by CLAUDIO LAVANGA and ALEX JOHNSON
ROME — In many respects, Hasan and Nour Essa are like any other parents. They're looking for a good preschool for their 2-year-old son, Riyad, for whom they simply want a normal life.
But first comes their crash course in Italian.
The Essas arrived this weekend in Rome from the Greek island of Lesbos — three of the 12 Syrian refugees whom Pope Francis brought back with him after an emotional ecumenical visit with some of the hundreds of thousands of migrants stranded there as they desperately seek to flee their war-torn homelands.
"What's happening with us, it's like a dream," Nour Essa, a microbiologist, told NBC News on Sunday. "It's like a beautiful dream."
Related: Pope Francis Takes 12 Syrian Refugees Back From Greek Island
Francis spent the day Saturday on Lesbos with Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, and Ieronymos II, the archbishop of Athens and Greece. The three leaders — heads of churches that officially have been estranged for more than a millennium — heard the stories of some of the 850,000 people who have landed there in the past year fleeing ISIS tyranny in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
A Look at the 12 Refugees Starting Over at the Vatican 1:51
In what Francis himself called Saturday a "last minute decision," the Essas joined two other Syrian families on the pope's flight home to start new lives in Rome.
The families were chosen not because they were Muslim, but simply because their papers were in order, the pope told reporters on his plane Saturday. "This initiative is purely humanitarian," he said.
"We I heard the pope chose us to come to Rome, I thought it was incredible," said Suhila, a tailor, who joined the pope with her husband, Ramy, a teacher, and their three children.
"He saved our lives," said Suhila, whose last name hasn't been made public. "To me, he is now like an angel, a new father who saves the lives of his children."
Suhila and her family fled Deir al-Zour, a Syrian city near the Iraqi border that has been attacked by ISIS. They arrived in Greece in February via Turkey.
"I spoke to him, but I don't even remember what I told him," Suhila said, speaking through an interpreter. "I was overwhelmed with emotions. No Muslim leader has done what he has done."
Refugees are not numbers, they are people who have faces, names, stories, and need to be treated as such.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) April 16, 2016
In interviews Sunday with NBC News, the three families, all of them Muslim, expressed a common sentiment: that the pope's passion supersedes his religious doctrine.
"I still don't believe we are here now," said Osama, who fled the Damascus suburb of Zamalka with his wife and two children. "He is the father of peace in the world, and peace has no religion."
Nour Essa said Francis was "more important than any Muslim religious man, because what the pope did with us has never been done by an Arabic leader or by a Muslim religious man."
Francis, she said, "is a real human being. ...He's not like the others."
The Essas' story could be the story of any of the hundreds of thousands of refugees on Lesbos.
They lived in Zabadani, an area near the Lebanese border that has been besieged and heavily bombed. They fled to Turkey and took a boat to the island of Lesbos after the government asked all men 18 to 42 to join the army to fight in the war.
Pope Francis Says the World Must Do More in Refugee Crisis 1:10
Hasan Essa paid a smuggler $300 to drive them to the Turkish border in the back of a truck used to transport animals. But once they were in Aleppo, they were captured by ISIS, and Hasan Essa was told that he had to join the brutal militants.
Another smuggler was found to take his family across the border — and a third was paid to get them on a boat to Lesbos, where they arrived March 18.
Now they are in Rome, of all places, where they are desperate to "have the same life that we had before the war in Syria," Nour Essa said.
First comes the struggle to learn Italian — they've already registered with a language school so they can "communicate quickly with the Italian people," she said. Then comes the search for a good school for Riyad.
For Italians who may fret at their ability to assimilate into Italian culture in Rome, the center of world Catholicism, Nour Essa had this message:
"I would to say to the Italian people we are normal people like you," she said. "We are not terrorists. We are not jihadists. We just ran out of our country because of the war, and we love you."
And lest there be any doubt, she stressed that she and her family were especially looking forward to eating all the "lasagna, pasta and pizza" that they could.
"I like the lasagna," she said