ROME — With many “thanks” and “best wishes,” a group of 10 asylum-seekers greeted Pope Francis on his birthday Dec. 17.
The four women and six men — originally from Congo, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Somalia and Syria — had arrived in Italy a day earlier from Cyprus and will be supported by the pope as they settle in Italy under a special humanitarian visa program.
Two others were supposed to be in the group but were required to remain in Cyprus a bit longer as they finish a precautionary isolation period after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Another small group is expected to arrive closer to Christmas and, according to news reports, more will come from Cyprus in January and perhaps February.
The Cypriot ministry of internal affairs had tweeted photos when the group departed the country Dec. 16, but the Vatican offered no comment until the next day.
Going to the Apostolic Palace to meet the pope, the 10 were accompanied by members of the Community of Sant’Egidio, which will be assisting them, finding them housing, teaching them Italian and introducing them to Italian culture for the next year.
Daniela Pompei, who coordinates the refugee-resettlement program of Sant’Egidio, introduced each of the newcomers to the pope, telling him a little of their stories and pointing out which young man was a physician and which a computer technician. She also told him that one of the men had been jailed in Cyprus because he did not have proper travel documents, a problem faced by many people fleeing violence and repression.
During the brief meeting Dec. 17, the pope listened to their stories of traveling to Cyprus in the hopes of being able to settle in Europe, the Vatican said. Cyprus has the highest per capita number of migrants and asylum-seekers and, during the pope’s trip there Dec. 2-4, he spoke repeatedly of the obligation of the European Union to assist Cyprus in welcoming the newcomers, assisting them and integrating them into European society.
“You saved us!” a young man from Congo told the pope, according to the Vatican press office.
“Wishing him ‘long life and good health’ on his birthday, the refugees gave the pope a gift of a painting by an Afghan refugee, depicting the attempt of some migrants to cross the Mediterranean Sea,” said Matteo Bruni, director of the press office.
Pope Francis also asked Pompei about a little girl he met in the Mavrovouni refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, who will arrive in Italy in the next few days together with her family for treatment at the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesù Pediatric Hospital in Rome, the Vatican press office said.