FIUMICINO, Italy — It is just before 11 o’clock on Monday morning at Rome’s Fiumicino airport and Nour Essa is waiting anxiously in the arrivals hall of Terminal Two for a very special flight from Beirut, Lebanon.
The 30-year-old Syrian refugee knows that in a few minutes, 41 other refugees like her will be crossing the threshold, essentially moving from a state of fear and uncertainty to one of hope thanks to Italy’s “Humanitarian Corridors” safe passage program.
Like her, the refugees on the other side of the opaque doors have been hand-picked from refugee camps, vetted and invited to be resettled in Italy. And, as it was with her, they have no idea just what to expect on arrival.
Essa, 30, shared the same sad journey from Syria to Europe as those coming today, even though the last part of her path from to Italy from Lesbos, Greece, last April was the result of very special dispensation: She and her husband and young son were among 12 refugees Pope Francis brought home to Rome with him from an apostolic voyage to the island.
At the time, she told The Daily Beast that she was scared and nervous and didn’t know what to expect. She and her family had been given less than a day to decide whether to go with the pope or wait and try to get to northern Europe to join other Syrians from their village outside of Damascus as they had planned. “I hope we are doing the right thing,” she said at the time.
Now, she knows she and her family made the best decision. That’s why she is at the airport to offer the newcomers comfort and hope.
Essa, who trained as a microbiologist in Syria, will start a new job as a biologist with the Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital in Rome next month. She and her family have learned Italian and have moved into their own apartment after living in a shelter provided by the Sant’Egidio Catholic Community, which is sponsoring today’s arrival along with the Federation of Protestant Churches, the Waldensian and Methodist Churches in Italy.
When asked what she thought of Donald Trump’s travel ban that would stop people like her from reaching safety, she was diplomatic. “Of course we appreciate all that Europe has done to accept Syrian refugees,” she said. “It is hard to understand a country that closes its doors, but we will just be appreciative for those who keep them open.”
Most of Monday’s arrivals were from Aleppo and Homs. The youngest was a baby born on December 12. Most were broken families like that of Kiamam Habat, a young mother with four children, age 13, 12, eight and 18 months in tow. Her husband died before her youngest son was born in a refugee camp along the Syrian border with Lebanon. She had no financial or other means to get to Europe on smugglers’ ships with her children. And she had no home to return to in Syria. “It has been very difficult even though we have been helped so much,” she told The Daily Beast through a translator at the airport.
Habat’s eyes, red from exhaustion and emotion, seemed unable to hide the horror she has seen. As she spoke of hope, her children sat quietly around her, the older ones each holding small bouquets of flowers and notes of thanks they planned to give to the caretakers where they will be spending their first night in Italy.
They will be moved to Palermo, Sicily, where they will live in a group home with other widowed Syrian families. “I hope they can return to Syria one day in the future,” Habat says, holding back tears as she looks at her children. “But for now they need to go to school and be normal. And we all need to heal.”
The Sant’Egidio Community, working together with Italy’s foreign and interior ministries, has resettled 540 refugees from camps in Lebanon under Europe’s first-ever safe passage program. Italy could easily get by without hosting a safe corridor resettlement program considering how many hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants land on its shores each year illegally.
But representatives from Sant’Egidio and the other churches, along with other NGOs working in the camps, pinpoint the most vulnerable. Then they are vetted and given humanitarian visas that last three months. Their only requirement is that the refugees must apply for political asylum in Italy and not try to move to another country. All 41 of the arrivals on Monday filled out the paperwork shortly after they landed.
“I am here for the children,” says Habat, the mother of four. “If not for them, I would have given up a long time ago. But it’s not their fault they are children of war. What have they done wrong? What have they done to deserve this?”