Two years later, a group of Syrian refugees brought to Italy by Pope Francis are living out a ‘dream’
Since the European refugee crisis broke out in late 2014, more than 500,000 men, women and children have arrived in Italy, most of them on rickety and sometimes lethal boats crossing the Mediterranean, fleeing war, poverty and chronic instability, but others on foot, in vehicles, even on horseback.
Only 12, however, can say they flew into “il bel paese” (“the beautiful country”) with the pope.
Wafaa Eid, a young Syrian Muslim mother of two, was one of those fortunate 12 who accompanied Pope Francis back to Rome after a day trip to the Greek island of Lesbos two years ago, on April 16, 2016. Eid and her husband, Osama Kawkji, along with their two children, who were 6 and 8 at the time, made the journey with Pope Francis.
By that point, they had been in the vast Kare Tepe refugee camp on Lesbos for under a month, after spending three hard months in a camp in Turkey fleeing a civil war in Syria which, to date, has generated an estimated 5 million refugees.
In an April 11 interview at an Italian language school for migrants and refugees operated by the Catholic community of Sant’Egidio and located in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, Eid tried to explain what she was feeling when the plane took off for Rome and the promise of a new life.
“It was like someone had reached down and grabbed us,” she said, explaining the sensation of being saved. “It was like a dream … it was beautiful.”
By now, she and Pope Francis are basically old friends. Not only did she share the plane ride with the pontiff, but she’s lunched with him at his Vatican residence in the company of other Syrian refugee families and also greeted him at a couple of Sant’Egidio events.
When Pope Francis went to Assisi for a Sant’Egidio interreligious event in October 2016, the refugees presented him with the final peace appeal.
Eid said she knew who Pope Francis was before — “I’d seen him on TV,” she said — now she has an entirely different purchase on him.
“He’s a good man,” she said. “He has a good heart.”
Today, Eid and her family are basically a success story. Her husband works as a handyman for the religious congregation providing them housing, while she works as part of a cleaning crew at Rome’s renowned Gemelli Hospital. (She says she hasn’t yet had a chance to tidy the special room left permanently free in case it’s needed by the pope.)
Their daughter, Masa, 10, and Omar, 8, appear happy, well-adjusted, and have already made a number of Italian friends in their primary school. As we spoke with Eid, they were both drawing colorful, upbeat sketches on a classroom etching board.
All that seemed nothing more than a distant dream two years ago, when Eid and her fellow refugees learned only 12 hours in advance that they had the chance to leave for Italy, and even then they didn’t know it would be in the company of the pontiff.
“We didn’t want to raise their hopes in case it didn’t happen,” said Daniela Pompei of the Community of Sant’Egidio, which took on the responsibility of caring for the refugee families at the personal request of Pope Francis.
“It was also a matter of gauging their seriousness,” Pompei said. “We wanted to be sure they truly wanted to relocate to Italy, and not just because it meant a ride with the pope.”
Founded in 1968, the Community of Sant’Egidio is known for its commitment to conflict resolution and ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. Especially in Italy, it’s also known for its work and advocacy on behalf of migrants and refugees, and the group has become a “go-to” resource for Pope Francis on multiple fronts.
Today, Eid said, she’s content with her new life.
“We came with almost nothing, because we’d left Syria with almost nothing,” she said. “Our family is happy here, and the children are happy in school,” she added, before arriving at what clearly seemed the bottom line: “Here, there is no war.”
Eid is in touch with family members living in Damascus, where fighting between government forces and ISIS militants has flared up anew on the city’s outskirts in recent months.
“I just talked to my parents,” Eid said. “They told me this week it’s been calm, but last week was terrible.”
Pompei said the day after the group of 12 arrived in Rome, both the adults and the children began learning Italian.
“We want to help them integrate,” she said, explaining that two years later, all the refugees settled at the pope’s invitation hold Italian residency permits and all are legally recognized as refugees.
The other two families who flew with Pope Francis also come across as models of a largely successful insertion into a host society.
In one case, the wife is now working as a research biologist at Rome’s papally sponsored pediatric hospital Bambino Ges√π, while the husband finishes architectural studies needed to have his Syrian professional certification recognized.
Pompei said what Pope Francis did on that day two years ago still has echoes.
“It was important on the global level, but it was also important in the Arabic world for building bridges,” she said, noting that a TV crew from Al-Jazeera was on hand at Rome’s Ciampino Airport to film their arrival.
She’s aware of the criticism in some quarters that all 12 of the refugees who returned with Pope Francis are Muslims despite the fact that Syria’s minority Christian population has been especially devastated by the war. She noted that some Christians were among the ones selected, but they were blocked for bureaucratic reasons.
Anyway, she suggested, that’s not really the point.
“What matters is saving people from war,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who they are.”