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Syrian helped by Pope makes new life in Italy

Pope Francis leaves for Cyprus and Greece next week, a five-day trip during which he is expected to bring some asylum seekers back to Italy.

After a visit to Greece in 2016, the pope brought back 12 refugees from a camp on the island of Lesbos on the papal plane to Rome.

A second group came a few months later.  

One of those who found himself plucked from misery in a camp on Lesbos was Malak Abo.

The 33-year-old Syrian refugee now works at a donation centre run by a Catholic charity group in Rome.

Abo hauls boxes with cans of tomato sauce, beans, long-life milk, sugar, flour, paper towels, soap, and pasta out of storage containers.

With the help of others, he then loads them into cars to be handed out to needy people in centres around Rome.

Abo is a site manager at the Sant'Egidio centre known as Citta'Ecosolidale.

He manages a group of refugees whose struggles and suffering have a common thread.  

Most of them left countries at war and departed on harrowing journeys at enormous personal and emotional cost to reach Europe.

Abo, a Christian, was studying law in Hasakah in Syria when the war began in 2011.

To avoid getting dragged into the battle, he holed up at home in Qamishi for years.  

He was increasingly worried of being forced to join the fight, either as a soldier serving the Assad regime or with the Kurdish security forces.

Eventually, he and his family decided to escape.

They sold their home and began the dangerous journey to Turkey on land and by sea to Lesbos.  

His mother, sister and brother made it to Germany.

But Abo remained trapped in limbo, living in an overcrowded camp on the Greek island.

One day, news of a pending visit by Pope Francis spread in the camps.

Like others, Abo heard that the pontiff might be taking some migrants with him back to Italy.

He signed up with a representative from Sant'Egidio, which was organising the trip, and he was chosen - much to his surprise.

"It was like a gift," Abo explains shyly as he stands by a container piled with food-stuffs to be delivered to the poor.  

"I got on an airplane without any traffickers," he says, knowing that this may have saved his life.

"Maybe there would have been the possibility that I would have died in the sea or maybe in a car," Abo explains.

He frets about other migrants still trying to make the journey.

He worries particularly about those stranded on the border between Belarus and Poland, or the many who try to cross from Turkey to Europe.

"Because I tried this route... I left, I paid traffickers, I crossed the sea, then every country closes their frontiers," Abo says.

But "no one wants any more people," he adds.

Migrants are stuck in limbo and many "do not have a choice".

"If they stay where they are, someone will do something bad to them, if they leave everyone tells them 'no, that's enough (migrants).'"

Pope Francis brought both Christian and Muslims when he came back from Lesbos.

Abo was among the Christians who make up about 10% of Syria's pre-war population of 23 million.

They co-existed with the Muslim majority and enjoyed freedom of worship under President Bashar Assad's government.  

Most have left for Europe over the past 20 years.

Around half of all Syrians are now either internally displaced or have left the country.

Pope Francis is departing for Cyprus on December 2 and will visit there for two days before travelling to Greece.

While in Greece, he will return to the same camp on the island of Lesbos where Abo once lived.

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