Cyprus asylum seekers head for new lives in Italy thanks to pope
Menogeia (Cyprus) (AFP) – Six asylum seekers Pope Francis is helping relocate from Cyprus expressed gratitude and hope as they left to start their new lives in Italy Thursday barely a week before Christmas.
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Cypriot authorities had said the pontiff, who visited the divided island earlier this month, would take 50 migrants, who also include Muslims, in a gesture of "solidarity".
Authorities said a dozen people left on Thursday.
A Vatican source told AFP that the first group would meet the pope on Friday.
Hinda Warsame, 25, from Somalia, and her sisters Naima, 22, and Fadoumo, 19, came to Cyprus this year.
The trio grew up in Saudi Arabia but said they were caught with expired papers and jailed before being deported to Somalia -– an unfamiliar and dangerous country where they had barely any family.
Warsame said the experience was "a nightmare".
"I was crying... this is not what's supposed to be happening," she told AFP on Wednesday from the Limnes accommodation centre in the island's Menogeia area.
She said she faced pressure to get married to help "protect" her sisters, as well as to undergo female genital mutilation, a widespread practice in Somalia.
"I said, I'm not gonna do it," she said, adding that if she did, "they will do the exact same to my sisters."
Instead, the trio managed to travel to breakaway north Cyprus on student visas, before crossing the island's buffer zone and claiming asylum in the Republic of Cyprus, which says it has the highest number of first-time asylum applications in the EU per capita.
Cyprus has been split since 1974 when Turkish forces occupied the island's northern third in response to a military coup sponsored by the junta in power in Greece at the time.
Only Ankara recognises the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Warsame said she cried the day she heard the pope might take them.
"I didn't sleep for one week," she said.
"I am Muslim but I really admire that the pope and the Christian church chose to help us," she said.
Also getting ready to leave was Issa Shamma, 37, who fled to Lebanon in 2017 seeking refuge from the war in neighbouring Syria.
But there was "no future for my children there", he said.
He said his sons, now 12, nine and two, "had no schooling at all. I came here (to Cyprus) for my children to get an education."
He said they were among dozens of Syrians who boarded a boat from northern Lebanon in August.
Cypriot authorities intercepted them and he was taken for medical attention after his health deteriorated, but the boat -– and his family –- was pushed back, a practice rights groups have criticised.
He said he was looking forward to the prospect of being reunited with his family in Italy.
"I don't know anybody" there, he said, but "the most important thing is that we learn and our children learn."
Also a Muslim, Shamma thanked the pope and his future host community.
"No Arab country has opened their door for us, has accepted us as refugees. Western countries opened their doors for us and our children," he said.
Also leaving were two Cameroonians who had been stuck in Cyprus's buffer zone for six months after arriving in the north on student visas and trying to cross into the Republic of Cyprus.
Grace Enjei, 24, and Daniel Ejube, now 21, said the deadly violence in their country had pushed them to leave.
"The situation back home is really terrible... it wasn't safe," said Enjei. "Since we got the opportunity to travel we had to grab it."
Ejube said anglophone separatists had wanted him to join their armed campaign to break away from the country's French-speaking majority.
"I told my father and my father said no," and instead helped arrange travel to Cyprus, Ejube said.
The pair, who are both Christians, said they were happy and "honoured" to be chosen by the pope.
Like the others, they said they knew nobody in Italy and had no idea what to expect.
Enjei expressed hope of returning to her studies, as did Ejube, who also has aspirations to be a footballer.
He said his favourite team was Spanish side Barcelona, confessing: "I don't know anything about Italian football."
Despite their ordeal, Enjei said she couldn't advise others against taking a chance to find a better future.
"Troubles will always come, you always meet difficulties in life," she said. "You just need to be calm and be patient."
© 2021 AFP