5Q+1: CNN Godbeat pro on his remarkable Lampedusa story

When one of the best religion journalists on the planet produces one of the most gratifying stories of his life, news consumers are in for a real treat. Enter Eric Marrapodi, co-editor of CNN's Belief Blog.

His 4,500-word  "Stepping-stones to Safety" story — featuring a family fleeing Syria's war — ran over the weekend.

The gripping lede:

Lampedusa, Italy (CNN) - Abdel clung to his pregnant wife, 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter as they sailed across an open stretch of the Mediterranean Sea.

They were in a dilapidated fishing boat with limited provisions and almost no sanitation, sharing a cramped space with some 400 other Syrians.

Abdel prayed quietly and recited verses from the Quran for two days and two nights as the boat swayed and motored precariously along the 180-mile route from Libya to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.

If they could make it, his young family would be one step closer to freedom.

He knew thousands had died making the same voyage.

Abdel prayed for safety. He hoped land would come soon. He worried his wife, 8 1/2 months pregnant, might give birth before they reached land.

Abdel and his family risked their lives to flee Syria for Italy.

Marrapodi agreed to respond to a few questions from GetReligion about his extraordinary report.  (If you haven't read it yet, feel free to do so now. We'll still be here when you get back.)

What's the inside scoop on this story? How did it come about, and how long did it take to report, write and edit it?

I'd been hearing about Lampedusa and the refugees there for a long time. After Pope Francis made it his first visit outside of Rome, I knew I had to get over there. I was fortunate to be part of an extraordinary group of journalists who won Henry Luce Foundation grants for international religion reporting through the International Center for Journalists. ICFJ connected me with another grant winner, the wonderful Elisa Di Benedetto, who is an Italian journalist.

We met in Rome and flew to Lampedusa and Catania. We were on the two islands for a week total at the end of September. Because it was more of an evergreen story, we worked on the writing and the editing for months to get it right. We also had a lot of fact checking and following up to do.

It was a real challenge and a real joy to report.

Tell me about your travel experience. How big a journalistic adventure did you enjoy?

Lampedusa is an island that's small enough to carpet. It's stunningly beautiful. The beaches, the views, it's breath taking.

Catania reminds me of a lot of forgotten Rust Belt cities in the States. You walk around wondering how long ago it was that this place was awesome.

When I'm on assignment overseas, my pace is usually blistering, producing TV pieces every day and coordinating live shots. It was nice to take our time and decompress every night knowing we had time on the back end to pull it all together.

You weave the entire story around Abdel and his family. Out of the dozens of people you interviewed, how did you decide on him as your "main character," so to speak? 

Access to the newly arrived refugees was really challenging. The Italian government barred reporters from entering the Immigration Center on Lampedusa, citing safety concerns because it was so overcrowded. We'd heard about his family being airlifted off the island because his wife was so close to giving birth.

We had previously scheduled to meet the Imam in Catania the night we arrived there. I'd love to tell you it was dogged reporting that we tracked them down, but it was dumb luck. The Imam took us in to the back room, and there was his family cooking pasta.

Like a lot of the migrants and refugees, Abdel was hesitant to talk with us. I pulled out my iPhone and showed him a picture of my baby. There was a lot of gesturing and smiling before he dashed out and grabbed his son to show off. That really broke the ice. When we realized they were the family we had heard about, Elisa and I knew right away they would be our main character. We moved some things around and ended up spending a lot of time with them.

The editor's note mentions that interviews were conducted in English, Italian and Arabic? Which of those languages do you speak, and what role did your colleague Elisa Di Benedetto play?

My Italian is terrible. Just laughably bad. Elisa is fluent in English, Italian, and conversational in Arabic. The mosque helped with some of the translation of the Arabic into Italian for some of the Syrian refugees.

I was surprised how many refugees and migrants spoke English, especially those from Africa. Because Lampedusa is a tourist town, lots of people spoke English, and most of the aid workers and government officials spoke English, too.

Elisa did all the advance work in Italian, helping set up as much as we could before we hit the ground.

What special insight did you bring to this story as someone with a background and experience in religion reporting? In other words, did this story benefit from having a Godbeat pro report it and write it?

It came in handy to have the religion reporting experience with the clergy we dealt with. I don't have any problem asking deeper theological questions and probing and pushing on them. I would like to think that gave us richer interviews.

It also helps when you know the lingo and the practices. Understanding the rhythm of a faith and its practices really helps in knowing when to ask a question or crack a joke to make someone feel comfortable with you as a reporter.

Having written a lot about religion was less helpful in putting the story together when I got home. It's just so rare for me to be doing a piece that's this long and involved. The writing was such a departure for me from what I'm accustomed to doing everyday. It was 10 times harder than I thought it would be.

On a personal level, where does this story rank for you? How satisfying was it to produce journalism of this magnitude?

Professionally, it was one of the most gratifying projects I've worked on. I'm just really grateful to Elisa, the folks at ICFJ, my editor Steve Goldberg at CNN.com and all my co-workers who kept encouraging me along the way. I was fortunate to get the byline, but there were a lot of folks who put in a lot of time and energy into getting the piece out there.

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