In 2010 while living in Lebanon I hopped across the border to Syria for the weekend alone.
Having only been in the Middle East a month where i was teaching for the year, I was in the front seat of a cross border taxi between the driver and another passenger on my right, sweat lashing off me. After we crossed the border, as we approached Damascus a frustrated conversation began between the three passengers in the back and the two men now stuck to my legs in the front.
Knowing no Arabic and knowing nothing about the city, I had no idea where I was going except that I was to get a taxi to the outskirts of the city, then get a local taxi to the city centre where my hostel was a short walk from. As we arrived at Martyrs Square I soon realised what the discussion was about. The taxi driver and passenger to my right had made the case for me that they should bring me straight to the city centre without realising that I hadn’t a clue where I was going.
It was at this time I discovered the passenger stuck to my right leg spoke pretty good English, and he offered to walk me to my hostel. Without feeling I had much choice, I followed. As we walked, trying not to get distracted by the bustling early evening traffic in a now dark Damascus, he told me he was a 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.
Soon arriving at my hostel, he said goodbye and disappeared into the night. No name. Not even a face to remember. Just a memory of being gracefully and generously welcomed by a complete stranger which has left a huge mark on me and my brief experience of that country.
When the civil war started a few months later, and especially since the refugee crisis began, I’ve 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, whether one of them will be among those arrivals in Northern Ireland this week?
I’ve been reminded of the graceful and generous welcome by that complete stranger in that weekend alone in Damascus. But more importantly the need to be that guy for our newest citizens.
Oh, and one bit of useful Arabic I did manage to learn (and remember) which you can use should a refugee family arrive on your street; ‘Ahlan w sahalan’. ‘Welcome’!
Ross McMullan, Coleraine