Syrian refugees flown out by pope start new life in Rome

Sun Apr 24, 2016 3:19pm EDT
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By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuters) - For Nour Essa, one of the Syrian refugees who flew out of Lesbos on Pope Francis' plane last week, it was a choice tinged with shock, joy and sadness - and it had to be made immediately.

"They asked me 'Are you ready to leave for Italy tomorrow? You will be on the same plane with the pope. You must give me your answer now'," Essa recalled as she sat on a schoolyard bench with her husband Hasan Zaheda and two-year-old son Riad.

"We were shocked," the 30-year-old said in an interview with Reuters as she and her husband prepared to start an Italian language class.

The choice was offered at about 9 p.m. last Friday evening. Less than 18 hours later they and nine other Syrian refugees, all of them Muslim, were bound for Rome on the pope's plane. For some, including Zaheda, it was their first time on an aircraft.

The person who asked the questions and demanded quick answers at the Kara Tepe refugee camp on the Greek island that night was Daniela Pompei of the Sant' Egidio Community, a Rome-based Christian charity and peace group.

"Time was very tight," Pompei told Reuters. "It was all moving fast."

An aide to Pope Francis came up with the idea a week before the trip. The Vatican would sponsor the refugees and Sant' Egidio would handle details, including housing in Rome. Vatican, Italian and Greek officials were sworn to secrecy.

Pompei said there were three basic prerequisites, the fundamental one being that those chosen had to have arrived in Greece before the March 20 deal between the European Union and Ankara to send new arrivals back to Turkey.   Continued...

Nour Essa, 30, from Syria, plays with her son Riad, 2, during an interview with Reuters at the Sant'Egidio community in Rome, Italy, April 20,2016. REUTERS/Max Rossi