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Syrian couple Hassan Zaheda, 31, and Nour Essa (L), 30, and their son Riad, 2, talk during an interview with Reuters at the Sant'Egidio community in Rome, Italy, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Max Rossi

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By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuters) - For Nour Essa, one of the Syrian refugees who flew out of Lesbos on Pope Francis' plane last week, it was a choice tinged with shock, joy and sadness - and it had to be made immediately.

"They asked me 'Are you ready to leave for Italy tomorrow? You will be on the same plane with the pope. You must give me your answer now'," Essa recalled as she sat on a schoolyard bench with her husband Hasan Zaheda and two-year-old son Riad.

"We were shocked," the 30-year-old said in an interview with Reuters as she and her husband prepared to start an Italian language class.

The choice was offered at about 9 p.m. last Friday evening. Less than 18 hours later they and nine other Syrian refugees, all of them Muslim, were bound for Rome on the pope's plane. For some, including Zaheda, it was their first time on an aircraft.

The person who asked the questions and demanded quick answers at the Kara Tepe refugee camp on the Greek island that night was Daniela Pompei of the Sant' Egidio Community, a Rome-based Christian charity and peace group.

"Time was very tight," Pompei told Reuters. "It was all moving fast."

An aide to Pope Francis came up with the idea a week before the trip. The Vatican would sponsor the refugees and Sant' Egidio would handle details, including housing in Rome. Vatican, Italian and Greek officials were sworn to secrecy.

Pompei said there were three basic prerequisites, the fundamental one being that those chosen had to have arrived in Greece before the March 20 deal between the European Union and Ankara to send new arrivals back to Turkey.

"FELT LIKE PRISONERS"

Families were preferred, as were those whose homes had been destroyed in Syria, and all had to have proper documents.

Pompei said 80 percent of refugees in Kara Tepe arrived after the March 20 agreement, which automatically excluded them. Those eventually chosen had been screened by Greek authorities and the EU border agency Frontex.

Hundreds have died making the short but precarious crossing from Turkey to the shores of Greek islands in inflatable dinghies. Lesbos is dotted with unmarked graves.

Pompei said she started interviewing prospective refugees only two days before the flight to Rome, but did not tell them why.

"Certainly there was some sadness in making the choices," Pompei said. "All of them, absolutely all of them, told us that they felt like prisoners on the island."

Essa, a microbiologist, and Zaheda, a garden designer, had lived about 35 km (22 miles) outside the Syrian capital Damascus. Their home was destroyed in fighting between the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Essa said they would miss family and friends and did not expect their new life to be easy. "It is difficult to live in a new country. You feel that your memories are stolen from you," she said as little Riad played with stones in the courtyard.

After learning Italian, both hope to find jobs in their professional fields but said they would take anything at first. They are sharing apartments nearby with other refugees.

Another refugee, former history teacher Rami Alshakarji, 51, his wife and their three children are from the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, which has been besieged by Islamic State.

"The boys are teenagers. They would have been forced to join the army. Then they would have to kill or be killed and I did not want this," he said speaking through an interpreter.

Asked what she would like to tell the pope, Essa said: "Thank you for giving my son a nice future. You are a very kind man. You are better than our Arab leaders or our religious men. We love you."

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; editing by Andrew Roche)

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