LESBOS, Greece—If he could have, Pope Francis would have surely packed all 4,000 or so refugees of various nationalities stuck on the Greek island of Lesbos into the back of the papal plane when he flew home to Rome on Saturday. As it happened, he could only take 12, including six minors ranging in age from two to 17, who were chosen by a draw and given special clearance for relocation to Italy.
The refugees won’t live inside the Vatican walls. Instead the Rome-based community of Sant’Egidio will see to their housing in Rome and the Vatican will pay for it and help them find jobs, Francis said on the papal plane back to Rome, just as they already do with two other Syrian families they sponsor in Rome.
Quoting Mother Teresa, who he will be canonizing into sainthood in September, Francis told reporters on his plane the decision to bring back refugees was “nothing but a drop of water in the ocean, but without that drop it wouldn’t be the same sea,” he said. “I answer like this, it’s a small gesture, but a small gesture every man, every woman should do to help those in need.”
Now the question is whether or not anyone else will follow suit. The Syrian refugee crisis is not going away any time soon. As many as 2 million Syrian refugees are trapped in Turkey according to the European Commission. The fact that human traffickers taking people from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos have largely been put out of business thanks to a contentious accord between the European Union and Turkey only means they will have to find another way to relative safety.
Under the EU-Turkey agreement, referred to as “one out, one in,” refugees arriving “illegally” on the island after March 20 are subject to deportation back to Turkey. In exchange for every refugee deported, no matter where they might be from, vetted Syrian refugees stuck in Turkish camps will be flown to European countries for official relocation. There is no word whether or not the pope’s 12 Syrians will factor into the formula or if it will be seen as a sort of aside. Either way, there were plenty of protesters in Lesbos during his visit trying to get his attention with banners and chants like, “E.U., Shame on you.”
During his brief time on the island, he visited the infamous Moria detention camp, surrounded by razor wire where refugees told The Daily Beast that ahead of the papal visit the camp had been tidied up. The bathrooms had been cleaned and the sewers that are normally overflowing drained. They also said they had been given showers and clean clothes for the first time in weeks. “I wish the pope would have stayed” an Afghanistan woman told The Daily Beast through the razor wire fences. “This is the best we have ever been treated.”
The pope, who visited the island with Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians and Greek Archbishop Ieronymos, was clearly moved when he visited the camp. "I want to tell you, you are not alone," he said. "As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf. Do not lose hope.”
As he met a line of refugees, a young Christian woman wearing a large crucifix made her way through the barrier and threw herself at Francis’s feet wailing, “No camp, no camp,” she said. “I want to go…”
Several other refugees broke down, crying uncontrollably as Francis tried to comfort them. Many refugees handed Francis and his handlers pieces of paper. The scene was like none other the pope has encountered on an apostolic visit and he was clearly moved.
Before Francis set foot in Lesbos, the Vatican said that the trip was strictly “humanitarian” not “political.” But the unprecedented gesture of actually taking refugees off the island, essentially leading by example, came as a shock to many. The pope announced his quick trip to the island just a week ago, as deportations of refugees back to Turkey were underway, but it is not clear how long the negotiations were in place. He told reporters on his plane that the idea was suggested to him by an unnamed collaborator with whom he immediately agreed.
As the plane returned to Rome, the Vatican press office sent out a prepared statement. “These are all people who were already in camps in Lesbos before the agreement between the European Union and Turkey,” they said, no doubt to stem concern among aid workers on Lesbos that cutting corners or essentially allowing refugees to “jump the line” would only cause tension among those who may be stuck in purgatory for six or seven months while their cases are heard.
“The Pope’s imitative was brought to fruition through negotiations carried out by the Secretariat of State with the competent Greek and Italian authorities.”
Two of the families are from Damascus, and one from Deir Azzor, now an ISIS stronghold. All of their houses were destroyed, the pope said after he spent the first part of the journey sitting with them on the flight, according to those on the plane.
Francis has embraced the refugee crisis since his first day on the job. His very first papal trip was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, which has, until Lesbos, been the symbolic gateway to Europe for refugees and migrants and where, like he did in Lesbos, he held a memorial ceremony for those who had died trying to make the journey.
During the flight back to Rome, he showed reporters the many drawings children now housed in despicable conditions made for him. Some showed people drowning at sea. One showed the sun crying. “Children have these things in their minds and it will take time before these memories go away,” he said, according to press reports from the plane. “If the sun is able to cry, so can we. A tear will do us good.”