How these refugees’ journey ended with a ride on the pope’s plane

Two weeks ago, Pope Francis visited the Greek island of Lesbos -- a landing point for desperate refugees -- and brought three Syrian families back with him to the Vatican. Yahoo News anchor Katie Couric sat down to interview four of those refugees last week. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Couric for more on the journey from war-torn Syria to St. Peter’s Basilica.

Read the Full Transcript

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Two weeks ago, Pope Francis visited refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, a way station on the migrant trail to Europe.

    Though he was there but a few hours, the pontiff made headlines the world over when he left the island with three Syrian families, 12 people in all, bound for Rome.

    Late last week, Yahoo News global anchor Katie Couric sat down with four of the refugees at the Vatican.

    Here is a brief portion of that interview.

  • KATIE COURIC, Yahoo! News Global Anchor:

    It must be wonderful to be safe, but it also must be hard to leave your country.

  • HASAN, Syrian Refugee:

    Yes.

  • NOUR, Syrian Refugee:

    Yes.

  • SUHILA, Syrian Refugee (through interpreter):

    No doubt, God willing, we will adapt to this country, and, most importantly, we will learn Italian.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • KATIE COURIC:

    Is it hard to leave your home, though?

  • SUHILA (through interpreter):

    We try and forget that moment.

  • KATIE COURIC:

    It must be nice not to be frightened every day.

  • NOUR:

    Yes, because, for a moment, when were in Turkey, I was afraid from the sounds of things. Every time the planes passed, I was very afraid for my son.

  • KATIE COURIC:

    If you had a chance to see the pope — have you been able to see him at all, Pope Francis?

  • HASAN:

    We don't know, but — we hope — we hope that we could meet him again.

  • KATIE COURIC:

    You met him when you traveled with him?

  • NOUR:

    Yes.

  • HASAN:

    Yes.

  • KATIE COURIC:

    And you met him in Lesbos?

  • HASAN:

    Yes.

  • NOUR:

    Yes, just before…

  • KATIE COURIC:

    Just before you got on the airplane?

  • NOUR:

    Yes.

  • KATIE COURIC:

    What did you think of him?

  • NOUR:

    He's very kind man. He's a real human being.

    For me, I appreciate him more than any Islamic leader or Islamic religious man or more than any Arabic leader, because nothing has been done by these men like him, by the Arabic leaders or by Muslim leaders.

  • KATIE COURIC:

    No one has done.

  • NOUR:

    No one has done the same thing. Not one has visited the camps. No one has shown the suffering people like him. No one has thought about us, although they participate with us the same religion, on the same language.

  • KATIE COURIC:

    And, Ramy, what did you think about the pope?

  • RAMY, Syrian Refugee (through interpreter):

    His actions didn't have to do with our skin color and religion. And it has proven that human beings are brothers with other human beings.

  • KATIE COURIC:

    If you had a chance to say something to Pope Francis today, what would you say?

  • RAMY (through interpreter):

    I will thank him from the bottom of my heart. And I wish that hope all Western and Arabic countries do the same.

  • KATIE COURIC:

    What about you, Suhila? What would you say to the pope?

  • SUHILA (through interpreter):

    I will say to him thank you. Because of him, hope came back. We have come back to life and we're living our lives for those that we lost in Syria.

  • KATIE COURIC:

    And what about you, Nour?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • NOUR:

    I would like to say to him also thank you for giving me this opportunity and for giving us security, for giving a better life for my son, the new life for my son, stable life for my son. And I thank him for all — all his prayers for the refugees. And I thank him for all the steps that he has done for the refugees.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Joining me now is Katie Couric.

    Katie, this is almost a lottery ticket that the pope gave to these families. How did it come about? How were they chosen?

  • KATIE COURIC:

    Well, you know, the pope obviously took this trip to Lesbos, Hari.

    And then I think he claims — gives credit to a top adviser and also sort of the divine being for inspiring him to go ahead and take these three families with six children in total with him back to Rome.

    And, obviously, for secular reasons, they had to make sure that their papers were in order, so they had to deal with the Italian and the Greek authorities to ensure that everybody had their documents in order and that they qualified for asylum. So, it was really just the luck of the draw that these three families did, in fact, qualify and the pope said, please come with us.

    But they didn't realize until they were getting ready to board the plane, the papal plane, that in fact they were going with the pope back to Rome. So, they described it as an "Alice in Wonderland" experience. And you can only imagine how thrilled they were to leave Lesbos, where I think the conditions are quite difficult, and finally get to Rome.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, what was the backstory of these families? Were they supporters of either the rebels or Assad?

  • KATIE COURIC:

    You know, they were caught in the crossfire, the proverbial crossfire.

    The younger couple, Hasan and Nour, were civil engineers working outside. They lived in a suburb of Damascus and they were working for the government, but they were not sympathetic to the Assad regime. So they were caught between all these different groups that are against the Assad regime, anti-Assad groups and ISIS and all kinds of different individuals.

    And they have a 2-year-old son, so, clearly, they very felt very unsafe on a daily basis. And they were worried that people, because they worked for the government, would think they were sympathetic to Assad, which they were not at all.

    Meanwhile, the other couple, Suhila and Ramy, he's a teacher and she's a tailor. And they lived in a city close to the Iraqi border that was surrounded by ISIS. There was a lot of hunger, people dying from starvation, people stranded there.

    And, again, they were caught between these two different worlds, the pro Assad forces and the anti-Assad forces, specifically ISIS. So, they felt — they feared for their lives and decided they should leave with their children, who are 18, 16 and 7.

    Plus — plus, I should mention, Hari, that both Hasan and the son, the 18-year-old son of Suhila and Ramy, were being drafted to fight in the war. And that's another reason they wanted to leave the country, because I guess they thought that that would lead to certain death.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, Katie, how did these families get to Lesbos to be picked by the pope?

  • KATIE COURIC:

    Well, Hari, first, they had to make it to Turkey.

    And Hasan and Nour stayed in Turkey for three months just waiting to make the treacherous journey across the Aegean Sea to Lesbos. And they had to try on four different occasions. They were caught by the Turkish authorities twice. Once, they didn't want to get in because they thought it was too dangerous.

    You can only imagine making this journey with a 2-year-old child. But they finally made it on the fourth try. And then the other couple, Ramy and Suhila, they were able to get into a rubber boat, but the motor stopped working in the middle of the Aegean Sea. They had to wait for very a nerve-racking hour-and-a-half, until, finally, it started working again.

    And so you can only imagine just how stressful this is. One of the couples who wasn't able to join us, Hari, they have two small children. One of their children stopped talking for a period of time because that child was so traumatized. And another wakes up in the middle of the night.

    So, this is really the human cost of this refugee crisis. And I think hearing from these families personally, I think that brought that home in a way that, you know, is in a way that we don't often hear.

    So, I really was grateful that we were able to hear about their experiences firsthand.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What are that are plans now? Are they going to stay in Italy?

  • KATIE COURIC:

    They are going to stay in Italy. They're learning to speak Italian. Their children are in school or in day care. They're hoping they're going to find some kind of employment.

    But unemployment is 12 in Italy, 37 percent, if you can believe it, for younger people. That's why they were hoping to go to France or Germany. But I think, because they have been so embraced, Catholic Charities is caring for them, they have given them a place to stay, they're so grateful for their security, I think they're going to try to build a new life in Italy and hopefully, they say, return to Syria one day, if they can.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Yahoo News global anchor Katie Couric, thanks so much for joining us.

  • KATIE COURIC:

    Thanks, Hari.

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