On the day Northern Ireland has welcomed 11 refugee families from Syria, my friend Ross recounts a memory from a trip to Damascus. I think it’s important for us to hear.
Having only been in Lebanon a month where I was teaching for the year, I found myself travelling alone to Damascus in the front seat of a cross border taxi awkwardly squeezed between the driver and another passenger on my right, sweat pure lashing off me.
Knowing no Arabic, knowing nothing about the city, and knowing no one, I came armed with a piece of paper (now soggy) with the name of my hostel written in Arabic- written by a Kiwi friend who I was now convinced was completely bonkers for letting this naive, wee lad to get himself into this situation.
It was October 2010- just a few months before the civil war began.
After getting through the border checkpoint and approaching Damascus, a frustrated conversation began between the three passengers in the back and the two men now stuck to either side of my legs in the front.
All I understood was that I was to get a cross border taxi to the outskirts of the city, and then to get a local taxi to the city centre where my hostel was a short walk from Martyrs Square.
As we arrived and preparing myself to look for the allusive local taxis, the passenger on my right told me we were at Martyrs Square. I soon realised what the discussion was about- more so from the body language of people as they got their bags from the boot of the taxi and went their separate ways…
The taxi driver and passenger to my right, realising that I hadn’t a clue where I was going, had made the case for me that they should avoid stopping on the outskirts of Damascus and bring me straight to the city centre.
It was at this time I discovered the passenger formerly stuck to my right leg- who had remained quite quiet during the short journey- spoke pretty good English, and he offered to walk me to my hostel. Without feeling I had much choice I accepted.
As we walked- overwhelmed by the bustling early evening traffic in a now dark Damascus- he told me he was Syrian on his way back from Beirut to his town on the Syrian-Iraqi border; a journey he was continuing across the country that night, and a journey he did once a week with his work.
After around 10 minutes we arrived at my hostel, where he said goodbye and left. Didn’t catch his name. I wouldn’t even be able remember his face. He hardly received my thanks.
All that’s left is a memory of being gracefully and generously welcomed by a complete stranger; a lasting mark of my brief and limited experience of Syria.
When the civil war started a few months later- and as it has developed, especially since the refugee crisis began- I’ve sometimes wondered where he and the guys in that taxi have ended up.
Whether they’ve survived the fighting? Whether they’ve joined the fighting? Whether they’ve been displaced with their families? And now- today as the first 51 Syrian refugees in Northern Ireland arrive- whether by a chance of fate, one of them will be among them?
Perhaps not knowing English, not knowing anything about their new towns, with the first Syrian families arriving today I’ve again been reminded of that taxi ride and that complete stranger in that weekend alone in Damascus. But more importantly I’ve been reminded of our need to collectively show that graceful and generous welcome for Northern Ireland’s latest arrivals.
After all, they’re not here for the weekend. They’re here to restart their lives and rebuild their futures; and that’s a profound thought considering their place of refuge is Northern Ireland.
Syrian Refugees to Northern Ireland: Ahlan wa sahalan!
More from Ross on Twitter.