‘I’m a citizen of Rome now’: Pope Francis’s time with refugees contrasts sharply with Rome’s

A group of refugees who have settled in Rome after travelling to Europe to flee war and poverty have described a life of accommodation and work that combines living in a hostel and working in call centres.

About 50 refugees joined Pope Francis and the emissary of the non-profit Church of Scientology last year in a visit to Lesbos, where the group of young refugees captured the pontiff’s attention.

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The Catholic leader briefly addressed the group of youngsters, who included children, during a Mass he held near the island on 23 September 2016.

Francis’s diplomatic clout has played a key role in getting the UN refugee agency and other organisations to open up their networks of volunteers and housing and jobs to the refugees.

Along with other UN agencies in Greece, they have met what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) calls “dire need” for more shelter, a cooling-off period before returns to countries at sea, food, healthcare and information about their options in Europe.

More than 18,000 refugees have arrived in Italy from other European Union countries so far this year, while 7,000 have left, the figures show.

Italian mayors are refusing to take in refugees, saying that is their responsibility. Poland’s foreign minister recently suggested jailing migrants arriving in EU member states.

Refugees pose for photographs at the Vatican. Photograph: Antonio Calanni/Reuters

Two Italians and a foreigner were found guilty in April of stealing money from refugee families waiting for shelter at a sports complex, and one of them could face up to a year in prison.

However, UNHCR praised Rome city government for “constructive” and “inclusive” work in recent years. It took part in meetings to discuss refugees’ accommodation, finding work and being able to move freely in the capital, it said.

Over the last year, the city’s social security and labour authorities offered access to social and health care, employment and legal assistance, it said in a report this week. It also served more than 1,000 refugee families with eviction papers.

But the city faces major challenges, including an overwhelming number of families in emergency accommodation and high demand for other apartments, the report said.

Emmanuel Lopes, 23, said the influx of refugees last year added to the struggles in an already tough working environment in a city where he went to school.

“People are often stressed in different parts of their lives,” he said. “People who don’t have anything … some people don’t even have money for food.”

It would be overwhelming to find a place to live and an open job, he said. “One of the issues we see a lot with new people is that they do not know the environment here, and there is a lack of patience,” he said.

His place of employment is a call centre, where he says he can earn around 900 euros ($1,113) a month, a good wage but not enough to start a business.

Alejandro Maracujas, 40, a Roma from Spain, said: “I was lost. I tried other countries but I couldn’t find anything. But here, we have all the elements,” he said.

Erin Eridge, a 36-year-old from Dublin who was in Greece for more than six months with her young children when Francis’s visit to Lesbos took place, said she had gained a voice and an identity in a city.

“I’m a citizen of Rome now and I know people in this city,” she said. “My children see Rome and they call it Italy.”

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