Feeling helpless to help the Syrian refugees

By Jane Mountain | September 8, 2015

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria

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.

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria, Palmyra

We didn’t share a common language, but we remember this family as if we’d met them yesterday.

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.

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria

The beauty of the Great Mosque in Damascus left us breathless.

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria, Aleppo

The Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, 2006.

Before travelling to Syria, I had no idea that it was home to ancient ruins and medieval castles.

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria, Palmyra

The caretaker’s motorbike at the ancient city of Palmyra. This view no longer exists.

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria, Palmyra

This year, ISIL destroyed much of the ancient city of Palmyra.

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria

Krak des Chevaliers became a stronghold during the war and was damaged by air strikes.

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.

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria

Ancient beehive houses (~100 AD) are still used as houses in Syria.

Or that we’d be astounded by the architecture of the cities. Now almost the entire country is in ruins.

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria

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.

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria

Aleppo, Syria, Middle East, Syrian refugees

This is the Aleppo Souk after being destroyed by fighting in recent years. Photo: Stanley Greene/Noor/Eyevine

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.

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria

We marvelled at the inhuman speed this man made his falafel balls. We wonder where he is now.

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria

In Syria’s markets, items were all hand-crafted and this man was more than happy to chat with us while he worked.

People loved taking weekend trips to the seaside, just like they do everywhere.

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria

A group of tourists getting ready for a boat ride in the seaside city of Tartus in 2006. Where are they now?

Kids played silly games, just like kids everywhere.

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria

This is inside the Great Mosque in Damascus. We’d always thought of mosques as serious, sombre places so we were surprised to find they were more like community centres, where people gathered to chat with their friends and neighbours.

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria, Homs

These boys couldn’t get enough of jumping into the river in Homs. They are the right age to have been on the front lines in the war.

Homs, Syria, Middle East, Syrian refugees

Homs was a centre of fighting in the war and has been completely destroyed.

People reached out in gestures of friendship and curiosity wherever we went.

Syrian refugees, Syrian conflict, Syrian monuments, travel Syria, Aleppo

We met Mahmoud in a park in Aleppo. He left Syria before the war began.

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 → 


  1. Comment by maria

    maria December 14, 2016 at 1:32 am

    As i sit crying(in my safe home in the Netherlands) about the events happening in Aleppo right now, this post really hits home for me. What a great way to spread awareness and show that Syria is more than the awful, broken, far away country we see on television, but that it is beautiful country with beautiful people that need our help so badly!
    Thank you.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane December 19, 2016 at 7:36 am

      Thanks for your comment Maria. It is so hard to reconcile what we know about the Syria we visited with the place we see on TV now. When we see the images of the shattered remains of Alleppo’s markets and streets we can picture the busy thoroughfares with marketeers shouting out their prices and people calling to us to come and speak to them. Our hearts break to think that most of the kids and young men we met on that trip—with their genuine warmth and joyous senses of humour—are either dead or living as refugees.

  2. Comment by Tessa

    Tessa September 24, 2015 at 7:41 am

    Wow! I’m blown away by the images and the stories. I’m heartbroken that Syria that you visited is now lost or in ruins, along with many Syrian lives. Thank you for sharing your photos – it definitely gives more of a human, down to earth face to the situation beyond what we’re fed in the news. While the refugee situation in Europe is extremely difficulty and complicated as it is, I can’t help but think about those left behind without resources to escape.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane September 24, 2015 at 4:45 pm

      Thanks, Tessa. You make a great point. The refugees in Europe are actually lucky compared to many left behind in Syria who don’t have the ability to get out.

  3. Comment by Dorene

    Dorene September 9, 2015 at 10:17 am

    Really powerful post, I got emotional reading this, and feel very impacted by the war without ever traveling there. It’s unbearable to think about how many families are affected by this, how they have been displaced, or much worse. Thanks for sharing this with us, your story and pictures of Syria a place that is now forever changed.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane September 9, 2015 at 11:18 am

      Thanks, Dorene. We were completely changed by our travels in the Middle East. It was the first time we’d been exposed to a non-Western non-consumerism focussed culture and the first time we got to experience the Muslim religion as a kind and caring community of people, rather than a collection of stories on the news about extremism. I think traveling there started our lives down a completely different path than the one we’d imagined for ourselves.

      We still have never been to a country where people were warmer or more open than they were in Syria – it’s impossible to think that culture will remain after the devastating years they’ve experienced.

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