syria migrants refugees kids.jpg
Photograph: EPA/WAEL HAMZEH

A humanitarian airlift programme run by Italian Catholic and Protestant groups wants to spare Syrian refugees the dangerous boat journey across the Mediterranean. Now the Christian activists are bringing another group of people to Italy.

Dammour, Lebanon (dpa) – Zarifa al-Oujameh and her sick two-months-old baby Leith are preparing to join another group of Syrian refugees to travel to Italy with the help of a humanitarian airlift programme set up by Catholics and Protestants in the country.

Leith means "lion" in Arabic. The little boy, who was born on February 28, suffers from a defect of the backbone and spinal cord, known as spina bifida, according to a pediatrician in Beirut.

"Leith has a hole in his back and cannot move his legs, he has water around his brain," Zarifa tells dpa at her one-room house in Dammour, southeast of Beirut. But she is staying positive, because "the kind people of these Italian communities," she says, have decided to take her with her husband and their other two children, May, 4, and Koussay, 2, to Italy.

Zarifa and her family came to Lebanon from the heavily damaged neighborhood of Khalidiyeh in the central province of Homs in 2013. They currently live in an unfinished building, where Leith lies sleeping on a mattress on the ground breathing slowly, watched over by his grandmother Fatima and grandfather Mohaseb.

"If it was not for the sake of Leith, I would not let my daughter and her family leave," Fatima says and bursts into tears. "Who knows when I will see little Leith again and my daughter and her family," Fatima adds.

Zarifa's father Mohaseb, who cannot move his right arm due to an injury caused by the shelling on Khalidiyeh, is torn. "I am happy and sad at the same time," he says. "Happy because Leith will get the right medical care, but also because they are leaving on a plane and not by boat."

Mohaseb tells dpa that his son Liwaa, who lost an arm during government shelling on Khalidiyeh, left for Germany by boat eight months ago in the hope of getting medical treatment.

"I spent so many sleepless nights when my son went by boat. I stayed awake praying that he will make it safely to Germany. (...) I said then, I will not let any of my family members leave by sea even if we have to eat grass in Lebanon," he says.

In February, the humanitarian corridors project, set up by the Community of Sant'Egidio, the Italian Federation of Evangelical Churches (FCEI), and the Waldensian and Methodist Churches in Italy, moved a first larger group of around 100 Syrian refugees from a camp in Tal Abbas in Northern Lebanon to Italy by plane. They had earlier flown out a family of four.

When the refugees arrive in Italy, they are offered language lessons, schooling for the minors and other help that will enable them to integrate into Italian society.

"This time we focused on the most vulnerable cases, and we are taking people not from camps only but Syrians who live in rented homes and have special cases like Leith," says Massimiliano Signifredi, a spokesman for the Community of Sant'Egidio.

The refugee plane left for Rome from the Lebanese capital of Beirut. From Rome, Leith and his family will be sent on to Turin where the little boy is expected to undergo medical treatment. It is hoped this will give him "an easy life despite his serious condition," Signifredi says.

This time, the humanitarian corridors project takes around 100 Syrian refugees mainly from northern and southern Lebanon as well as from the capital Beirut. 35 of the refugees are Christians, the remainder are Muslims, Signifredi says.

The refugees are not newcomers to Lebanon. Most of them arrived two or three years ago, before Lebanon decided not to allow any more Syrians in the country because it already hosts more than 1.2 million refugees - a high number for a country that has a population of only 4 million.

The objective of the humanitarian corridors is to spare refugees dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean, where many people have already lost their lives, including many children.

The Christian project is planning to move a total of 1,000 refugees over the course of two years, including 500 refugees from Lebanon, 250 from Morocco and 250 from Ethiopia.

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