children singing, Annika Milisic-Stanley, the program coordinator and fundraiser for JNRC, spoke about ways in which non-volunteers can help as well. “We are urgently collecting sleeping bags for refugees … around ¾ of the refugees that come to us are sleeping in the streets and the parks. You can see how cold it is already and we expect it will get colder.” The centre is multitask volunteering with crowdfunds, Christmas gift appeals, and a large Christmas breakfast planned for this month to ensure visitors have a full belly in the festive season.

Donating sleeping bags:

Please order from Amazon or Decathlon and ship to Via Napoli 58, it is the easiest way to distribute them

The Christmas Appeal: 


Needslist crowdfunding appeal: 


For more information on JNRC and other ways to donate, please visit the website: