For the hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants who have made landfall on this verdant jewel in the Aegean Sea over the past year, there had been only two ways off the island: a ferry bound for a new life deeper in Europe or a deportation order that led straight back across the sea.
But that was before Saturday, when Pope Francis whisked in and pioneered a third: a ride with him on a jet bound for Rome.
The Pope’s visit to the Greek island of Lesbos had already been emotional, provocative and deeply symbolic before he gave it a dramatic and unexpected twist in its closing minutes on Saturday.
But when he boarded his Alitalia return flight along with 12 Syrians — including six children — who had lost their houses to bombs, the gesture offered the most vivid illustration yet in the pope’s quest to prick Europe’s conscience over its treatment of refugees.
“May all of our brothers and sisters on this continent, like the good Samaritan, come to your aid in the spirit of fraternity, solidarity and respect for human dignity,” Francis told a group of hundreds of asylum seekers during a visit to the island’s migrant detention facility.
Hours later, in a life-changing moment for a dozen among the tens of thousands of migrants stranded in Greece by Europe’s closed borders, he acted out his counsel that refugees be embraced, not shunned.
The plan to bring three refugee families to the Vatican, the pope told journalists during his flight back from Lesbos, was a “last-minute” inspiration that came together last week. Although all three families were Muslim, he said, they had not been selected based on faith but based on their eligibility.
As late as Friday night, officials in Lesbos had still been sorting out who would accompany the pope, and even turned to chance — selecting names from a box — to narrow the field.
“We wanted to be fair to everyone,” said Stavros Mirogiannis, director at the Kara Tepe camp where the 12 Syrians had lived until they relocated to Vatican City. “They won the lottery. Today is the best day of their lives.”
Francis said that once they arrive and settle in, they will be given assistance to find work. (Washington Post)