Pope’s refugee families settle into Roman life

With Italian lessons and strolls around Rome, the 12 Syrian asylum seekers Pope Francis brought back with him from Lesbos are settling into new lives, their hosts said on Monday.

Pope's refugee families settle into Roman life
Pope Francis welcomes a group of Syrian refugees after landing at Ciampino airport in Rome. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

The three Muslim families are being housed temporarily by the Saint'Egidio religious community in the Rome district of Trastevere while they await longer-term accommodation being prepared for them in the Vatican, community spokesman Maximiliano Signifredi told AFP.

“Yesterday they had their first Italian lessons. They have been going for walks around Trastevere, a new life is opening up in front of them,” Signifredi said.

“Each of the three families has been assigned a small flat with everything they need while they are awaiting the more spacious apartments the Vatican is getting ready for them.”

In a dramatic gesture designed to highlight the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving on the southern shores of Europe, Francis on Sunday flew back from Lesbos with the 12 Syrians.

The three couples, who have six children between them, were plucked from a detention camp on the Greek island to start new lives, more than 1,400 miles (nearly 2,300 kilometres) from their homes in Damascus and Deir Ezzor, a city in eastern Syria controlled by the Islamic State group.

Francis said on the plane back from Lesbos that the families had been chosen out of some 3,000 people at the camp simply because their paperwork was sufficiently in order to rapidly conclude an accord on their transfer with the Greek and Italian governments.

“I didn't make a choice between Christians and Muslims. All refugees are children of God,” Francis told reporters.

The families are expected to seek asylum in Italy rather than through the tiny Vatican city state.

One of the Syrians, a 51-year-old teacher from Deir Ezzor, has said the families, who had planned to try and get to Germany via Greece, do not know what awaits them.

“We don't know whether we will start over in Europe or whether, one day, we will be able to return to a Syria free of war and violence,” the teacher, identified only as Ramy, told Italian media at the weekend.

The Vatican was already housing two Syrian families in line with Francis's instruction to every Catholic parish in Europe to take in at least one.

The St Egidio community is very active on migration issues and has organized flights to Rome for dozens of Syrian refugees who are housed in the same building as the families brought back by the Pope.


Body of missing American tourist found in Rome’s River Tiber

The body of a missing 21-year-old tourist was found in the River Tiber on Thursday morning, according to media reports.

Body of missing American tourist found in Rome's River Tiber

Elijah Oliphant, from Dallas, Texas, was on holiday with his family in Rome when he went missing several days ago.

Oliphant’s parents reported his disappearance after he left his hotel room shortly after midnight on May 24th and did not return.

Hotel security footage showed him leaving the premises wearing a white undershirt and pyjama bottoms, which he was wearing when he was found.

Oliphant’s corpse was reportedly spotted by passersby near the Ponte Sisto bridge in Rome’s Trastevere district around 10am on Thursday morning. His body was positively identified by his parents.

Members of the fire brigade and river police who recovered the body say there were no obvious signs of violence, but an autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death. Trastevere police are reportedly investigating the matter.

The Oliphant family had arrived in Rome for a holiday on May 23rd. When Elijah went missing the following day, his parents launched an urgent appeal to help find their son.

His disappearance was featured on the missing persons television show, Chi l’ha visto (‘Who’s seen them?’) on May 25th.

Several foreigners have been found drowned in the Tiber in recent years, though there are no indication that any of the incidents are linked.

In 2016, the body of 19-year-old American student Beau Solomon was recovered from the river.

Rough sleeper Massimo Galioto was charged involuntary manslaughter in the case, but was ultimately acquitted in 2020.

Prosecutors said that Galioto pushed Solomon in the course of a violent argument. Galioto’s defense team acknowledged that the two had argued but said the student had accidentally slipped.

In May 2019, 37-year-old Imen Chatbouri, a former athletics champion from Tunisia, was found dead in the Tiber after a night out. CCTV footage later showed she had been pushed from the Ponte Sisto bridge.

A then-26-year-old man whose advances she had rejected earlier that evening was convicted of her murder in November 2021.