ROME: More than a hundred Syrian refugees arrived in Rome on Wednesday, the latest wave of refugees from the war-torn country to be escorted to safety in Europe.
The 113 men, women and children arrived at Rome's Fiumicino airport from Lebanon where church groups had arranged their safe passage out of refugee camps.
"Viva Italy," shouted the approximately 30 children among the group, as a host families and volunteers greeted the new arrivals - some of them family members -- with smiles and tears.
"These kids have only known the war and refugee camps. But now they'll have a future in Italy," said Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Community of Sant'Egidio, which together with the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy (FCEI) and the Waldensian Evangelical Church, organised and financed the safe passage.
Since 2016, the groups have together brought over 3,000 Syrians to Italy, France, Belgium and Andorra, 1,800 of them to Italy alone.
For the new arrivals, the network provides housing and organises schooling for children as well as language classes.
Within about a year, most families have begun to integrate into society, organisers say.
One, Rola Alattal, 20, came to Italy a year and five months ago with her immediate family, and was again at the airport on Wednesday to greet her uncle, a beaming Ibrahim Bitar, and his young family.
"Things were getting a bit bad for him in Syria," said Alattal, explaining how Bitar escaped to Lebanon after being pressured to join the Syrian army two years ago.
But without documents, he couldn't work and his situation became more desperate.
Another new arrival, Bushra Alkanj, 26, was to travel to Padua to live with other young women, since she had arrived alone without family.
"Just like the others here, we're excited to go to our new home," said Alkanj.
Alkanj left her home and family in 2012 in Syria for Lebanon, where she continued to study and volunteer to help other exiled Syrians.
"But like so many other Syrians in Lebanon the situation is getting worse and so I was forced to ask for help," said Alkanj.
"Now I feel safe, I'm in Italy." Syria's war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions, mostly to Turkey and Lebanon, since it erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wants to repatriate some of the 3.6 million Syrians in the country to a "safe zone" in northern Syria, a move humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International say amounts to sending them back to a war zone.
Last month, Erdogan threatened to send millions of Syrian refugees to Europe, increasing fears of a new wave of migrants.
Organisers of Wednesday's safe passage expressed concern, saying governments were increasingly impeding humanitarian groups' work, with the result that refugees were even more desperate.
"People are more afraid, they're risking more, their lives," said Christiane Groeben, vice president of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy.
"When government people say that the numbers (of migrants arriving in Europe) have gone down, they have gone down because more people have drowned," said Groeben, referring to migrants, including Syrians, who continue to take the perilous sea route for Europe.
"You're not allowed to save them anymore."