Pope’s Syrians in Rome: life a year on

Basking in the Italian sunshine, Syrians rescued by Pope Francis from a refugee camp a year ago are beginning to feel at home, sharing not only the joys but also the trials of life in Europe.

Pope's Syrians in Rome: life a year on
Nour, a Syrian refugee, after arriving in Rome last year. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Now instead of violence their worries echo those of the local population: how to get a stable job in a country plagued by unemployment.

The lives of the 12 refugees were transformed at a startling speed: blocked for weeks on Greece's Lesbos island last year, one evening they were offered a chance to relocate to Italy and the next day, April 16th, the pope visited and took them back home with him.

“We did not have time to think about it,” remembers 32-year old Nour.

She had fled war-torn Syria with her husband Hassan, and had been planning on trying to get to France, as Nour has a masters in plant microbiology from Montpellier. The couple had never thought about seeking sanctuary in Italy, but jumped at the chance.

'Life of peace'

The pope's trip to Greece was aimed at highlighting the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving on the shores of Europe.

The Argentine, who has repeatedly condemned Western society for its indifference to refugees, has made the cause of migrants one of the defining themes of his papacy.

The Vatican paid for the three Muslim families to be looked after by the Sant'Egidio Catholic community which is co-organiser of a “humanitarian corridor” which has already brought some 700 Syrians to safety here.

In the blink of an eye they were provided with accommodation, given intensive Italian lessons and the children were enrolled in school.

They were granted refugee status within a few months of being in Italy and settled into “a life of peace”, Nour says, looking dotingly at her three-year old son Riad as he digs into a huge strawberry ice-cream.

In March she found a job as a biologist at the Bambino Gesu hospital in the Italian capital. The mothers in the other two families joined a housekeeping agency.

But Hassan, an expert gardener, has had to settle for working a few days a week in a repair shop.

“I'm worried, like everyone else: how to move forward in life, find (Hassan) a job,” she said in Italian.

But in a country where the unemployment rate still tops 11 percent, rising to 35 percent among the young, she acknowledges: “It's not just my fear, all Italians share it.”

On the upside, fears for relatives left behind in Syria have eased after Hassan's parents and three younger brothers arrived two months ago in Naples through the humanitarian corridor.

Nour's family is expected to be transported to safety in nearby France in the next few weeks.

Ice-cream and innocence

In August, 80-year old Francis invited his Syrian guests to lunch at the Vatican.

“The pope changed our life in one day. It's a real example for all religious people, he uses religion to serve men,” says Nour, who was touched that Francis remembered her name when she crossed his path again in February.

Daniela Pompei from Sant'Egidio, who has accompanied the Syrians since their arrival, says the integration has been a great success.

“Our goal now is for these families to become totally autonomous, for them to make their own lives,” she said.

It has not been easy for Abdelmajid, 16, and Rachid, 19, who took Francis's plane with their parents and little sister.

While the younger boy attends high school, the elder is too old and still struggles to speak basic Italian.

Their principle woe is one shared by many Italians their age: they want to visit a dermatologist to sort out their acne.

Little Riad, oblivious to such teenage trouble, runs cheerfully from one to the other, his ice-cream dripping on his hand.

“I'm glad my son has started to live like other children his age,” Nour says.

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Reader question: How do you meet the requirements for a sambo visa?

In Sweden, a sambo is domestic partner – someone you’re in a relationship with and live with, but to whom you aren’t married. If you, as a non-EU citizen, are in a sambo relationship with a Swedish citizen, you can apply for a residence permit on the basis of that relationship. But meeting the requirements of that permit is not always straightforward.

Reader question: How do you meet the requirements for a sambo visa?

An American reader, whose son lives with his Swedish partner, wrote to The Local with questions about the maintenance requirement her son and his partner must meet in order to qualify for a sambo resident permit.

“Their specific issue is that they meet the requirements for a stable relationship and stable housing, but have been told that qualifying for a sambo visa based on savings is unlikely,” she wrote, asking for suggestions on how to approach this issue. Her son’s partner is a student with no income, but whose savings meet maintenance requirements. But, they have been told by lawyers that Migrationsverket will likely deny the application based on the absence of the Swedish partner’s income.

How do relationships qualify for sambo status?

In order to apply for a residence permit on the basis of a sambo relationship, you and your partner must either be living together, or plan to live together as soon as the non-Swedish partner can come to Sweden. Because this reader’s son is already in Sweden as a graduate student, he can apply for a sambo permit without having to leave the country, provided that his student permit is still valid at the time the new application is submitted.

The Migration Agency notes that “you can not receive a residence permit for the reason that you want to live with a family member in Sweden before your current permit expires”. So once your valid permit is close to expiration, you can apply for a new sambo permit.

What are the maintenance requirements for a sambo permit?

The maintenance requirements for someone applying for a sambo permit fall on the Swedish partner, who must prove that they are able to support both themselves and their partner for the duration of the permit. This includes both housing and financial requirements.

In terms of residential standards that applicants must meet, they must show that they live in a home of adequate size – for two adult applicants without children, that means at least one room with a kitchen. If rented, the lease must be for at least one year.

The financial requirements are more complicated. The Swedish partner must be able to document a stable income that can support the applicant and themselves – for a sambo couple, the 2022 standard is an income of 8,520 kronor per month. This burden falls on the Swedish partner.

While the Migration Agency’s website does say that you may “fulfil the maintenance requirement (be considered able to support yourself) if you have enough money/taxable assets to support yourself, other persons in your household and the family members who are applying for a residence permit for at least two years”, it is unclear how proof of this would be documented. On a separate page detailing the various documents that can be used to prove that maintenance requirements are met, there is nothing about how to document savings that will be used to support the couple.

Can you apply on the basis of savings instead of income?

Well, this is unclear. The Migration Agency’s website does suggest that having enough money saved up to support both members of the sambo relationship is an option, but it gives no details on how to document this. It is also unclear whether applying on the basis of savings will disadvantage applicants, with preference given to applicants who can show proof of income from work.

The Local has reached out to an immigration lawyer to answer this question.