So there we were, having lunch outside Cafe Vert today in the beautiful neighborhood of Monteverde Vecchio on Via Barilli in Rome, Italy. We are two of the most charitable, socially conscious, some would even say enlightened people in the whole city. Heck, let’s go all out…WORLD.  We are what people are supposed to be evolving into. “The world would be so much better if more people were like you.” Yadda yadda.

I’m with the amazing Austrian journalist and filmmaker, Christine Pawlata who also happens to be one of my best friends. She’s enjoying her vegetables and cous cous, and I my curried risotto. We’re talking about a new project I’ve recently launched on my charitable, grassroots website Aura’s House that helps ordinary people help the neediest children and their families around the world get access to safe housing, clean water, medical and food supplies, education, and income generation business opportunities.

It was a project I started back in 2004 to build a safe and sturdy brick home for my sponsored child Aura Hernandez in Guatemala. The original fund raising goal was $4,000, but to date it has raised almost 100K and has helped thousands of children around the world. It’s small potatoes compared to what the big organizations do, but it makes me happy and keeps the hope alive that regular people with regular small donations and a lack of apathy can make a difference.

“S’cuse me. S’cuse me. Can you buy something?” A migrant from Africa asks in Italian as he slides up to our table waving packages of tube socks, tissues, and assorted bobbles over our sparkling glasses of aqua frizzante with a touch of lemon.

“No. Scusa. Non posso.” (No. Sorry. I can’t.)

The project would help 1,000+ children in Guatemala have access to their first community library as most of the children don’t have money to even buy a single book. The Library Project’s goal is a modest $1,145 for a few hundred books. I’ve just told Christine that I’ve posted a link to her moving video created for Amnesty International about a teenage Roma (Gypsy) boy in Italy whose only refuge in a society deeply antipathetic towards him and his people is a library. She tells me about a professor at my university she knows who has a book project for the children of Lampedusa of displaced migrants. The books have no words, only pictures and therefore through them, the children all can share a common language. I flush at such a lofty sentiment.

I ask her about her current projects. She’s helping a Roma woman named Denise featured in another Amnesty International video, get an education, try to find work, and move her and her 5 year-old son out of a homeless shelter for Gypsies. The odds are infinitely stacked against her. Christine also is making films about middle class Roma families who are well integrated into Italian society and yet have to hide or gloss over their identities in order to fit in and not face discrimination.

“S’cuse me. S’cuse me. Can you please help me?”  (Does he recognize me? I am always giving coins, clothes, and food to our neighborhood’s Gypsies, migrants, and street beggars and now they can spot me a mile away and are drawn to me like moths to a street lamp. It’s not so great when you are trying to decompress and have lunch with a friend or unwind on a Sunday with the family after an exhausting workweek.)

No.” (more emphatic) “Scusa. Non posso.” (Sorry. I can’t.)

You know how this story ends right? The two “socially conscious humanitarians” who normally go above and beyond the call of duty to help everyone and everything in sight are temporarily annoyed and put on the spot. Why won’t he go away? Why does he keep insisting? Why doesn’t he ask the people next to us? It’s awkward. Can’t we just enjoy an uninterrupted lunch together for a few minutes? Do we have to always be on call? If we give money won’t that just encourage him to keep panhandling?

“Can you please give me money for coffee or something to eat.” We’re the only three people in the entire world now.

“Scusa. No.” (Sorry. I can’t)

There’s a long silence. Finally the spell is broken and he moves on, completely walking past all the other people at all the other tables to an unknown destination down the road.

My husband would have told me not to feel bad.  I imagine his voice. “You can’t help everyone and it’s not your job to personally finance every single poor person in need. Why doesn’t the government help him? Why don’t other people help?”

I think about the recent announcement in the news about more Italian boat patrols off of Lampedusa to send migrant boats from Africa back to where they came from.

“Why don’t other people help?”

Probably because they said, “Sorry. I can’t.”

We finished our coffees and paid the bill. We hugged on the corner by the university as we said our goodbyes and went back to work.

I am writing this blog post to repent for my momentary lapse of empathy. It seems that there’s always more work to be done, even for those of us already trying.