Those with a presence on social media probably know that Pope Francis himself isn’t sitting at a Starbucks with his smartphone posting his own tweets and Instagram photos. Only once in a while does he personally dictate what goes out, and usually it has something to do with the poor, especially migrants and refugees.
On Wednesday, Francis was at it again.
The pope walked his own talk by having his “charitable right arm,” Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, bring 33 migrants from Afghanistan, Cameroon and Togo who had been stranded on the Greek island of Lesbos, back to Rome under Vatican patronage.
Ten more asylum seekers will arrive in Italy before the end of the year.
This is the second time, at the pontiff’s request, that the Vatican has helped relocate migrants and refugees from Lesbos to Italy. In 2016, 12 refugees flew with him back to Rome when he visited the Greek island with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to raise awareness of what’s happening in a place that for many, is the entry door to Europe.
“The camps are not refugee camps, they are concentration camps,” Krajewski told a group of reporters Wednesday minutes after he landed together with the refugees and asylum seekers at Rome’s Fiumicino airport.
Though quick to note the efforts made by the small Greek island, the cardinal said the camps are not prepared for big influxes of people, who continue to wash ashore. In May, when he visited the two major camps, there were 7,000 people. Today, he said, there are 15,000.
Most of the time, people have no electricity and they join a queue for a 7:00 p.m. dinner at 2:00 pm. Most of those there today won’t have their first appointment to get documents to move on until 2021.
“They live like this … There’s no hope there,” Krajewski said, echoing the words of Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, that helped with the logistics of flying the refugees to Rome and that will assist their integration into Italian society.
“Hope ends when they arrive in Greece,” Riccardi said. He was in Lesbos back in April, after which he spoke with Francis about meeting a woman from Afghanistan who told him about having lost hope when she realized there was nothing beyond Greece because doors were permanently closed and the situation unbearable.
“The pope said to me, ‘we have to do something, because my trip to Lesbos cannot be a simple episode. It must be a start. We need to give these people a sign of hope’,” Riccardi quoted the pope as saying.
This sentiment was expressed by the refugees who came in.
Maryam Moradi, a young woman from Afghanistan who spent years in Iran with her family after having to flee, told reporters that in the camps, “there’s no hope. People just spent their hours there. There’s no life. There is nothing.”
“It’s humiliating… there is no humanity in the camps,” she said. “Even for me … Afghanistan was better.”
Though not a Catholic, she said, “I really want to say thanks to Pope Francis, I can see that they just came to help. They just want to show other countries how to help people and acknowledge their humanity.”
“I want for the upper levels in every country to help each other, to be friends and to stop war and fights,” she said. “People they just want a normal life, and this is the only thing they can give to them.”
Wry observations about under-utilized ecclesiastical facilities in Rome often invoked by the skeptics of papal rhetoric weigh on Krajewski, he said.
“The situation of migrants screams at us,” he said. “And there is great compassion from the Holy Father towards these people, and we are doing everything we can to wake up every bishop in Europe, especially the bishops’ conferences. It is a shame for Europe.”
“We start from the pope, then the cardinals, bishops and priests, opening our homes and our palaces, because we have the space and we have the funds,” he said.
Sharing with others, the Polish prelate acknowledged, isn’t easy, especially at the beginning. However, with time, one realizes that “this is the path of the Lord, and it is a great joy to be able to serve others.”
Wednesday’s “group of young refugees and some families” arrived in Rome through Fiumicino International Airport accompanied by Krajewski and officials from Sant’Egidio.
According to a statement Monday, the Holy See was able to secure the humanitarian corridor for the 33 migrants who came in on Wednesday and the other ten arriving before year’s end after “intense” negotiations with relevant bodies to secure the “definitive consent” from the Italian Ministry of Interior.
Riccardi and Krajewski openly thanked the Italian and Greek governments for their help.
Daniela Pompei of the Community of Sant’Egidio said the humanitarian corridor in part is about “a forgotten” clause of the 1990s Dublin Regulation that determines which European state is responsible for an application for asylum.
This “small mechanism,” as she called it, is what has allowed Sant’Egidio, in partnership with the Vatican but also bishops’ conferences and other churches, to relocate 3,026 refugees through humanitarian corridors. Most of them have come to Italy, but some to France, Belgium, and the small principality of Andorra, located between France and Spain.
Krajewski joked about Pompei, saying that he “wasn’t drunk” when he called her “an angel” and “evidence that the Church cannot live without women.”
The Vatican will cover the expenses the new arrivals will incur, while the Community of Sant’Egidio will help secure their housing, enroll them in Italian lessons, place the minors in school and find employment for the adults.
Roberto Zuccolini, another spokesman for Sant’Egidio, said that some will be staying in homes opened by families or individuals in Italy, and others in Vatican-owned homes.
Of the group, 30 come from Afghanistan, two- a mother and her baby- from Cameroon, and one woman, Gnansa Abi Essoessina, from Togo.
When she spoke with reporters, Essoessina couldn’t control a stream of tears that framed her face, nor could she contain her joy of “being safe.”