A year on: the Syrian refugees who came to Rome with the Pope

InThe lives of the 12 refugees were transformed when Pope Francis rescued them from the Greek island of Lesbos.

ROME // Basking in the Italian sunshine, Syrians rescued by Pope Francis from a refugee camp a year ago are beginning to feel at home, sharing not only the joys but also the trials of life in Europe.

Now instead of violence their worries echo those of the local population: how to get a stable job in a country plagued by unemployment.

The lives of the 12 refugees were transformed at a startling speed. For weeks last year, they were marooned on the Greek island of Lesbos island. One evening. they were offered the chance of relocating Italy, and the next day, April 16, the pope visited and took them back home with him.

“We did not have time to think about it,” remembers 32-year old Nour.

She had fled war-torn Syria with her husband Hassan, and planned to try to get to France, as Nour did her master’s degree in plant microbiology at Montepellier university. The couple had never thought about seeking sanctuary in Italy, but they jumped at the chance.

The pope’s trip to Greece was aimed at highlighting the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving on the shores of Europe.

The pontiff, who was born in Argentina, has repeatedly condemned Western society for its indifference to refugees and has made the cause of migrants one of the defining themes of his papacy.

The Vatican paid for the three Muslim families to be looked after by the Sant’Egidio Catholic community which is co-organiser of a “humanitarian corridor”. It has already brought some 700 Syrians to safety in Italy.

In no time at all, the Syrians were provided with accommodation, given intensive Italian lessons and the children were enrolled in school.

They were granted refugee status within a few months of entering Italy and settled into “a life of peace”, Nour says.,

In March she found a job as a biologist at the Bambino Gesu hospital in the Italian capital. The mothers in the other two families joined a housekeeping agency.

But Hassan, an expert gardener, has had to settle for working a few days a week in a repair shop.

“I’m worried, like everyone else: how to move forward in life and find (Hassan) a job,” his wife said, speaking in Italian.

But in a country where the unemployment rate still tops 11 per cent, rising to 35 per cent among the young, she acknowledges: “It’s not just my fear, all Italians share it.”

On the upside, fears for relatives left behind in Syria have eased after Hassan’s parents and three younger brothers arrived two months ago in Naples through the humanitarian corridor.

Nour’s family is expected to be transported to safety in nearby France in the next few weeks.

In August, 80-year old Pope Francis invited his Syrian guests to lunch at the Vatican.

“The pope changed our life in one day. It’s a real example for all religious people, he uses religion to serve men,” says Nour. She was touched by the fact that Francis remembered her name when she met him again in February.

Daniela Pompei from Sant’Egidio, who has accompanied the Syrians since their arrival, says the integration has been a great success.

“Our goal now is for these families to become totally autonomous, for them to make their own lives,” she said.

It has not been easy for everyone. Abdelmajid, 16, attends high school but his older brother Rachid, 19, is beyond school age and still struggles to speak basic Italian. But their main concern is one shared by man Italians of their age: how to sort out their acne.

Meanwhile all Nour’s three-year-old son, Riad, has to worry about is how to eat his big strawberry ice cream before it melts.

“I’m glad my son has started to live like other children his age,” Nour says.

* Agence France-Presse