On his 85th birthday, Pope Francis welcomed a group of refugees to the Vatican whom he helped to gain asylum in Italy.
The refugees arrived in Italy on Dec. 16 after the pope helped to arrange their transfer from Cyprus to Italy during his apostolic trip to Greece and Cyprus earlier this month.
According to the Vatican, the group of about ten refugees are being directly supported by Pope Francis, while the Catholic community of Sant’Egidio is providing assistance with integration services.
During the meeting in the throne room of the Apostolic Palace, the pope individually greeted the refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Somalia, and Syria and listened to their stories.
“You saved us,” one Congolese boy said as he met the pope, according to Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni.
The refugees wished the pope a happy birthday and gave him a gift of a painting by an Afghan refugee. The painting depicts migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Pope Francis often celebrates his birthday by focusing on others. During his first birthday as pope in 2013, he greeted four homeless men and women who live near the Vatican. In 2017, he threw a pizza party for sick children.
Among the refugees that met with Pope Francis on his birthday this year were Grace, 24, and Daniel, 20, Christians who fled Cameroon after schools were shut down due to the country’s Anglophone Crisis.
The two refugees met after paying the same smuggler to help them cross from Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus to the Greek-speaking south, where they hoped to find asylum in the European Union.
“We were misled,” Grace said. The smuggler told them where to cross over the 16-foot-high wall that divides the Cypriot capital of Nicosia, but they were promptly taken into custody by the United Nations forces stationed in the demilitarized buffer zone.
“The most scary moment in my life so far,” said Grace, who injured her leg after jumping from the wall.
Grace and Daniel were stuck in the buffer zone that divides Cyprus, which is also called “no man’s land,” living in a tent for more than six months until Pope Francis helped to make possible their transfer to Italy.
In an interview with EWTN News, Grace said that faith in God helped to give her strength in the difficult times in Cyprus. She hopes for a better future in which she can find work.
Daniel, a Catholic, said that he would like to be able to continue his studies once he receives asylum in Europe.
“That’s what is keeping us strong because, like our faith, we believe that in any circumstances that you find yourself, never give up in life, so that saying has been keeping us strong and I believe God can do something,” Grace said.
Upon hearing the news that Pope Francis was helping to rescue them from the buffer zone, Daniel told EWTN: “The pope has heard our cry for help. We are so happy.”
Courtney Mares is a Rome Correspondent for Catholic News Agency. A graduate of Harvard University, she has reported from news bureaus on three continents and was awarded the Gardner Fellowship for her work with North Korean refugees.