The odyssey that ended with a Muslim family in Rome as papal guests

An odyssey fraught with danger and the fear of the unknown has ended with plates of lasagna and strolls in the spring sunshine

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They left war-ravaged Syria, family and friends behind them. France was where they were aiming for. A Greek island was where they ended up.

Now, five months after fleeing their home in the suburbs of Damascus, young Syrian couple Hassan and Nour and their two-year-old son Riad find themselves in Rome as guests of Pope Francis, who plucked them and two other Muslim families from Lesbos on Saturday.

An odyssey fraught with danger and the fear of the unknown has ended with plates of lasagna and strolls in the spring sunshine of the Eternal City.

Nour, 30, clutches little Riad’s hand as she explains why they had no option but to get out of a Syria on its knees after five years of civil war.

“We were neither for the Syrian regime nor for the extremists,” the scientist said. “We had to leave the country because my husband had been conscripted to join the army.”

As Nour had studied in France and speaks the language, which was where they decided to head for.

But first they had to get out of Syria and into Turkey, a challenge that involved the ordeal of being detained for a week by ISIS in the region of its stronghold Raqqa.

Capture could mean death

At a time when Syrian and Russian warplanes were intensifying air strikes on the region, it was a terrifying experience. But they escaped from it thanks to a trafficker skilled at smuggling people over the border.

“Between Turkey and Greece, if you are caught it is not serious, you are likely to only be in prison for a few hours. If you get caught in Syria, you can get killed,” said Nour.

Hassan, 31, recalled being swindled in a Turkish port by a less helpful smuggler who tried to convince him to join more than 60 people on board a rubber dinghy made for 40 in rough weather.

“I refused,” said Hassan.

Eventually, the family found their way across the narrow strait of the Aegean Sea that separates Turkey from Lesbos, only to find themselves bogged down in the interminable bureaucracy associated with trying to enter the European Union via its southeastern tip.

Having arrived before the entry into force in March of an EU deal allowing migrants arriving clandestinely to be sent back to Turkey, they were not in danger of deportation.

But with their hopes of a new life in limbo, the Greek island was no less a prison to them for that - until representatives of the Catholic Sant-Egidio community began to raise the possibility of a transfer to Italy, without ever mentioning the pope or his plane.

“Even now I do not believe what happened to us, it is like a beautiful dream,” said Nour.

Once on the plane, Francis came to greet them. “He ruffled our little boy’s head. Now Riad kisses his picture.”

An uncertain future

Installed in temporary accommodation in the Trastevere district of Rome while the Vatican prepares longer-term housing for the families, Hassan says the relief of reaching safety cannot remove the pain of being so far from loved ones.

“The pope is an amazing person. We hope every religious person should be like the pope,” he said.

“You can find a new place but you cannot find a new family.”

The couple also feel a longing for a time when Syria was not a place of war, when people of different religions and cultures were able to co-exist peacefully.

And they see the pope’s gesture as all the more symbolic because of how it highlighted the failure of the Muslim world to come to the aid of the Syrian people in their hour of need.

“No Muslim cleric, no president felt our suffering,” Nour said.

“None of them have done what the pope has done. And yet they have the means, the money. I am thinking of the Gulf states. They have everything to take in Syrian refugees but they have not done it.”

Having already taken their first language lessons in their new home, the family now face another odyssey of sorts: dealing with Italy’s notorious bureaucracy over their application for asylum.

Who knows what the future holds for them but Nour is clear about one thing: “I want my son to have the kind of life I had before the war.”