by Elise Harris
Since 2015, when the refugee crisis reached a fever pitch in Europe, five Syrian families fleeing civil war have found refuge in Italy with the help of the Vatican. As of Thursday, nine more people have been added to that list.
“Following the visit of the Holy Father to the Island of Lesbos, in Greece, when he accompanied three families of refugees back to Rome, a second group of nine refugees, including two Christians, arrived in Rome yesterday,” a June 17 communique from the Vatican announced.
The refugees, consisting of six adults and three children, arrived to Rome Thursday. They are all Syrian citizens who had been living in the Kara Tepe camp on Lesbos after making the perilous boat ride from Turkey to the small Greek island.
According to the Vatican communique, the Vatican Police force, called the “Gendarmeria,” alongside the Interior Ministry of Greece, the Greek Asylum Service, and the Community of Sant’Egidio, who will provide for their housing, all played a role in getting the families to Rome, and accompanied them from Athens to the Eternal City.
Pope Francis, true to his knack for making headlines, surprised the world when he brought 12 Syrian refugees on his return flight from Lesbos, a primary entry point for refugees seeking passage into Europe, after making an April 16 day-trip to the small Greek island.
Hailing from war-torn Syria, each of the families were Muslim and number 12 people in total, including six children. Two of them are from Damascus, while third 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 had all been staying in the same open camp, Kara Tepe, as the latest round of arrivals. They had been selected through a drawing, which they were eligible for as a result of having all their documents in order.
Pope Francis had traveled to the island 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.
On Sept. 6, 2015, Pope Francis made an appeal for all European parishes, religious communities, monasteries and shrines to house one refugee family. At the time, the Pope said the two Vatican parishes – St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Anne’s parish – would also be hosting one family each.
A Jan. 14 communique from the Vatican announced that St. Peter’s Basilica provided an apartment for an Eritrean family, consisting of a mother and her five children.
The family hosted by St. Anne’s parish is a Christian Syrian family, consisting of the parents and two children. They fled from the Syrian capital of Damascus, and are now living in a Vatican-owned apartment just outside the Vatican walls. They arrived in Italy the same day Pope Francis made his appeal.
The Sant’Egidio Community had also assisted the Vatican in welcoming both of these families alongside the Papal Almoner, Bishop Konrad Krajewski.