ROME — Nur Essa, a Muslim Syrian woman whose family was brought to Rome from Lesbos by Pope Francis last April, said that the openness he has shown to those of different faiths has deeply impressed her.
“For me, I was surprised,” she told CNA. “(He is) very open to all of the cultures, all of the religions, and he sets an example for all the religious people in the world, because he uses religion to serve the human being.”
Essa, 31, has met the pope on several occasions, most recently during the pope’s visit on February 17th to Roma Tre University, a public research university in Rome where she currently studies.
She was one of four students of the university to ask the pope a question, which he answered during his visit.
Essa’s question was about the integration of immigrants in Italy: what they must do to integrate into their host country, but also what the rights of the immigrant are.
Before this, Essa and her husband and their little boy met Pope Francis when he brought them to Rome April 16th, 2016, along with two other Syrian refugee families who had been staying in a camp on the Island of Lesbos. She said that the pope greeted them and blessed her son.
Essa also had an opportunity to speak with him at length when they were invited to be guests at a lunch on August 11th at the Vatican, which Essa said was an “honor.”
“He’s very, very modest, a very simple man, a very real human being,” she said.
Essa has both an undergraduate degree and a master’s in microbiology, and is studying biology at Roma Tre.
She said that she and her husband are both from the city of Damascus in Syria and chose to flee the country because her husband had been asked to join the military service there.
They went from Damascus to Turkey, and then from Turkey to Greece, where they stayed in a refugee camp for one month before they were fortunate enough to be chosen as one of the families the pope brought back to Rome.
Pope Francis visited Roma Tre University at the request of the Dean of the university, who wanted to invite a public figure for the university’s 25th anniversary.
According to Father John D’Orazio, who is a Catholic chaplain assigned to the university by the Diocese of Rome, the last pope to make a formal visit was St. John Paul II for the university’s 10th anniversary in 2002.
The chaplaincy just finished constructing its first Catholic chapel for students nearby to the university, something they’ve been wanting to do for a long time, D’Orazio said.
He said that although students don’t live on campus, they still try “to create opportunities for students to meet together” and to reflect on their Catholic faith and “what it means for them in their own studies and in being citizens in today’s world and in society.”
It’s a very diverse campus, he said, with students of no faith or of different religions, including Muslim students. “I think it’s very interesting and beautiful to be a chaplain inside of a state university,” he said, “because it means creating dialogue, creating collaboration.”
“It’s almost like mission work, because you’re working in a place where there are all kinds of different people, different backgrounds, different points of view. So it’s a good place to create bridges,” he said.
“Pope Francis talks a lot about creating bridges and not walls. And I think that also the chaplaincy in a state university is all about creating bridges of dialogue and collaboration.”