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. 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.
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. 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.
Another of the Syrians brought to Rome with Francis is Nour Essa. 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. 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.
“I was shocked when we were asked if we wanted to go,” Essa said. 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.”