Frescoes and friendship: Syrian refugee bridges divides in Milan

MILAN: He shows off some of Milan’s most sumptuous frescoes to tourists, but Syrian Mohamed Hamadi also does more than that – he reaches out to visitors across the cultural divide in a troubled era.

Born 69 years ago in Homs, a city now devastated by the conflict in Syria, the bespectacled Muslim guide charms those in the Italian city by drawing on his memories of the religious tolerance taught in his youth.

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Those dropping in to admire 16th-century frescoes at the San Maurizio church, dubbed "Milan’s Sistine Chapel", may not be expecting their lessons on Renaissance art to be accompanied by moral musings.

Describing his education, Hamadi tells AFP: "The students were Muslims, Christians … we didn’t pay any attention to all that.

"Once a week at school there was a lesson on Christian faith, and another on Muslim faith. The Muslim pupils went along to listen, and vice versa," he says.

"Diversity was a richness for the country," adds the guide, who has made his home in a continent where populism is on the rise and the far-right are making political gains following the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants.

Hamadi fled Syria in his twenties. A member of the Arab Socialist Party and opposed to the ruling powers at the time, he had already been imprisoned twice, and tortured.

He travelled first to Beirut, where he studied law, then on to Kuwait, Spain and finally Italy, working each time in the import-export business.

He married a Milanese woman and says he feels first and foremost "a citizen of the world".

"OPEN MINDS"

After Hamadi’s wife died and he retired, he dedicated his time to helping Syrian asylum-seekers fleeing the war back home, who would arrive exhausted and disorientated in Milan, hoping to travel on to Britain or Germany.

Two years ago, he joined the Touring Club of Italy, becoming one of around 2,000 volunteers – including 800 alone in Milan – who volunteer at sites such as museums and churches that would remain otherwise closed to the public.

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At the San Maurizio, he tells visitors the history of the Benedictine Convent, and explains which religious scenes are depicted in the frescoes, from Noah’s Ark to the Last Supper.

Visitors are sometimes surprised their guide is Muslim – a reaction he counters with a quick word on religious history.

"The Koran, the Bible, the Torah … they are all linked," he says, recalling that key figures like Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses and Abraham feature in all three tomes, though the details may differ.

"Syria has been a land that has hosted many cultures, with occupations by the Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans and even the French," he says.

Hamadi, who speaks four languages – Arabic, English, French and Italian – says he sees his chats with visitors as a way to "open people’s minds".

The man who has worked as city councillor in the past has simple advice on tackling the thorny issue of "integration".

People should "live, talk, eat together, but that does not mean they should forget their roots", he says.