As European countries continue to struggle to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East and Africa, two Syrian Christians are worried that now that they’ve made it to Italy, after jumping many hurdles, they will end up having to go back to Syria.
Europe was not even their first choice. Natives of Aleppo, the economic capital of Syria, which is witnessing violent battles between regime and rebel forces and the Islamic State group, these two young men, who wish to remain anonymous in order to protect their families, feel they are on “the brink between life and death.”
Before the civil war broke out in Syria, they lived a peaceful life and made a good living from restaurant and tourism work, they said in a telephone interview. As Christians, they said, they were “brought up on the principles of tolerance and fraternity. They considered themselves peaceful, and rather than joining the battle “decided to escape this miserable reality seeking a secure and stable life.”
They first moved to Lebanon, but the cost of living and the lack of work forced them to seek other opportunities. An Iraqi they met in Lebanon told them about an opportunity in Iraq, so they traveled there.
“We built there a tourist complex with an amusement park, a restaurant, cinema and many activities,” one of the men said. We did our best in making this project bigger and better.”
Their project was in Babil, Iraq, which ISIS was trying desperately to conquer—and almost did. The militant group was a mere 13 miles away from the men’s business.
“We could do nothing but leave everything behind and escape—again.”
At that point the men decided to seek asylum in Europe, and Turkey was their first destination. Earlier this year they found a smuggler who could get them to Greece “since it is the gateway to Europe.”
“We tried several times but failed, as the Turkish police caught us,” one of the men said. But they persisted for about 40 days, sleeping in the forests. Finally, they set sail and reached a Greek island. The boat was about to sink, and its passengers were greeted by military—and arrested. For three days they were jailed on this and another island.
“They didn’t let us leave without taking our fingerprints on the scanner of the EU and gave us a document known as an Expel Paper, which allows illegal immigrants to move around legally in Greece for six months.
They began looking for another smuggler—to get them to Belgium or Germany. They got as far as Italy, entering the country on July 3.
“We encountered a very kind people who are not racists,” one of the men said. “Here is the Vatican City, the symbol of Christianity. So we decided to stay here, hoping to find the life we are searching for.”
Wishing to be self-supporting and independent, the men sought work, rented a house and signed up for lessons in Italian “in order to be able to integrate in the society.” They went to a police station to initiate the asylum process. But the “expel paper” was set to expire on Oct. 27, so they had no permission to work.
With hardly enough money to live on, they could not send funds to support their families in Lebanon, so their family had to return to Syria.
In Italy, Caritas said they could give them a room, but only for one week.
Said one, “My wife and kids are waiting for me to get a house so I can bring them here and get them out of the hell they are living in now.”
“The situation in Aleppo is dire,” said Lawren Sinnema, an emergency response project management officer for World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization that works in Syria. “It’s been increasingly bombed in the past month or so. The people who remain there, many of them are fleeing to areas closer to the Turkish border. Civilians are getting caught in the middle. We’re seeing increased civilian deaths from indiscriminate bombing. They need very basic humanitarian items, which we’re working on providing.”
World Vision also works in surrounding countries that are taking in refugees, as well as Serbia, where many of the refugees are entering Europe. The two Syrian Christians holding out in Italy face a situation that many others face and which, NGOs say, can be helped if Europe comes up with a unified response.
“There are discussions within the EU on how to handle the refugee crisis. The challenge is that every country has differing policies and different attitudes towards the refugee crisis and there’s not a unified approach,” Sinnema said. “So it’s taking very long for refugees to be processed and to find a place in a country. So they’re often stuck in transit points. The lack of a unified approach is really causing delays and causing hardships for refugees trying to reach other countries.”
Oscar Spooner, a spokesman for Jesuit Refugee Service in Brussels, said his organization is “strongly in favor of safe and legal ways for people to reach safety.”
“That could include a number of legal instruments,” he said. “We’re strongly advocating for humanitarian visas. Together with human rights NGOs, we’re advocating with European institutions to codify the humanitarian visa at the European level. That would take a lot of business away from smugglers and allow people to travel safely, rather than rely on rubber dinghies or go through the desert.”
Wael Salibiis a correspondent for Aleteia’s Arabic edition. John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.