Eight months ago, Pope Francis made the bold, practical gesture of inviting to Rome a dozen Syrian refugees stranded on Lesbos. Here they describe their new, brighter world, to The Tablet.
Ramy beams with pride when talking about his seven-year-old daughter, Quds, who already speaks Italian and is being taught Spanish by religious Sisters. His happiness is justifiable. Only eight months ago, his family faced a very uncertain future as refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, having fled their war-torn homeland of Syria.
For them, everything changed last April when Pope Francis, on a day trip to the refugee camps, took 12 Syrian Muslims back with him to Rome on his papal plane. Ramy Alshakarji, his wife Suhila Ayiad, and their three children, were among them. “When we arrived here in Rome, we were born again. We breathed a sigh of relief,” Ramy tells me.
It was, quite literally, a question of Papal salvation as Ramy had been fleeing the death and destruction of his home city of Deir-ez-Zor. The civil war “destroyed everything,” he says. “We didn’t have anything left, no electricity, no water. We managed to escape by paying people working at the checkpoints.”
The immediate problem was that Ramy and his family escaped into an area controlled by Islamic State (IS). Here they suffered from intense hunger and thirst; Ramy says that when his daughter asked someone from IS for a bottle of water, they refused. Then he pulls out his mobile phone to reveal a picture of his 11-year-old nephew, killed by Syrian army bombs, and says that he was imprisoned and tortured by the regime’s forces for six months.
His new life in Rome, where he and his family live in a residence run by religious Sisters on the outskirts of the city, is a dream by comparison. “Life in Italy is beautiful!” he says with a smile. “La bella vita!” He goes on: “The Pope’s gesture was really amazing, not only because he helped us – because we know that the Pope is a religious man – but because he came and took us without caring whether we are Christians or Muslims, or white or black.”
Ramy believes passionately that Christians and Muslims can live alongside one another, citing an example of it happening during the time of Muhammad. “Our city has Christian origins and we always lived alongside Christians. We know them well and we know they are very generous.
"Daesh (IS) does not have anything to do with religion, it is a political movement with precise objectives that have nothing to do with religion. There are many Muslims and Christians who are saving each other, regardless of religion.”
Ramy, 51, is now in Rome’s Trastevere neighbourhood, at a language and cultural centre run by Sant’Egidio, a peace and humanitarian group which worked to ensure Pope Francis could bring the 12 refugees to Italy.
With its cobbled streets and market stalls, the area does not feel a million miles from home for the new arrivals: In one piazza there is a jewellery store run by a Syrian family. Sant’Egidio is helping the refugees integrate into Italian life, primarily by helping them to learn the Italian language. But the Vatican is paying their living costs as they arrived in the country as guests of the Pope.