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Italian Hipsters Help Resettle Syrian Family In A Remote Village

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's getting harder for refugees to get to Europe. But as the doors close, there are still a few windows open. A group of Italian students found one of those openings after they went to live with Syrian refugees in London. They were able to stop one family from making the dangerous crossing to Europe by sea and help get them to Italy another way. Christopher Livesay has the story.

ABURABIA SATTOUF: (Foreign language spoken).

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: You've probably never seen anyone so happy to take out the garbage. It's cold and raining in the hamlet of San Niccolo. Just up this ridge, you can see snow falling in the Italian Alps. But Aburabia Sattouf spent the past four years in Syrian refugee camps. He says separating plastic from paper is a delight. Just a few months ago, he and his family - all 29 of them - were at a shanty camp in Lebanon when they decided to pay a human trafficker to smuggle them across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. It's a common story that often ends in tragedy.

SATTOUF: (Foreign language spoken).

LIVESAY: But thank God that didn't happen, he says, and something altogether unexpected did. Instead of cramming 18 children and 11 adults onto an unsafe raft, they boarded a flight on Alitalia and flew to Italy.

(CROSSTALK)

LIVESAY: To understand how, rewind two years ago. That's when young Italians like Marta Matassoni first began volunteering at their refugee camp.

MARTA MATASSONI: I was studying international cooperation, but I was not satisfied. I was looking for a project more real.

LIVESAY: She joined Operazione Colomba, a volunteer Peace Corps with Catholic ties. However, as Marta rolls a cigarette, she insists they are no missionaries.

MATASSONI: No, no, no.

LIVESAY: Some have tattoos. One has a mohawk. They stood out at the refugee camp, helping at hospitals and clinics. They even learned Arabic from scratch.

MATASSONI: Because if - if you live with these people in the same way, like in a tent without electricity, without the water, it's like automatic to become friends.

LIVESAY: So it cut close to home when the Sattouf family told her they would take their chances with human traffickers and head for Greece this past December.

MATASSONI: We can't leave them go through the sea.

LIVESAY: The solution turned out to be something no one had anticipated. At the same time, the Italian government was putting the finishing touches on a project called the humanitarian corridor. Under the program, refugees in great need would be flown to Italy, all of it paid for by Italian Christian charities. But first, they would need to be thoroughly vetted and learn Italian. Here's Marta and the others in a video they took teaching the family right before they left Lebanon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

LIVESAY: And here they are today, picking up where they left off.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

LIVESAY: Only now we're inside their new home, nestled in the woods outside the city of Trento. The local diocese is lending them a remodeled 18th-century cottage. Marta and the other volunteers are living here with them for the first few months, just as they did back in Lebanon. This time, it's the Syrians getting immersed in Italian culture.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Laughter).

LIVESAY: However, these two women still aren't crazy about Italian food, so they're rolling their own flatbread. The Italian government and Pope Francis have championed the effort as a model of integration. But a barista at a nearby cafe says locals are skeptical, especially after the euro crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through interpreter) We're living in a tough time when people think first about themselves and then about others. Some Italians can't make it to the end of the month. These homes were never offered to them and their families.

LIVESAY: It's also very easy to wonder about the program's impact. So far, the humanitarian corridor has the resources to bring 1,000 refugees to Italy over the next two years. That's a drop in the bucket when you consider that one million migrants came to Europe last year alone. Matassoni admits it isn't a silver bullet.

MATASSONI: Obviously this is not the best solution. The best solution is for these people to come back to Syria and to stop the war in Syria, but we have to do something.

LIVESAY: With that, Aburabia gives Matassoni a big hug and thanks her for all she's done for them. "I couldn't have done it without my family," he says, "especially without our new Italian family." For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay in Trento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.