World & Nation

Granted a new life by the pope, refugees speak of horrors that drove them from Syria

Syrian refugees in Italy
Refugees Nour Essa, husband Hasan Zaheda and son Riad are among the 12 Syrians plucked from a Greek camp by Pope Francis and placed with the charity Sant’Egidio in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood.
(Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)

On a warm evening in Rome, as waiters flapped tablecloths for outdoor diners at a trattoria down the cobbled alley, Ramy Al Shakarji leaned back on a bench and laughed as he described how the head of the Roman Catholic Church, plucked him, a Muslim, from a squalid refugee camp in Greece and flew him to a new life.

“When we were given the chance to come to Rome, my wife and I took about three minutes to decide ‘yes,’” he recalls.

That was about all the time they had. It was 9 p.m. on April 15, a night before Pope Francis visited their refugee camp on the island of Lesbos.

Making the offer to move to Italy was Daniela Pompei, an official with Catholic charity Sant’Egidio, which was asked by the Vatican at the last minute to find families and then host them back in Rome at its refugee shelter in the bustling Trastevere neighborhood.


“I got to Lesbos three days before the pope and it was all done in a rush,” Pompei said.

Al Shakarji, 51, stopped laughing as he described the moment Francis greeted him before the flight. “I felt security and peace — a man like this is a father to the world,” he said.

The trip to Rome was the end of a long journey that started in Dair Alzour, a Syrian town under siege by Islamic State, where Al Shakarji recalls a rebellious neighbor’s decapitated head hanging from a balcony for three days.

“Don’t go to Syria,” he said grimly, drawing a finger slowly across his neck.


In March of last year, Al Shakarji decided to risk fleeing down mined roads and past snipers to reach Turkey, taking his wife and three children with him. Between Islamic State and the government of President Bashar Assad, he saw little hope for his family in Syria.

“My two sons were approaching the age for military service and to stop them becoming assassins, for either Assad or ISIS, we had to go,” he said.

Now, he says his oldest son plans on training as a dentist. But first, Sant’Egidio is organizing Italian lessons for the families in Trastevere.

Another of the Syrians brought to Rome with Francis is Nour Essa. Sitting outside a classroom at Trastevere, Essa clutched an Italian grammar book and tried out a hesitant “Come stai?” — “How are you?” — on an African refugee in her class.

Essa’s family history is a refugee tale that spans the 20th and 21st centuries. Her grandfather was a Palestinian who fled the new state of Israel in 1948 and settled in Syria.

“The difference is there were two sides in 1948, whereas in Syria you can’t understand how many sides there are,” said Essa, 30.

Essa had escaped some of the initial turmoil of Syria’s civil war. She was living in Montpellier, France, while studying for a master’s in microbiology, before returning to her job in 2013 at Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission.

She then married and had a child, but the war was creeping into her Damascus suburb. “We lived between checkpoints loyal to Assad and the Free Syrian Army and in 2015 we could smell the sulfur from chemical weapon attacks,” she said.


Then her husband’s draft papers arrived. The couple fled, starting a terrifying, 10-day journey across ISIS-held territory in an ambulance and then in a cattle truck.

Stopping in Aleppo, her husband was ordered to fight by ISIS fighters — “real monsters,” said Essa. But a smuggler guided them through minefields toward Turkey, where after waiting out rough seas and numerous tangles with Turkish police, they made it to Lesbos on March 18, packed into a dinghy at night with 50 other refugees.

“We had heard the borders were closing and had to hurry,” she said.

Their rush paid off. The family made it to Lesbos just two days before a March 20 deadline set by the European Union, beyond which new arrivals in Greece were to be sent back to Turkey unless they claimed asylum in Greece.

Crucially, when selecting families to fly to Rome, Sant’Egidio took only those who arrived before the cutoff.

“I was shocked when we were asked if we wanted to go,” Essa said. “We shook the pope’s hand when we were on the plane and he caressed my 2-year-old son’s head.”

Addressing journalists on the flight back to Rome, Francis discussed the 12 Syrians on board, saying, “It will be the duty of the Vatican, in collaboration with the Sant’Egidio Community, to find them work, if possible, or to maintain them. They are guests of the Vatican.”

He added, “I did not make a choice between Christians and Muslims. These three families had their documents in order.” Then, quoting Mother Teresa, he said, “It’s a drop, it’s a drop of water in the sea, but after that drop, the sea will never be the same.”


Landing at 4:30 p.m. in Rome, the Syrians did not leave the airport until nearly four hours later after completing paperwork, the start of a process that should lead to them receiving asylum status in Italy.

Now, Essa is torn between trying to reach France, settling in Italy or one day returning to Syria, from where her mother is sending her WhatsApp messages daily.

What she is sure about is that no Muslim leader has made the gesture the pope did. “Muslim governments should be ashamed,” she said. “Instead of helping refugees, they close borders and stop visas for Syrians. If you want to work in Saudi Arabia, you cannot get a visa now.”

For Al Shakarji and his family, it appears Italy will be their new home. As the light faded in the courtyard outside the Sant’Egidio building, Al Shakarji’s 7-year-old daughter climbed onto his lap to say “ciao,” her first word in Italian.

“I will stay here in Italy and live like an Italian,” said Al Shakarji, adding with a laugh, “I am loving this lasagna.”

But he stopped laughing to add, “What I will not stop thinking about are the thousands of people still surrounded by ISIS in my hometown.”

Kington is a special correspondent.


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