ROME – A 7-year-old Syrian girl suffering from a rare form of eye cancer arrived in Italy on Thursday, the first of an estimated 1,000 refugees who are being brought here on humanitarian grounds in a pilot project aimed at dissuading people from embarking on deadly sea crossings.
Little Falak al Hourani, her parents and 6-year-old brother, Hussein, landed on a commercial flight at Rome’s Leonardo Da Vinci airport thanks to the “humanitarian corridor” project launched by the Rome-based Catholic Sant’Egidio Community and the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy.
The two groups lobbied the Italian government to grant 1,000 humanitarian visas for particularly vulnerable refugees in camps in Lebanon, Morocco and Ethiopia. They put up the estimated €1.3 million ($1.4 million) to process their visas, transport them to Italy and get them resettled here while their asylum applications are processed.
The al Hourani family fled their home in Homs, Syria, nearly three years ago and settled in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon. Falak suffers from retinoblastoma, a rare tumor affecting the retina, and had one eye removed at the American hospital in Beirut. Now she needs chemotherapy, Sant’Egidio officials said.
As little Hussein hid behind his teddy bear, Falak stood quietly and smiled as her mother, Jasmine, tried out the few words in Italian that she has learned, counting to four and singing a song. The family applied for asylum as soon as they landed.
On the eve of their departure, the mother said she was grateful for the chance to get her daughter the treatment she needs.
“There is a possibility that the swelling may return to the other eye, and if it does they would need also to take it out,” she told The Associated Press at their temporary home in Tripoli. “Here there is no treatment for the eye veins.”
Falak is expected to be treated at the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome.
“I am very, very happy, very happy that we are going to Italy,” her mother said. “And I thank them a lot for helping us and hope they will continue the treatment for her there.”
The U.N. refugee agency has welcomed the ecumenical airlift initiative, one of many types of private sponsorships that are enabling particularly vulnerable or needy refugees to reach safety and start new lives in third countries. The U.N. has long called for European countries, in particular, to facilitate legal immigration channels to discourage would-be refugees from turning to smugglers to get them to Europe.
So far, organizers of the humanitarian corridor project say they have some 84 candidates to be airlifted out of Lebanon. While the organizers of the initiative are Christian, the candidates for transfer include both Christians and Muslims, officials said.
The head of Sant’Egidio, Marco Impagliazzo, said last month that he hopes the initiative will expand not only in Italy but elsewhere in Europe. He noted that many refugees today could fall under the “vulnerable” category that humanitarian visas are meant to address.
Once in Italy, the refugees will be provided with housing, health care, educational and vocational services.
“So happy because we come to Italy, from Syria . . . by humanitarian corridor, direct to Rome!” said Falak’s mother, Yasmine al Hourani, in halting English at Rome’s Fiumicino airport.
Falak, one eye covered with a patch, stood shyly beside her brother, 6-year-old Hussein, who clutched a toy rabbit as their mother described the relief at finally making it out of the garage they had been living in in Tripoli, northern Lebanon.
The family, including electrician father Suleyman, fled Syria two years ago as shells fell on their home city of Homs. But they had resisted the idea of a boat crossing, with over 60 children drowning in the Mediterranean so far this year.
They were picked to be the first to be flown out of Lebanon to Italy as part of a new project co-organized by the Sant’Egidio Catholic community, the Federation of Evangelical Churches and the Valdese Evangelical Church.
“The little girl is seven years old, she has eye cancer and needs urgent care if she’s not to lose the other eye too,” Daniela Pompei, head of immigration for the Sant’Egidio Catholic community, told AFP.
She said the “experimental humanitarian corridor,” based on a sponsorship system, could be extended to the rest of Europe if successful. It will be presented to European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos next month.
“It’s something not only Italy but Europe really needs at the moment, to bring refugees here safely and also guarantee the safety of host countries,” she said, referring to fears Islamist jihadis could be among the refugees journeying to Europe via boat.
The costs — of hospitality, legal aid and Italian lessons for example — will be covered by the nonprofit organizations behind the project, drawing mainly on religious donations, while families will be housed initially with volunteers.
“Taking people out of the hands of (human) traffickers is a success in our opinion. Let’s hope it works well. The next group should be flown in in a few days time and then the program will slowly pick up speed,” Pompei said.
The al Hourani family flew in on humanitarian visas to the Italian capital, where they immediately filed a request for asylum. Their fingerprints were taken before they were allowed to cross into Italy.
Yasmine al Hourani was so excited to have arrived in the Eternal city she broke into song in Italian, showing off the vocabulary she had learned while waiting for her new life to start.
The program is aimed at the most vulnerable members of asylum-seeking groups — from single mothers to pregnant women, handicapped people and sick children — and should see 1,000 people of various nationalities brought to safety in Italy over the next two years, Sant’Egidio said.
Two offices, in Beirut and Tangier in Morocco, were opened before Christmas to begin selecting candidates, with some 80 families already waiting in the Lebanese capital for passage to Italy.
There are plans for a third office to be opened in Ethiopia in six months if the program is successful.
The United Nations Children’s Fund warned Tuesday that over a third of migrants crossing the Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece are children, with at least 60 youngsters dying during the crossing since the beginning of January.