Can Pope Francis keep the door open for refugees?
Nour Essa landed on Lesbos in a refugee boat and left on the jumbo jet of a Pope.
One minute, this microbiologist was holding her toddler amid squalor in one of the most miserable refugee camps in Europe.
The next minute, she was eating off Vatican china on a flight to freedom and a new life in Rome.
The miraculous twist of fate for one Syrian family is a rare glimpse of hope in seven years of civil war, the brutal rise of ISIS and millions of resulting refugees.
But as she learns to love pasta and speak Italian, Essa is also a political symbol, created by the Vatican and one of the most liberal and globally engaged Holy Fathers in generations.
‘The globalization of indifference’
The Syrian war was just 2 years old when Pope Francis took power. Europe was feeling the crush of asylum seekers from Syria and North African migrants, an influx that reshaped communities from Spain to Sweden, spreading a fever of anti-immigrant rage in its wake.
While he was elected in large part to tackle internal Vatican scandals, Francis used his first official trip outside Rome to hold a Mass for the desperate and displaced, and to take a stand on the issue tearing Europe apart.
Off the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, he laid a wreath atop the watery graveyard where hundreds have drowned trying to cross from North Africa.
From an altar built from the remnants of refugee boats, Francis railed against “the globalization of indifference.”
While the message sent shock waves through EU capitals, anti-immigrant sentiments only intensified in the first few years of his papacy. By late 2015, when Donald Trump suggested a Muslim travel ban and then began winning primaries in early 2016 with promises of a border wall, the Pope decided to make a grand statement.
With the help of a group called the Community of Sant’Egidio, he would fly the papal plane to Lesbos, Greece, bless a camp packed with refugees and bring a dozen back to Rome.
As the plan was hatched and Greek officials were sworn to secrecy, Essa and her family were among the thousands crammed into tented camps built to hold hundreds.
Their home outside Damascus had been bombed to rubble, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were trying to force her husband, Hasan, to join the war.
“We did not want to participate in the killing of our brothers,” Essa explains.
So they gambled their savings on one human trafficker after another, crossing Turkey and voyaging to Lesbos, only to discover that they’d traded one hell for another. The Greek government had just announced a plan to send most refugees back to Turkey and their escape funds were nearly gone. But just as despair was taking hold, Daniela Pompei of the Community of Sant’Egidio walked over and asked the question that would change their lives.
“Would you like to leave this place for Italy tomorrow?” she asked them. “You would be on the same plane as the Pope. You have to decide right now.”
“It was fantastic,” Essa says, recalling that miracle flight with her family and nine other Muslim refugees. “[Pope Francis] is a real human being. An example to leaders of all religions.”
Welcome the stranger? Not everyone agrees
But while his message to welcome strangers with Christ-like grace plays well to the faithful at St. Peter’s, it’s antithetical to the views of Europe’s increasingly powerful right-wing leaders. Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right League party, made huge gains in the March 4 election with calls to round up and deport migrants and segregate public transportation.
“Italians are very welcoming people, but they have taken the brunt of the immigration — especially from North Africa — in the last few years,” says Thomas D. Williams, a former priest and Rome bureau chief for the right-wing website Breitbart. “They do listen to the Pope when he says you should be Christian and welcome the stranger. But they also see a situation where you reach a critical mass and you say, ‘We don’t know how much more of this we can do.'”
In the United States, Pope Francis’ example has mobilized some American Catholics to push back against the Trump agenda on the Mexican border.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, says she sees between 50-100 people cross the Texas border in either direction every day. She says they’re not “rapists,” as President Trump described when announcing his candidacy, but families with few good choices, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement squads ramp up raids and deportations.
“Respecting life comes in how we treat immigrants and how we respect the integrity of the family,” she says standing in St. Peter’s Square after a blessing by Pope Francis. “So when you want to separate a family — a mother from their kids — it doesn’t make sense. We feel encouraged that we’re doing the right thing, and that [the Pope’s] message is a sense of strength for us.”
Back at the Community of Sant’Egidio language school, Essa hugs Pompei, the woman who helped save her from the camp on Lesbos. Her Italian is impressive, she has a job in a hospital now and her little boy is in school.
“Italians have been taught to fear the immigrant,” Pompei says with an arm around Essa. “But Pope John Paul II said in his first address ‘Be not afraid.’ Pope Francis is helping us live this truth every day.”