VATICAN CITY • The Syrian refugees taken in by Pope Francis following his visit to the Greek island of Lesbos have hailed the pontiff as a "saviour" for offering them a new life.
In a hugely symbolic move seen as a lesson in solidarity for Europe, Pope Francis, who is himself the son of Italian migrants to Argentina, on Saturday took 12 Syrians from three families - all Muslims - home with him from Lesbos to the Vatican.
"All refugees are children of God," the 79-year-old Pope said on the flight back to Rome, referring to their religion, adding that though his gesture was "a drop in the ocean" he hoped "the ocean will never be the same again".
In an interview with Italian daily La Stampa, the families, who spent their first night in Rome at a Catholic charity, expressed their gratitude to the pontiff for his "gesture of hope".
"We saw friends and relatives die in the rubble, we fled Syria because we no longer had any hope," said Mr Hasan, an engineer from Damascus, who arrived in Italy with his wife Nour and two- year-old son.
"In Lesbos, we understood that we were stuck in a place that we could not leave, (we were) in a trap, a prison," he said, describing the Pope as "our saviour" for whisking them off the island, where thousands of migrants risk being sent back to Turkey under a new EU-Turkey deportation deal.
Another refugee, Ms Wafa, who was also on the papal flight from Lesbos with her husband Osama, eight-year-old daughter Masa and six-year-old son Omar, described the "constant bombardments" in recent months around their home.
"Since then (my son) has barely spoken... he is locked in an impenetrable silence," she said. "Even today, he wakes up every night crying and we cannot get him to play with his sister."
Mr Ramy, a 51-year-old teacher from the eastern city of Deir Ezzor occupied by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group, fled Syria with his wife Suhila and three children after their home was destroyed in the war.
"We discuss a lot and find it hard to imagine what life will be like in the future. We don't know whether we will start over in Europe or whether, one day, we will be able to return to a Syria free of war and violence," he told La Stampa.
"We are grateful to the Pope, we will prove ourselves worthy of this opportunity and the gift he gave us."
The three families, who had initially set their sights on reaching Germany or another European country, are now expected to seek asylum in Italy.
Their arrival brings to around 20 the number of refugees living in the Vatican, which has fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. A similar intake across Europe would see six million people given asylum on the continent of 300 million.
Last year, the Pope appealed to every Catholic diocese in Europe to take in a refugee family - an appeal that fell on deaf ears in most parts of the continent.
Migrant arrivals in Greece have drastically fallen since Turkey agreed to take back all irregular migrants landing on the Greek islands in return for billions in EU cash and other concessions.
More than 1.1 million people have crossed clandestinely from Turkey to Greece since the start of 2015, with hundreds drowning en route.