Surely no one can fail to be affected by recent images in the media of the desperate plight of refugees trying to reach Europe and safety. Terrible as these images are to see, they force the rest of the world to recognise that this isn’t only a political or economic issue – it is about real people. Ordinary people who had homes, families and livelihoods are at the heart of this terrible situation. If you think about it then, yes, it could have been you. And if it was, how would you feel if those who could help hesitated or simply didn’t help?
For me, the crisis in Syria isn’t just about a foreign country. It is about the people I met there. In 2002 I spent two weeks in Syria visiting the major cities and towns and, of course, ancient Palmyra. It is a country I rate as one of my favourites, where the constant refrain of “You must come back when you have children!” led me to believe that one day I would return. Sadly, it is now unlikely that this will be possible in my lifetime and if my children ever get there it will be a very different place.
What strikes home when I watch the news is that the lives of the Syrians I met have been turned upside down. Sadly, I have no idea if they are alive or dead. Is the hotel where we stayed in Aleppo still standing? Most likely not. But what happened to the hotel owner whose sideline in pharmacy I will be forever grateful for after I fell ill and he supplied the drugs that brought me back from what felt like the brink of death? Or the hotel staff who brought me rice and potatoes for days when I couldn’t get out of bed? These were people who didn’t hesitate to help me when I needed it.
At every stop we encountered people who made our visit special. There was the family in Hama who welcomed us to their table and shared a feast of pomegranates. What happened to them? Hama had already experienced a terrible massacre in 1982 when an uprising against the government was quashed by the then president Hafez al-Assad. Some sources put the death toll at as many as 40,000. It was something no one dared speak of in Hama and there was no evidence or recognition of it ever having happened. Back in 2002, the men in the photograph must have thought that they had already seen their fair share of bloodshed.
What happened to the amazing guide who showed us around the funerary towers in Palmyra? Was he there to witness the devastation when IS blew them up today?
Then there are of course the children who in 2002 thought they had their whole life ahead of them. Despite living under a dictatorship it was at least a time of peace with the prospect of a future. It is horrific to consider what these children must have seen in the last few years and the fear they have endured. Are they still there? Have they ended up in the camps in the countries bordering Syria? Are they currently trying to board a train in Budapest?
As an individual it may feel as if there’s little you can do. However, there is lots that you can do from the comfort of your own home. Please don’t turn a blind eye. Do something to help. Anything. Whatever you decide, don’t choose apathy.