Hassan Zahida and his wife Nour appear dazed and almost unbelieving they are finally safe. Their two-year-old little boy is happily making mud-cakes and playing with pebbles – just like any other child in the world.
They are one of the three families who boarded the plane in Greece with Pope Francis on Saturday at the end of his visit to Lesbos.
Here in Rome they are hosted by the Saint Egidio Community that obtained “humanitarian visas” to allow them to make the journey and that is taking care of logistics and helping them find their feet as their requests for asylum are being processed.
Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni met them at Saint Egidio premises and asked them to share their feelings as they prepare to hopefully set the foundations for a life of “normality”.
Gratitude and appreciation for the gesture and for the stance of Pope Francis – not only for himself but for all refugees – were the first words Hassan expressed followed by a message of encouragement and hope for those who are currently on the move or on the borders and struggling to find protection.
He also tells of how he was certainly not expecting to be boarding the papal plane on Saturday afternoon…
Hassan explains that just a couple of days before leaving Lesbos he had been shopping in the city center when the director of the Kara Tepe refugee camp announced that three families present there would be flown to Italy. He didn’t tell us “about the kind of flight or with whom. He didn’t tell us that it was going to be a special flight with the Pope…”
He says he only began to understand what all this meant for his family after having spoken to a Saint Egidio person who arranged their visas and took care of details.
Hassan said the Pope met the families at the airport and asked about their stories and situations: “we said to them how much we appreciate the efforts he is making for all refugees – for those detained in the Kara Tepe Camp and in the Morìa Camp and for those on the border between Macedonia and Greece”.
He says that his message to those who are still trying to enter Europe is to keep hope alive and wait for a new EU policy which will allow them to move on. He says he is sure things will develop following the Pope’s visit to Lesbos.
“We will not forget you and we will do all we can to permit you to come (…) to a safe European country” he says.
Hassan says his dream is that his claim for asylum will be accepted here in Italy and that he will be able to build a “new safe life here” especially for his child and for his wife.
He says that when they fled the violence in Syria they were hoping to find protection in whatever country would accept them.
Hassan tells the story of his dramatic four-month journey that took him and his family from their home town of Damascus where he had been conscripted by the army, to Aleppo where Islamic State militants tried to get them to join the Jihad. He says that aided by human smugglers they managed to reach Turkey where they spent three months and had to pay smugglers, again and again as they “waited for the right moment to cross the water”.
Hassan was lucky to have had the opportunity to be registered in Greece before the current deal between the EU and Turkey came into effect, allowing for him to be considered a candidate for a humanitarian visa to Italy.
Another condition that played into the hands of the Saint Egidio Community that arranged the “welcome” are his “vulnerability” as family. Individuals have less chance of being granted asylum status.
Speaking in French, Hassan’s wife Nour has powerful words of gratitude for Pope Francis:
“I want to thank the Pope for his gesture. No religious Muslim leader and no Arab President – and I have said this many times – has done anything like this. One hears that we share the same things – the same language, the same faith- but not a single religious leader or Arab President seems to have felt our pain. Only the Pope. The Pope prayed for us, he felt our suffering, he decided to go to Lesbos to see what is really happening. So I want to say: ‘Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for having saved us” she says.
Nour says it is her hope that this gesture can influence others and touch all; that it may help change political positions so that the borders are opened for all refugees:
“There are so many difficult situations in the camps; there are so many people in need of help. And they are all ‘normal’ people who have had to abandon everything because of the war… all we want is to live in a place where there is freedom, respect for all people, respect for all religions” she says.
Source: Radio Vatican