ROME – Since the European refugee crisis broke out in late 2014, more than 500,000 men, women and children have arrived in Italy, most of them on rickety and sometimes lethal boats crossing the Mediterranean, fleeing war, poverty and chronic instability, but others on foot, in vehicles, even on horseback.
Only twelve, however, can say they flew into il bel paese with the pope.
Wafaa Eid, a young Syrian Muslim mother of two, was one of those fortunate twelve who accompanied Pope Francis back to Rome after a day trip to the Greek island of Lesbos two years ago, on April 16, 2016. Eid and her husband, Osama Kawkji, along with their two children, who were 6 and 8 at the time, made the journey with Francis.
By that point, they’d been in the vast Kare Tepe refugee camp on Lesbos for under a month, after spending three hard months in a camp in Turkey fleeing a civil war in Syria which, to date, has generated an estimated 5 million refugees.
In an interview on Wednesday at an Italian language school for migrants and refuges operated by the Catholic community of Sant’Egidio and located in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, Eid tried to explain what she was feeling when the plane took off for Rome and the promise of a new life.
“It was like someone had reached down and grabbed us,” she said, explaining the sensation of being saved. “It was like a dream … it was beautiful.”
By now, she and Francis are basically old friends. Not only did she share the plane ride with the pontiff, but she’s lunched with him at his Vatican residence in the company of other Syrian refugee families and also greeted him at a couple of Sant’Egidio events. When Francis went to Assisi for a Sant’Egidio interreligious event in October 2016, the refugees presented him with the final peace appeal.
Eid said she knew who Francis was before – “I’d seen him on TV,” she said – now she has an entirely different purchase on him.
“He’s a good man,” she said. “He has a good heart.”
Today, Eid and her family are basically a success story. Her husband works as a handyman for the religious congregation providing them housing, while she works as part of a cleaning crew at Rome’s renowned Gemelli Hospital. (She says she hasn’t yet had a chance to tidy the special room left permanently free in case it’s needed by the pope.)
Their daughter, Masa, who’s now 10, and Omar, now 8, appear happy, well-adjusted, and have already made a number of Italian friends in their primary school. As we spoke with Eid, they were both drawing colorful, upbeat sketches on a classroom etching board.
All that seemed nothing more than a distant dream two years ago, when Eid and her fellow refugees learned only 12 hours in advance that they had the chance to leave for Italy – and even then, they didn’t know it would be in the company of the pontiff.
“We didn’t want to raise their hopes in case it didn’t happen,” said Daniela Pompei of the Community of Sant’Egidio, which took on the responsibility of caring for the refugee families at the personal request of Francis.
“It was also a matter of gauging their seriousness,” Pompei said. “We wanted to be sure they truly wanted to relocate to Italy, and not just because it meant a ride with the pope.”
Founded in 1968, the Community of Sant’Egidio is known for its commitment to conflict resolution and ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. Especially in Italy, it’s also known for its work and advocacy on behalf of migrants and refugees, and the group has become a “go-to” resource for Francis on multiple fronts.
As Pompei tells it, it wasn’t just the refugees who were surprised by the pope’s gesture.
“We didn’t even know he was going to Lesbos until five days before,” she said. “Someone from the Secretariat of State called, and he said the pope would like, if possible, to return with one refugee family.”
“This was a personal wish of the pope,” Pompei said, “and it was not at all certain we’d be able to make it concrete.”
From there, Pompei said, she began to chip away at expanding the group, first asking permission to add one additional family and then another, until finally the plan was for Francis to return to Rome with a full compliment of 21 refugees, which was essentially all the extra capacity his plane had.
In the end, only 12 of those 21 were able to fly with the pope that day, since the others were delayed either for bureaucratic reasons involving getting the necessary permissions, or for health reasons. One man in the group, for instance, was still recovering from injuries suffered due to torture at the hands of one of Syria’s various armed factions.
Eventually, all 21 members of that original group made it to Rome and are being cared for by Sant’Egidio, drawing on housing provided either by religious orders or private citizens, and with basic expenses of roughly $1,200 a month per family paid directly by the Vatican. Those who weren’t able to journey on the papal plane arrived on June 16.
Eid said she actually had to force her husband to go.
“He said, twelve hours just isn’t enough time to think about the future, what’s going to happen to the children, to our family,” she said. In the end, she said, her winning argument was simple: “I told him, ‘We can’t stay here.’”
(During a lunch at the Santa Marta in August of 2016, Francis actually apologized to the group for giving them so little time to get ready.)
In deciding who would be selected, Pompei said, the basic criteria were people in situations of special vulnerability, and who would be able to get the necessary permits in time. In the end, the Vatican Gendarmes submitted the required forms to the Greek authorities on the evening of April 15.
So tight was the secrecy, Pompei said, that even when the group arrived at the airport to leave, they weren’t told they would be travelling with the pontiff. In order to explain why they were boarding the papal plane, she said, she told them it was to get out of the sun on a hot day, but they would have to get off when Francis arrived.
Concerned about her young children, Eid remembers, “No, we’re good right here” – which, as it turns out, they were.
Two years later, some details of that day remain a blur. When asked if she had the chance to meet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who made the day trip to Lesbos with Francis, she was confused until a Sant’Egidio member reminded her of the photo Bartholomew took with the refugees on the tarmac.
Smiling, the memory comes back: “Oh, the guy in the hat!” (She was
referring to the distinctive headdress worn by Orthodox prelates.)
Today, she says, she’s content with her new life.
“We came with almost nothing, because we’d left Syria with almost nothing,” she said. “Our family is happy here, and the children are happy in school,” she added, before arriving at what clearly seemed the bottom line: “Here, there is no war.”
Eid is in touch with family members living in Damascus, where fighting between government forces and ISIS militants has flared up anew on the city’s outskirts in recent months.
“I just talked to my parents,” Eid said. “They told me this week it’s been calm, but last week was terrible.”
Pompei said the day after the group of 12 arrived in Rome, both the adults and the children began learning Italian.
“We want to help them integrate,” she said, explaining that two years later, all the refugees settled at the pope’s invitation hold Italian residency permits and all are legally recognized as refugees.
The other two families who flew with Francis also come across as models of largely successful insertion into a host society.
In one case, the wife is now working as a research biologist at Rome’s papally-sponsored pediatric hospital Bambino Gesù, while the husband finishes architectural studies needed to have his Syrian professional certification recognized.
Pompei said the children have adapted especially well, rapidly mastering Italian – as Eid put it, they have “clean heads,” not limited by the habits of a lifetime. When the group had lunch with Francis, Pompei said, the pope actually addressed them by having the children translate.
Pompei said what Francis did on that day two years ago still has echoes.
“It was important on the global level, but it was also important in the Arabic world for building bridges,” she said, noting that a TV crew from Al-Jazeera was on hand at Rome’s Ciampino airport to film their arrival.
She’s aware of the criticism in some quarters that all twelve of the refugees who returned with Francis are Muslims despite the fact that Syria’s minority Christian population has been especially devastated by the war. She notes that some Christians were among the ones selected, but they were blocked for bureaucratic reasons.
Anyway, she suggested, that’s not really the point.
“What matters is saving people from war,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who they are.”