ROME/BEIRUT – One evening in late February, Ayan al-Soud, his wife Atya al-Abdullah and their four children boarded a flight from Beirut to Rome.
It was the family’s first time on a plane but the second time they had crossed national borders to escape war in their country. This time, they hoped they would find their new home more welcoming.
They fled to Lebanon from Syria’s Deir al-Zor five years ago, but conflict followed them over the border. Because they opposed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, al-Soud said the family had run-ins with members of Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and militia that supports the regime.
Along with nine other Syrian families, they flew to Italy under the “humanitarian corridors” program, a joint initiative of Protestant and Catholic organizations and the Italian government.
In a little over a year, the program has brought about 800 Syrian refugees from Lebanon to Italy, with plans to bring 200 more refugees from Lebanon and possibly Morocco by the end of the year.
The initiative was a response to thousands of people dying off Italy’s southern coast. Paolo Naso, a representative of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy and one of the architects of the initiative, said they wanted to provide an alternative to “illegal, violent, risky migration” over the Mediterranean Sea.
“Europe is generous with asylum, but before getting the status you have to risk your life to cross the ocean to get in,” he said.
The Protestant association joined forces with the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic ecumenical group, as well as the Waldensian and Methodist churches. After lengthy negotiations, the groups signed an agreement with the Italian government in December 2015. The first Syrian family arrived from Lebanon in February 2016.
The initiative will double the number of refugees resettled in the country. From January 2015 to March 2017, 938 people – 838 of them Syrian – arrived in Italy via the official United Nations resettlement program, said UNHCR spokeswoman Barbara Molinario.
Refugees are referred by local nonprofits and interviewed by the religious groups. The Italian government screens them for security and issues them humanitarian visas, giving them the right to apply for asylum once they arrive.
Unlike the government-funded resettlement program, the costs of transporting, housing and integrating refugees are paid for by the church associations for around a year, primarily via tax funds that their members can divert to churches under Italian law. The groups divide responsibility for the refugees, with parishes and other community groups overseeing their housing, language classes and integration.
The Rise of Private Sponsorship
The humanitarian corridors program alone is probably too small to prevent many people from making the sea crossing, said Joanne van Selm, associate director of research for the migration and asylum policy research firm Eurasylum. Already this year, nearly 37,000 people have arrived in Italy by boat.
Yet the idea is gaining traction, amid hopes that private sponsorship could provide an alternative to the slow-moving U.N. resettlement process and shrinking European political will and budgets to support refugees.
Private sponsorship can help take the financial and political pressure off governments, van Selm said. “Historically, [private sponsorship] signals to governments that for all you have loud voices saying we don’t want refugees, you have communities saying we do want refugees and not only that, we’re prepared to pay for them,” she said.
But Jeff Crisp, a research associate with Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre, cautions that despite initial evidence that private sponsorship can lead to better integration, it is too early to assess the effectiveness of the model.
“Private sponsorship is the thing everyone has seized upon as the next big thing, [but] I think these expectations may be a little bit exaggerated,” he said. “Other countries will be watching very carefully to see how these programs work out.”
Once the refugees arrive in Italy, they are settled across the country, depending on where there are parishes or community groups, or if refugees have existing ties to a location.
Al-Soud and al-Abdullah were initially placed in Riace, a small town on Italy’s southern tip that gained international recognition for welcoming migrants and refugees.
They found the safety they had been seeking, but felt isolated. With few Arabic speakers among the mostly African migrants in the town, they relied on a pair of Ethiopian translators working for the municipality to function as go-betweens with local authorities and shop owners for food aid and other needs. But the family and translators didn’t get along, and sometimes the aid was slow or insufficient, the family said.
In the family’s apartment, al-Abdullah opened the refrigerator to show its sparse contents, a tub of cream cheese and loaf of bread. “If I had known the life here was like this, I never would have come,” she said.
In April, at the family’s request, they were relocated to the nearby town of Gioiosa Ionica, joining two other Syrian families. Al-Soud said they were treated well there and were glad to be close to other Syrians.
Others in the humanitarian corridors program had an unabashedly positive experience.
Mahfoud al-Daher, 24, left his family near Hama two years ago after he was twice injured by shrapnel from airstrikes. He spent six months working as a hotel security guard in a Beirut suburb before the company fired all its Syrian workers due to Lebanese labor restrictions and a dispute between a manager and one of the Syrians.
“After that, there was no work, and it was torment being in Lebanon,” al-Daher said.
Now he lives in central Rome, in shared housing with other refugees near the Sant’Egidio headquarters. He takes Italian language lessons most weekdays and has made Italian friends at an Orthodox church nearby. Once his Italian improves, he hopes to work fixing computers and cell phones, as he did in Syria.
“From when we arrived at the airport here to now, there have been no difficulties in life,” al-Daher said. “It’s better than Lebanon by 1 million times.”
One year into the humanitarian corridors program, organizers say all of the refugees’ asylum applications have been granted or are still pending.
Their humanitarian visas allow them to work while they wait for refugee status, but many found it hard to secure jobs. Of the 204 people currently hosted by the Protestant association, only two have found permanent jobs, while another has on-call job, eight have job training, six are in vocational training and one is at university. Around 55 people have left the program, either to be reunited with family elsewhere in Europe, because they are self-sufficient or violated the rules of the program.
Sant’Egidio has not yet completed its first-year analysis for the families it supports, but coordinator Cecilia Pani said about 10 percent of those in Rome are now working. Many of the others are children, have medical problems, or are still learning the language.
Some European countries are now looking to emulate the Italian model. France recently set up a church-sponsored program that will bring 500 refugees from Lebanon in the next 18 months. Pani said Spain is contemplating a similar scheme. Italy will soon launch a program to bring Eritrean, Somali and South Sudanese refugees from Ethiopia through a new humanitarian corridor.
For Pani, this replication is a sign of the program’s success. “That was our goal,” she said. “It was not only to save 1,000 people but to send a message to Europe to say, this can be the way to avoid this terrible death journey.”
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