From nightmare to dream: Syrian refugees thank pope for safety

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) — After less than 48 hours in Rome,
“dream” is the word used most often by the six Syrian adults Pope
Francis brought back to Italy with him from a refugee camp in Greece.

By April 18, the couples — who asked to be identified by only their first names, Hasan and Nour, Ramy and Suhila,
Osama and Wafa — and their six children had spent more than three hours doing
paperwork with Italian immigration officials and had enrolled in Italian
language classes.

Other than that, most of their first two days in Rome had
been spent giving interviews and answering phone calls from friends and
relatives who saw them on television boarding the pope’s plane April 16. All
three families saw their homes bombarded in Syria and all three arrived in
Greece from Turkey on overloaded rubber boats months ago.

Being chosen from among thousands of refugees to come to
Italy felt like “a dream,” said Wafa. Being in Rome and not a refugee
camp on the Greek island of Lesbos “is a big dream,” said Hasan.

Osama is dreaming of peace in his homeland. “We want
peace in Syria so we can go home,” he told reporters outside the language
and culture school run by the Catholic Sant’Egidio Community.

In agreement with the Italian government, the Rome-based lay
community, along with the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy, has been
operating a “humanitarian corridor” for vulnerable Syrian refugees —
the elderly, families with sick children, women traveling alone with their
children. The Vatican asked Sant’Egidio to help it screen refugees in Greece
and choose families that both the Greek and Italian governments would provide
with the necessary travel papers in time for the papal flight.

Daniela Pompei, coordinator of Sant’Egidio programs for
migrants and refugees, said the Greek government insisted that they choose only
refugees who arrived in Greece before March 20, when an agreement between the
European Union and Turkey went into effect. Under the terms of the agreement,
new arrivals must apply for asylum and will be taken back to Turkey if their
requests are denied.

The two Christian families originally on the list for
inclusion in the papal flight had made the sea crossing from Turkey after March
20, she said.

Asked if his gesture was not really so small as to be
insignificant, Pope Francis told reporters flying to Rome with him and the
refugees that people used to tell Blessed Teresa of Kolkata that what
she was doing was meaningless when there was an ocean of need in the world.

“And she responded, ‘It’s a drop in the ocean, but
after this drop, the ocean won’t be the same,'” the pope said. “I’ll
respond the same way. It’s a little gesture. But all of us, men and women, must
make these little gestures in order to extend a hand to those in need.”

Osama said he was told at 10 p.m., April 15 that he, his wife
and children — Omar, 6, and Masa, 8 — would be flying to Rome with Pope
Francis the next day. Hasan said he was in a grocery store in Greece when he
got the call.

When asked what he thought of the head of the Catholic
Church sponsoring three Muslim refugee families, Osama said, “Peace has no
religion. If you think about it, we are all human.

“The pope made a humanitarian gesture and it was so
moving,” he told reporters.

Nour, an engineer who studied in France and hopes eventually
to go there, responded to a similar question by saying, “No other
religious leader in the world helped us like the pope did.”

Her husband, Hasan, said, “The pope is an amazing,
amazing person, an incredible person. Every religious person should be like the

“We are Muslim and, unfortunately, our people did not
deal with us like the pope did,” he said.

Hasan and Nour decided to take their 2-year-old son Riad and
flee after they were stopped by members of the Islamic State. Hasan said he was
told he must fight, “make jihad,” but “I didn’t want to kill
anyone. I am an engineer, not a soldier, so I must escape from Syria.”

He, too, dreams of peace, safety and a dignified life for
his young family. But also of seeing his homeland again.

“You can find a new job maybe, you can find a new
house, but you can’t find a new family,” he said.

Ramy, who was a teacher in Syria and has two teenage sons
and a 5-year-old daughter, said being chosen to come to Italy “was God’s

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Follow Wooden on Twitter @Cindy_Wooden.

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