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FEATURE: ‘Here, in Bulgaria, We Are Treated With Dignity,’ Says Syrian Mother of Five (An Inside Look at Pope’s Visit to Refugee Camp Outside Sofia)

Children Beyond Ecstatic to Have Pope in Their Presence

During his second full day in Bulgaria, Pope Francis traveled to the outskirts of Sofia, to visit the Vrashdebna refugee camp, where he met with about 50, including many children and their parents, mostly from Syria and Iraq.

ZENIT’s Senior Vatican Correspondent, Deborah Castellano Lubov, was inside the refugee center and spoke to various individuals overjoyed to have the Pope in their presence. The Pope arrived at 8:22 local time and was already leaving by 8:48, traveling to the airport to go toward Rakovsky, considered the Catholic heart of Bulgaria–as the area has the greatest number of Catholics in the country–, where he would be celebrating Mass and giving 245 little ones their first Holy Communion.

While the event with the refugees was not streamed, Alessandro Gisotti and the press pool shared info and photos.

A small chorus of little ones joyfully sang for the Pope, and even after Francis had left, they were still singing.

These elementary school age children presented the Holy Father with their artwork, which was also on display in the room.

In off-the-cuff remarks, Pope Francis thanked those present and noted that the children bring joy in their journey, even though their journey is not always nice. “At times,” he acknowledged, “it is painful their having to leave one land and have to be inserted into another.”

“There is always hope,” he still reminded.

The world of migrants and refugees, the Holy Father also said, is a “bit of a cross of humanity,” noting the cross “is the numerous people who suffer.” Pope Francis concluded, giving his blessing, gifting an icon of the Virgin Mary, and asking those present to pray for him.

ZENIT watched as the children played and ran around the room all excited after the Pope’s visit. Moreover, ZENIT spoke to some present about the experience.

A Syrian Muslim mother of five had the opportunity to speak with Francis.

“For me, until now, the thought of meeting and speaking to the Pope was a dream come true,” she told ZENIT, unable to stop smiling.

While the Bulgarian population has not always looked favorably toward the migrants, and now they have tightened their borders, being north of Greece and next to Turkey, the Pope called on the country yesterday to be open-minded toward those “knocking on their doors.”

The Secretary General of Caritas Bulgaria told ZENIT this morning at the center that many Bulgarian natives have fear or are not happy about the new arrivals, especially as Bulgaria remains the poorest member state of the European Union, and it’s population has shrunk by more than 2 million and continues to shrink as many go to Western Europe seeking better work and living standards.

However, when asking the Syrian mother, about her welcome in the country, she said point blank: “Here, in Bulgaria, we are treated with dignity.”

She noted that this is not something to take for granted, nor is something she has experienced everywhere during her family’s journey, citing some time they spent in Turkey. Another Afghan refugee expressed his welcome has been positive and he is grateful to all those who help.

In addition, a young man from Iraq, who due to the plight in his native country, felt compelled to leave despite his desire to stay and work, explained how now he is photographer for Caritas and helps assist Caritas in various social matters, including helping and translating for the new migrants from his country.

“This,” he said, “is a way in which there is good integration. Caritas has channeled skills, work ethic and intelligence of those arriving, to help others.”

Here is the full text of what the Pope said, translated by ZENIT:

The Holy Father’s Words

Thank you! Children . . . They bring joy to your journey, your journey which is not always beautiful . . . And then there is the sorrow of leaving your homeland and of trying to insert yourselves in another homeland. . . .  There is always hope . . . Today the world of migrants and refugees is somewhat a cross, a cross of humanity, and the cross is the many suffering people. I thank you for your good will, and I hope the best for you and for your fellow citizens that you left in your homeland. May God bless you and pray for me.

[Original text: Italian]  [ZENIT’s translation by Virginia M. Forrester]

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About Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is a Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in four languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, at times from the papal flight, and has done television and radio commentary, including for Vatican Radio and BBC. She is a contributor to National Catholic Register, UK Catholic Herald, Our Sunday Visitor, Inside the Vatican, and other Catholic news outlets. She has also collaborated with the Vatican in various projects, including an internship at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and is a collaborator with NBC Universal, NBC News, Euronews, and EWTN. For 'The Other Francis': http://www.gracewing.co.uk/page219.html or https://www.amazon.com/Other-Francis-Everything-They-about/dp/0852449348/

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