ROME: Italy has welcomed the first group of refugees to arrive in the country since its borders were closed due to the pandemic.
Ten refugees — members of four families — traveled via a humanitarian corridor organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay Catholic group dedicated to social service, together with Greek and Italian authorities.
The refugees, originally from Afghanistan and Syria, arrived from the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, a site originally intended to hold 3,000 refugees but now with more than 19,000 people.
“Moria is known as the hell of Europe,” Razieh Gholami, one of the refugees, told journalists after arriving in Rome four months after Italy closed its borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“The refugees staying in Moria live in difficult, frightening conditions where fundamental rights are ignored and they have no way of returning or moving forward,” she said. “Such a difficult situation has become even harder with the pandemic. People are just stuck there.”
Andrea Riccardi, founder of Sant’Egidio, told Arab News: “The reception of these 10 refugees today is a stimulus. In times of confinement, other EU countries should not forget these forgotten people, who are at the gates of Europe. Lesbos is their symbol.”
The Rome-based charity will help the refugees integrate into Italian society with language programs, as it has done with 57 other exiles who have come to Italy via the same path. The first group arrived in April 2016, traveling on the same plane as Pope Francis when he returned to Rome from a visit to the Lesbos refugee camp.
The humanitarian corridors project offers people who flee from conflict in their countries legal and safe ways to reach Europe. It aims to stop refugees risking their lives at the hands of human traffickers and dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean Sea.
According to figures from the Community of Sant’Egidio, more than 3,000 refugees have arrived in Europe from the Middle East and Africa under the scheme. The NGO claims that all have been relocated and now live normal lives in several Italian cities, mainly in the center and south of the country.
“I have been in a refugee camp in Greece for two years. The situation for those living in Greece is not good,” said Gholami, who arrived in Italy with her children, Eshan Khavari, 4, and Sajad Khavari, 10, and husband Mohammad Khavari.
Gholami, who has been recognized for her artworks inside the refugee camp, presented the Sant’Egidio community with a painting showing Christ sending an angel from heaven to fly to the refugee camp.
“I dedicate this painting to those angels of the Sant’Egidio community who help the desperate like me,” she said.
Some previously relocated refugees in Italy welcomed the new arrivals with a volunteer-made lunch at Sant’Egidio’s headquarters in Trastevere in central Rome.
Among them was Syrian Majid Alshakarji, 19, who escaped the civil war in 2016. He and his family fled from Aleppo to Tunisia, but then returned to Syria and left for Turkey before finally going to Greece.
Alshakarji’s family was one of the three Syrian refugee families who came to Rome with Pope Francis. He has now lived in the capital for four years and is studying to become a dentist.
“We have been allowed to have a new life in a new country — it is a beautiful experience,” he said.