Pope Francis shines a light on the refugee crisis

Ahmad Ramy Alshakarji and his son Majid are seen at their home in Rome on December 3, 2021. (Chico Harlan / Washington Post)

ROME – Five years ago, in a migrant camp on a dismal Greek island, a Catholic aid group showed up offering tickets to a lucky few. The group encountered rounds of migrants. One person recalled being in a hurry to respond quickly if she and her family were willing to relocate to Italy. Another recalls that there was no mention of the most extraordinary part: that the flight to Rome would be on the papal plane accompanied by Pope Francis.

“A total surprise,” said Majid Alshakarji, 20, who fled Syria after Islamic State choked off his town’s food supply and whose family was one of three people who ended up in the city. the plane.

As Francis now prepares for a return trip Sunday to Lesbos, an island symbolic of the migration crisis in Europe, his 2016 decision to relocate these three families – all Syrians and Muslims – is one of the lasting gestures of his pontificate. , a warning to welcome those who escape repression and war.

That message, five years later, seems increasingly forgotten in a Europe that has built razor-sharp fences, struck deals to quell migratory flows, built highly guarded facilities for asylum seekers and engaged legal proceedings against search and rescue groups.

But the move also worked in its narrowest way, opening up the chance for 12 people, including six children, to be successful, struggling, and trying to build a new life in safety.

Although the 12 people who flew to Italy with Francis are regularly mentioned in articles about the Pope and migrants, their stories have not been widely documented. All have since been granted refugee status. One of the families moved to Genoa in northern Italy. The Washington Post met with members of the other two families who remain in Rome.

Nour Essa, 36, who worked in biotechnology in Damascus, became a researcher in a Catholic hospital. Her husband has just graduated in architecture.

She said that when leaving Syria, they had imagined going to France, where several years before she had studied at a university. But after being interviewed before Francis arrived, they quickly had to weigh what was best for them and their young child.

“It was all so quick,” Essa said. “There was such an emotion. Such a sense of confusion.” What prevailed for his family was an agreement that any country would agree to, as long as it was a ‘Lesbos escape’.

In the Alshakarji family, Ahmad Ramy describes the opportunity they received as “joy born from the womb of sadness”.

A history teacher in Syria, he now works 60 hours a month cleaning a hospital. His wife, Suhila Ayiad, also works as a hospital concierge, with more regular hours. They barely manage to pay the rent. Their son Majid says that what they received in Italy is a chance “to get back on their feet”.

Some of the 12 Syrians have seen Francis several times since their initial trip out of Lesvos. And this week, before leaving on his trip, Francis encountered a handful of refugees inside the Vatican, some who had come by the papal plane in 2016, the church said.

On the first leg of his trip to Cyprus, Francis led migrant families on Friday in a prayer service, in which he denounced a “culture of indifference” and repeated his claim that some of the camps where the people being held are like “concentration camps”. . “

In a Europe where the odds of migrants have only decreased since 2016, a model dependent on the Pope and his goodwill is hardly tenable. But there are indications the pontiff is trying to replicate that decision as he travels to Cyprus and Greece this week. On Thursday, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades thanked the Pope for organizing the transfer of 50 migrants from Cyprus. The Vatican has not confirmed any resettlement agreement.

“We are looking at several possibilities,” said Matteo Bruni, a Vatican spokesperson.

Sant’Egidio, the lay Catholic association that helped select migrants from Lesvos in 2016, said the main criteria were “vulnerability” and that the group was specifically looking for families. Religion was not a factor.

According to information at the time, the work of selecting migrants extended until the day before the arrival of the Pope. Francis said the idea of ​​relocation only surfaced a week before the trip.

“These three families had the proper papers, the proper papers, and it could be done,” Francis said.

This papal first trip to Lesvos came just after a historic upheaval on the continent, a year in which more than a million migrants sought refuge in Europe, the largest influx since World War II. In 2016, the early reception was long over. Xenophobic populist parties were on the rise. Countries were imposing new border controls, although it was not yet clear whether the backlash would be permanent.

Lesvos, a landing point for migrants from Turkey, was seen as the ground zero for the unresolved migrant crisis in Europe.

“This trip is somewhat different from the others,” Francois told reporters on the Rome-Lesbos flight. “We are going – and we will see – so many people who are suffering, who do not know where to go, who had to flee. We will also go to a cemetery, the sea, where many people have drowned.”

Francois arrived at the camp to find people lined up shoulder to shoulder, some holding hand-painted flags of their own countries, waiting to shake hands with him. Some had been at the camp for days, others for weeks. Many had paid smugglers thousands of dollars with even declining hopes of going to specific European countries, in some cases where they already had relatives. But on the basis of a newly signed agreement between the European Union and Turkey, many residents of Lesvos were to be sent back to the other side of the sea for which they had just risked their lives.

“Liberty, liberty” chanted the migrants at one point during the Pope’s visit.

“You are not alone,” Francis said shortly after, giving a short speech.

From the camp, the Pope and selected asylum seekers traveled in separate cars to the island’s main airport, where everything was set with a red carpet and an Alitalia plane. Francis greeted the 12 people, then they got on board.

Majid, who was 15 at the time, said he remembered feeling like he was getting on a flight “with the most powerful person in the world.”

Then, exhausted, he fell asleep.

Over the next five years, the charismatic and talkative Majid wrote rap songs about his experience in Syria, including one called “Beneath the Rubble”. He went from knowing only one Italian word – “grazie” – to becoming very talkative, graduating from an Italian high school, making Italian friends, even appearing on an Italian TV show where he spoke about his life. .

But since graduating from high school in 2020, he has also found that there are few job opportunities for someone with his experience. He and his older brother only found work here and there.

“On the one hand, the stability is there,” he said. “But having financial problems leaves you a little shaken up.”

Refugee families received housing assistance for a year after arriving in Rome, and they continue to receive assistance with integration and studies, an official from Sant’Egidio said.

The Alshakarji family live in a second-floor apartment on the outskirts of Rome, where much of the furniture is donated, and one of the only decorations is a flag used by Syria before the Assad family came to power. . Other than that, they have few other home reminders. Ahmad Ramy, the father, said the family brought only one item on their journey through Turkey to Greece and then to Rome: a metal utensil for collecting and shaping falafels.

One recent evening, he went to the kitchen to pick it up. He described how, shortly before boarding the papal plane, there had been disagreement among security officials over whether the sharp-edged object could be blown away on the flight.

“We thought the plane might not take off,” Ahmad said with a laugh.

But it does, and now in Rome they make falafels about once a month.

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