Lessons learned from friendly Damascus welcome
In 2010, while living in Lebanon, I hopped across the border to Syria for the weekend.
Having only been in the Middle East a month, where I was teaching for the year, I found myself in the front seat of a cross-border taxi sitting between the driver and another passenger.
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 away.
The passenger 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.
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.
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, this week, as the first refugees arrive in Northern Ireland, I wonder whether, by a chance of fate, one of them will be among those arrivals. Perhaps not knowing English, not knowing anything about their new towns, I've been reminded of the graceful and generous welcome by that complete stranger that weekend in Damascus.
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 wa sahalan' ('Welcome').
Coleraine, Co Londonderry