Sometimes we take our freedom to travel for granted. It’s so easy to do. When we’re planning a trip, we never have to stop and think, “Will our government let us leave?” We have never been barred from boarding a train or a bus in a foreign country because of our religion or our skin color.
(There was one time when I wasn’t allowed to fly to Canada because my passport had expired, but that was my own stupid fault.)
We’ve never had to worry that when we arrived at our destination, we would be sent away.
Except when we go to the US because you just never know what mood the border guards will be in.
Watching the struggle of the Syrian refugees in Europe this week has been a stark reminder of how lucky we are to be middle-class Canadians. It has also brought memories flooding back of the warm welcome we received in Syria when we travelled there in 2006.
In 2006 things seemed cautiously optimistic for the Syrian people. Back then, there was still a chance that Bashar al-Assad, who had taken over for his father in 2000, was going to be a less dickish brand of dictator. Yes, he was torturing people for Bush and Cheney (despite, or possibly because of, being in the so-called Axis of Evil), but things were opening up a little too – they had just gotten the internet a few years earlier and Coca-Cola was newly available.
Of course there was no way we could have known what would happen next.
We can’t help but wonder:
What became of the people we met in Syria?
We hope that by sharing a few memories from our trip to Syria, we can help make the country and its people a little more real for you.
We were awed by the mosques and monuments we got to visit. No one told us we weren’t welcome in their holy places, even though we clearly didn’t belong to the same faith. We were surprised to discover a shrine to St. John (containing at least some of his skeleton) in the midst of the main hall of the Great Mosque in Damascus. The Great Mosque of Aleppo (both these mosques are also know as the Umayyad Mosque – Umayyad means Great in Arabic) was one of the Islamic world’s greatest buildings.
Before travelling to Syria, I had no idea that it was home to ancient ruins and medieval castles.
We didn’t know about the villages of beehive houses, some of which are still inhabited today. Or they were until many of those people were displaced by the war.
Or that we’d be astounded by the architecture of the cities. Now almost the entire country is in ruins.
But it was the everyday life surrounding us that was the most moving.
We spent several days in Aleppo and got to know a few of the young men in town, spent hours in the souk, and even more in the hammam (Turkish bath) next to the citadel. This ancient bath house no longer appears in satellite photos.
Aleppo was a vibrant city, with a bustling university, far from the stare of Damascus, yet still under its thumb – private conversations were always held while walking, not sitting in cafés where anyone could overhear.
People took deep pride in their craft, whether they were creating keepsakes for tourists or lunch for the local workers. We watched in awe as men inlaid mother-of-pearl into backgammon boards in a small factory in the back streets of Damascus. Stephen still wishes he could have carried one in his backpack through the rest of the Middle East.
People loved taking weekend trips to the seaside, just like they do everywhere.
Kids played silly games, just like kids everywhere.
People reached out in gestures of friendship and curiosity wherever we went.
I’m not saying Syria was perfect. Syria had its problems – social, cultural, environmental, political, and economic – just like everywhere.
But I do know that when we needed help, as strangers in their country, the Syrians we met were happy to give it, with no expectation of getting something in return. I hope we, as individuals and as a society, can do the same for the Syrian refugees.
If you’re looking for a way to help one of these aid organizations might be right for you.
UNHCR is on the ground coordinating a massive refugee response throughout the region and leading efforts to protect and provide shelter for those displaced inside Syria – working across conflict lines to provide critical aid under extremely dangerous circumstances. Donate to UNHCR →
Refugees Welcome is working to help house refugees in shared flats, giving them a chance at a more normal life in their new country. Work with Refugees Welcome → ♥