By Elise Harris
After traveling to the Greek island of Lesbos, a primary entry point for refugees seeking passage into Europe, Pope Francis decided to bring 12 of them on his plane back to the Vatican as an act of welcome and solidarity.
“The Pope has desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees, accompanying on his plane to Rome three families of refugees,” an April 16 communique from the Vatican read.
Coming from Syria, all of the families are Muslim and number 12 people in total, including six children. Two of the families are from Damascus, and one is from Deir Azzor, which is now territory occupied ISIS. Their homes had been bombed.
According to the AFP news agency, an official of Greece’s state refugee coordination agency said the families were all staying in the open camp of Kara Tepe on Lesbos, and were selected through a drawing.
The initiative was brought to fruition through negotiations between the Vatican Secretariat of State and the competent Greek and Italian authorities.
It was announced as Pope Francis prepared to leave Greek island of Lesbos, where he traveled April 16 for a daytrip along with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I; His Beatitude Ieronymos, Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, and Archbishop Fragkiskos Papamanolis, OFM Cap, President of the Greek Bishops Conference as a sign of concern and solidarity for migrants forced to flee their homelands due to war, violence, hunger and poverty.
Lesbos, along with its neighboring island Kos, has been one of the primary destinations for refugees, many of whom are fleeing war in Syrian and Afghanistan, who travel to Turkey in order to make the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean to enter Europe.
In 2015 alone more than 1.1 million migrants fleeing war and violence poured into Europe, and the influx has continued, perplexing E.U. leaders as to how to handle the crisis.
Francis’ visit to Lesbos falls barely one month after the E.U. struck a new deal with Turkey stipulating that all migrants and refugees who cross into Greece illegally by sea will be sent back to Turkey once they have been registered and their asylum claims processed.
In return, the E.U. agreed to take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey, giving the country early visa-free travel and advancing talks regarding their E.U. membership negotiations.
According to the Vatican communique, all of the people the Pope took with him “were already in camps in Lesbos before the agreement between the European Union and Turkey.”
The Vatican will take responsibility for both bringing in and maintaining the three families, though the initial hospitality will be provided by the Community of Sant’Egidio.
The Community of Sant’Egido told CNA about the refugees and their situation.
One married couple, Hasan and Nour, have a two-year-old son. They are engineers from the Damascus suburb of Al Zabadani. Continuous bombardment made it very risky to live there. They fled to Turkey, where they took a boat to Lesbos.
Ramy and Suhila and their three children are from Deir ez-Zor, an eastern Syrian city conquered by the Islamic State group. They are both in their fifties. He is a teacher, while she is a dressmaker. Their home was destroyed. They arrived in Greece from Turkey in February 2016.
Osama and Wafa are from the part of Damascus called Zamalka. They have two children.
Their house was bombed. Wafa said that their youngest child wakes up every night. For a time the child had stopped talking.