ROME - Walking in a crowded Rome neighborhood with his prayer
beads wrapped around one hand, Hassan said, "You must write:
Big thanks to the pope because he helps my kids - really."
Hassan and his family, who are Muslim, are being hosted by a
Catholic parish in Rome. Out of concern for their safety, the
family, the parish priest and the Catholic school that
welcomed Hassan's three youngest children asked that
identifying details remain unpublished.
Likes millions of refugees around the world, Hassan packed up
his family to flee violence and to try to find a safe place
where his children could grow and thrive.
Also like many refugees, his story is much more complicated
than that. Hassan is a Palestinian born in a refugee camp in
Lebanon. After university studies there, he had a good career
as a nurse. Then came the war.
He stayed, though, working harder than ever. "Too much
blood," he said.
Hassan was shot in the arm; the entrance- and exit-wound
scars are still visible.
Seeking a safe place to work and to find a wife and start a
family, he moved to Libya in 1986. He met and married Adiba,
whose father is Palestinian and mother is Egyptian. Hassan
and Adiba eventually had four children. Hassan found a job in
a hospital and ran a shop for a while. They bought a home and
later a small farm. Then came the war.
During an interview in Rome March 22, Hassan constantly
fingers his prayer beads, which he made himself by stringing
together 33 olive pits. Many Muslims use the beads to recite
God's praises, but Hassan said his prayer usually is
repetitions of "God, help us."
"I always am praying. That is why I am still alive," he said
in the tiny two-room apartment where he, his wife and four
children live. A Catholic parish answered Pope Francis' call
for every parish to take in a refugee or refugee family.
While there is a small refrigerator and microwave in the
apartment, there is no space to cook, so the family goes to
the parish each day for lunch, traditionally the Italians'
The children do their homework on their bunkbeds. The school
requires every student to have a laptop computer, which was a
worry for the family and parish. But Pope Francis, through
his almoner's office, provided what the kids needed. The
parish provided the Wi-Fi connection.
"If we ask for anything, they provide it," Hassan said. "But
this is not our life."
Hassan - and his wife and children - see their lives as being
in Sweden, where they have friends and relatives and had
spent 15 months making a start for themselves. That ended
shortly after the Paris terrorist attacks in November.
Father Marco, pastor of the parish hosting the family, calls
them "victims of the Dublin Regulation," a European Union
agreement that refugees must apply for asylum in the first EU
country they arrive in and wait there for their cases to be
heard. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, governments
that had not been enforcing the agreement took steps to do
Paying 4,500 euros (just over $5,000), Hassan and his family
had boarded an overcrowded fishing boat in Libya Sept. 5,
2014. With 350 other people, they bobbed around the
Mediterranean for four days until they were picked up "by the
Italians with a big ship" and taken to the port city of Bari.
"They took our fingerprints, then they said, 'You are in
Europe. You can go,'" he said.
Hassan and his family went by train to Milan, then paid
people, who turned out to be thieves, to drive them north.
When they reached Sweden, they applied for asylum. The
Swedish government assigned them an apartment and gave them a
monthly stipend. The children started school.
But after about a year, Swedish authorities phoned to tell
Hassan the family had to go back to Italy and apply for
asylum there, where they had left their fingerprints. There
were letters and meetings and lawyers.
"Two days after the trouble in Paris, they came at 5 in the
morning and broke down the door," Hassan said. The police
took the family and "many of our things, but not all," to the
airport. In a small plane with 10 police or immigration
agents, Hassan, Adiba and the four children were flown to
Rome's Ciampino airport and turned over to the Italian
They slept in the airport that night and, after meeting
immigration officials in the morning, were told they could
go. They slept in Rome's main train station for a couple of
nights before hearing about a makeshift center for refugees
staffed by welcoming volunteers. From there, they went to a
Red Cross shelter where Father Marco and some of his
"We are a family and at the Red Cross center, there were many
men," Hassan said. He asked Father Marco to help, and by
Christmas they were in an apartment near the parish.
"I thank Don Marco and the pope - they help us too much,"
Hassan said. "But for how long can they help us? I still feel
much dark for our future."