I went on holiday to Syria in 2009, two years before war broke out. I was visiting my Syrian father-in-law with my husband Tarek and one-year-old daughter Zoe. Tarek was learning Arabic but I only knew two words: ‘Marhaba’ and ‘shukran’. Hello and thank you. My father-in-law told me not to worry, as these would be all I needed when visiting family. I could just say ‘hello’ when we arrived, eat all the food, then say ‘thank you’ at the end.
We spent our first few days in Syria exploring Damascus. I couldn’t believe how many people smiled at us on the street and stopped to wish us well, stroke Zoe’s cheek or offer her sweets. And when visiting family, ‘Ahlan wa sahlan’ (welcome) became a familiar greeting as doors were thrown open. Zoe was passed around like a parcel and covered in kisses. We were ushered towards large tables groaning under the weight of plates piled high with homecooked food.
Syria was one of the most welcoming places I have ever been. But now, no one is going on holiday to Syria any more. With almost half a million people killed in the bitter civil war, millions more have had to flee their homes, and many have died on desperate, dangerous journeys to reach safety. Tarek’s family is safe for now, but I can’t help wondering what has become of all the kind strangers we met.
We were made to feel so welcome by Syrians, and now Syrian refugees who should be welcomed into Europe with open arms are drowning, languishing in overcrowded refugee camps, being teargassed and treated like criminals.
By last summer, I was sick of feeling powerless to help. I had to do something. But what?
I donated clothes to a local refugee support charity, and helped sort donations at a warehouse. I found a Refugees Welcome march to go to. I read about Refugees Welcome groups being set up all over the country, and looked on the Citizens UK website to see if there was a group near me. There was.
At my first meeting with Tonbridge Welcomes Refugees, I discovered that our local council had just agreed to accept ten Syrian families over five years. The main challenge was to find private landlords. At the next meeting, a private landlord showed up whose tenants were about to leave. We had our first property.
Just a few months later, we have now welcomed our first Syrian refugees. A brother and sister, Samir* and Nadra*, they were bombed out of nine homes and then fled to a refugee camp in Turkey. They arrived here overwhelmed and traumatised, speaking no English and knowing no one.
Though the government resettlement scheme provides funding and some support, there is plenty for us to do. We’ve found volunteer teachers to teach them English, and we’ve set up an internet connection so they can talk to their relatives still stuck in the war. We also pop in to drink tea, go for walks together, take round some extra pans, or give hugs when needed. The small, friendly acts of welcome we all need to feel at home somewhere.
Nadra finds it hard to rein in her natural impulse to ply us with food and drink every time we visit: their meagre allowance does not allow for the generosity they are used to. Still she finds ways to treat us. A teacher herself, she is also teaching us Arabic – a small and happy reminder of the life she used to lead. And one of the first things she taught us to say? Ahlan wa sahlan. Welcome.
*not their real names