From Homs, Syria, to Tripoli, Lebanon, the distance is at most 90 km. You travel west toward the seaside city of Tartus, where the Russians have a naval base, then head south to the Lebanese border, crossing fields planted with potatoes and vegetables and the endless string of greenhouses in which migrants work.
Five years ago, before the Syrian War broke out, you could cover the entire route in a couple of hours, including time lost crossing the border. In April 2013, when Abdul followed that road with his wife, Souzan, crammed into the cab of a gasoline tanker along with seven other Syrians and the driver, the route took 12 hours. He left behind a Homs torn by fighting, along with his job as a clerk in a textile company and the hope of ever continuing to live there.
“We didn’t understand who was shooting at us, whether it was Daesh or the Syrian Army,” says Abdul of his last weeks in the city. “We spent 15 days without food and with little water. Then there was a 24-hour ceasefire, and we had to decide quickly what to do, whether to stay or go, and we left.” Abdul sits with Souzan on an old couch in a house on the outskirts of Tripoli that they rented together with three other Syrian refugee families.
Life has certainly not been kind to this pair of young refugees. Before the war with all its horrors and violence, their two children, Ayham, 2, and Fatima, 1, were born with Dandy-Walker syndrome, a neurological disease that causes blindness, deafness and significant motor difficulties. Lebanon’s health system has done little for them but charge sky-high fees that Abdul paid only with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But now, the lottery of life seems to have finally remembered them.
Abdul and his family are among 101 refugees who arrived today at Fiumicino Airport through the second humanitarian corridor organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio, the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy (FCEI) and the Tavola Valdese. These are only a handful of households, selected from the sea of more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees (this is the official number, but some estimates say there are at least 1.5 million) who have been hosted for years in Lebanon. Abdul and Souzan are welcomed into a structure of the Waldensian Church in Turin, where there is a specialized center for Dandy-Walker syndrome. The hope is that their children will improve thanks to the care.
Humanitarian corridors are a concrete response from civil society to the hypocrisy of the European Union. The E.U.’s March 18 agreement with Turkey to prevent people smugglers only serves to prevent new arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers. The humanitarian project — funded mainly with the Waldensian Church’s share of Italian tax revenue and donations — costs €2 million and provides for the transfer to Italy of 1,000 refugees in two years.
“We take into account vulnerable subjects, like families with young children, single women, elderly and sick people,” says Francesco Piobbico of Mediterranean Hope, an FCEI initiative that participates in the implementation effort. “With the €6 billion that the E.U. has given to Turkey, there could be three projects in Europe helping a million refugees, all identified, registered and ready to be integrated into our societies.”
Technically humanitarian corridors are made possible by an opportunity offered by the 2009 code on European visas. Article 25 allows states to grant exceptional temporary visas for humanitarian reasons. The three religious communities decided to exploit that open window after a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa on Oct. 3, 2013, that killed 366 migrants. After negotiations with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Feb. 23, the first group of 93 refugees were brought to Italy, where they were resettled in five regions.
Back in Lebanon, the Tal Abbas settlement, a few kilometers from the Syrian border, consists of two rows of barracks lining a narrow road covered with stones that serve to drain the rain. Fifty Syrian families have rented the land from a Saudi owner with their small earnings working in the fields. The little houses, a little over six feet high, are attached to each other, with corrugated roofs, carpets and tablecloths on the walls and on the floor for insulation. As summer comes on, the heat will become problematic. Each month, UNHCR gives each refugee a card with $30 to buy water and food, plus $100 in each of the four winter months to buy diesel to fuel the stoves. Although they may seem absurd in this situation, each cabin has a satellite dish on the roof; for many it is perhaps their only remaining contact with Syria. Outside, sheep and cows share the fields with children.
Despite her best efforts, Gharade can’t hold back her joy. For two years she has lived here with her husband and their four children: Mater, 11; Ahmed, 9; Manahel, 8; and Raghad, 3. But now it’s over. In a few hours they, too, will leave for Rome. For Gharade, as it is for all the families involved in the humanitarian corridor, being selected was like being born again — almost literally. Because those with serious health problems are prioritized, the chance to live in Italy means deliverance. In Gharade’s family’s case, Raghad is thalassemic, requiring her to have a blood transfusion at least once a month. In the camp that’s a challenge. But in Italy, she can manage the condition.
“The work we are doing shows that humanitarian corridors are possible. It is not necessary for people who are entitled to political asylum to risk their lives in the hands of criminal organizations to get to Europe,” explains Maria Quinto, project manager for the Community of Sant’Egidio. “The corridors can also be a chance for Europe to halt its decline. It is clear that those who enter may change your way of life a little, but we are talking about people willing to integrate into a country where they can finally live free.”
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