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Catholic-Protestant Initiative Brings Refugees To Italy On Humanitarian Visas


Catholic and Protestant associations in Italy have launched a pilot project to provide a legal path for refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe. The goal is to eliminate the treacherous sea crossings and to undermine human trafficking. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome on the arrival of the first of the refugees covered by this program.


SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The al-Harouni family is welcomed at the Rome airport. There's 6-year-old Hussein, his father Suleiman and 7-year-old Falak next to her mother, Yasmine who, in broken English and Italian, voices the family's joy.

YASMINE AL-HAROUNI: The trip on airplane - yes, it was good.

POGGIOLI: She says the flight was good and they're happy to be in Rome for Falak, who suffers from a rare tumor in her retina. She'll be given urgent chemotherapy treatment at a Vatican-owned hospital. The family fled Syria two years ago as their home in Homs was being shelled. They've been living since in a refugee camp in Lebanon.

In December, the Rome government approved the humanitarian corridor project which is being sponsored by the Catholic Sant'Egidio and the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy. The two nonprofit associations are footing the entire bill - an estimated $1.42 million to process the refugees' visas, cover their travel, resettlement and legal aid expenses here in Italy. Sant'Egidio has been involved in conflict resolution and assisting immigrants for decades. Its president, Marco Impagliazzo, says the plan for this year is to bring 1,000 refugees from Lebanon and Morocco to Italy. He says these refugees will be spared.


MARCO IMPAGLIAZZO: The so-called journey of death in the waters of the Mediterranean - furthermore, security is clearly greater given the possibility of carrying out all necessary checks before they enter Italy.

POGGIOLI: Once potential refugees are identified, security checks are carried out on the ground by the local Italian consulate. After they've been screened, finger printed and approved, Italian authorities issue a territorial visa, meaning limited to Italy. Mauro Garofalo, the head of international relations for Sant'Egidio, says not just any refugees will be chosen.

MAURO GAROFALO: The first step is to identify the vulnerable categories - mother alone with children, elderly, sick persons, those who were eligible to receive a visa - humanitarian visa.

POGGIOLI: Last year, Italy received close to 154,000 migrants and nearly 6,000 in just the first six weeks this year. Overall, Europe's reaction to the migrant crisis has been contradictory, acrimonious and even violent, with several countries raising their drawbridges against the rising refugee tide. Garofalo says the Catholic-Protestant project providing legal channels for asylum-seekers will be presented at the next EU interior ministers meeting as a model for the rest of the European Union.

GAROFALO: Italy has launched this initiative with an ecumenical joint team. You can do this as well in other countries, and it will cost nothing to your governments.

POGGIOLI: The United Nations' Refugee Agency has welcomed the ecumenical refugee initiative.

CARLOTTA SAMI: This is the most controlled, filtered, well-managed program that you have.

POGGIOLI: Carlotta Sami is UNHCR spokeswoman in Italy. These refugees may be the most vulnerable, but she says they're also the strongest.

SAMI: Because there are those that are more resilient and those that want to contribute to the society that will give them this possibility. They will be forever-and-ever thankful to the society.

POGGIOLI: On the al-Hourani family's arrival in Rome, mother Yasmine showed she's not just been studying the Italian language.

AL-HAROUNI: (Singing in Italian).

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.