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Refugees Who Left Lesbos With Pope in 2016 Settle Into Rome Life

todayDecember 5, 2021 5

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After Pope Francis visited the Greek island of Lesbos in April 2016, he took 12 Muslim refugees from Syria, including six children, with him back to Rome aboard the papal plane. It was an act that punctuated his pleas for sympathy toward refugees just as European attitudes were hardening against them.

Five years later, the three families who traveled with Francis — two from Damascus and one from Deir al-Zour — have made lives for themselves in Rome, though they say that their thoughts are constantly with those they left behind in Syria.

“When we got on that plane with him, we felt a sense of peace that we hadn’t felt for a very long time,” said Wafaa Eid, 35, recalling a “dreamlike” trip that swept them from years of war in Syria and a fraught five-month journey to reach Europe, to a rousing welcome offered by a Catholic charity in Rome.

“There were flowers and music — it felt like a wedding,” she said. “It was great.”

Adapting to a new life, a new culture, has not always been easy, she said, but her family has found support and generosity in Rome. Both she and her husband, Osama Kawkji, 42, work in a vacation home run by a religious congregation in Rome, and their children — Masa, 13, and Omar, 11 — are in middle school in the city.

“Whenever I’ve asked for help, people have reached out,” she said, including parents of her children’s friends and volunteers from the charity that helped them when they first arrived. She also said they had made “many Italian friends.”

All three families “have settled in very well,” said Cecilia Pani, who coordinates migration projects for the Community of St. Egidio charity, which works with vulnerable people in Rome and elsewhere. She was in Lesbos in 2016 to assist the families who traveled on the papal flight and has also helped them in Rome.

She said they had been able to find jobs and housing that allow them to live independently.

With other churches, charities and nongovernmental organizations, St. Egidio has helped facilitate the arrival to Italy of more than 3,600 refugees over the past five years.

Learning Italian has come easily to Ms. Eid, who taught herself using her son’s elementary school books.

“I studied, and then I would help him,” she said.

Work also helped. Before starting at the vacation home, she worked as a cleaner in a Rome hospital.

One way or the other, she said of the language, “I had to learn.”

In July, her family moved to a new apartment, where they live with their cat, Lulu. In the fall, the children started at a new school, where they said they liked their classes — when bouts of coronavirus among classmates didn’t keep them at home.

Asked whether he was happy living in Rome, Mr. Kawjki seemed surprised.

“Yes, of course,” he said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t stay.”

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