I spent the morning at Timmie’s having coffee and talking politics and religion with my dad. Well, we started talking politics, then deviated to religion, because to us, they are interconnected in the spaces where theory and practice meet.
I am third-generation Canadian. Eh. I was raised in an upper middle class home. Mom was a PE teacher, dad a 737 Captain. She retired early and happily enjoyed her role as a full-time mom/homemaker; he has held pretty much every aviation job out there, including, after his Canadian retirement, taking jobs overseas with ICAO – an international aviation organization working with the UN. In this capacity, mom and dad have spent periods of time working and living in multiple developing countries, including Indonesia, Mozambique, South Africa and Syria.
Today, while discussing current events, I watched my mother tear up as she talked about her experiences with Syrian people. “We were treated well everywhere,” she said, “But better in Syria than on any of our travels.” (In dad’s words: “The people really went the extra mile.”) “I feel like I need to do something,” says my mother. And so, although neither she nor my father participate in Facebook, she went home and wrote this description of the hospitality of the Syrian people they encountered, asking me to share it with you all.
I am Leigh’s mom and a Christian. My husband and I lived in Syria for 8 months in 2002, while he was working there. Before I wrote this for Leigh to edit, ignore or post as she wished, on her Facebook page, I prayed that I would do so, not with forcefulness, but to show a glimpse into the life we were privileged to experience there.
We rented an apartment from a Muslim family, my next-door neighbour and closest friend there was Muslim, my husband’s closest colleague and friend was Catholic.
We experienced safety, laughter, peace and great courtesy from everyone we met.
Our traditional Muslim landlady (in full traditional dress) brought my husband a Christmas tree for his apartment, knowing that he was alone at Christmas. It was a Charlie Brown tree – a stick, really. They have no money, you know. But she had decorated it with a little singing ornament at the top.
Due to a communication mix-up that Christmas season, Leigh’s dad (Marlin) thought I was on my way back when I wasn’t. It was a Friday – their holy day – so most of the shops were closed, and he was unable to find a phone card to call me. A stranger having breakfast at the restaurant noticed Marlin’s distress, left his half-eaten breakfast on the table, first offered to let Marlin use his own phone to make this expensive call to Canada, and then, when Marlin turned down this offer due to having no way to repay the man, said, ‘then I will drive you,’ and drove him all over town until they found a card. The stranger then took Marlin home for tea and a visit before driving him back to his own home. He would accept no money for his effort, and Marlin never saw him again.
Marlin bought a shirt from a local shop, and was walking down the street with it when he noticed the clerk running behind him calling, “Mister, Mister.” Apparently, he paid too much, and the clerk was refunding the difference.
I had computer problems at the internet cafe I used, and a young man left his own computer, which he was paying time for, spent almost half an hour helping me, and when I tried to pay for his lost time, he would not permit me, saying, “You are a guest in our country.”
My landlady and neighbour showed me all over the city, and when a taxi passed us without stopping, the grandmotherly landlady found a policeman and told him, “The taxi didn’t stop, I have a guest from Canada and she will not think we are a good country when this happens.” The policeman got us the next taxi.
At the birthday party for my neighbour’s 9 year old son, the children tried their best to speak English to me and around me, and in my honour they sang happy birthday first in (very broken) English and then in Arabic.
We had breakfast with some mature business men in neighbouring Jordan, who asked what we thought of the country. We said we like it, were pleasantly surprised since there was not much information on the Internet and we are Christians so weren’t sure of our welcome. They all said, oh no, no. We were born Muslim so we are Muslim, our friend was born Catholic so is Catholic, you are Christian and welcome. It was a very comfortable dinner, although not quite as simple as that. They made it clear that their children were to remain Muslim and our children could remain Christian. There was no such thing as freedom to choose. Politics was never discussed, religion, beyond what was said, was never to be discussed, demonstrations against the government were not permitted and certain questions were not to be asked or answered. There were also restrictions we do not have in Canada. At the internet cafe, I met a young woman from Texas who was desperately unhappy. She came every day to the internet cafe to write to her mom, and was not restricted from doing so, but she wanted very much to go home — I was not sure whether she meant for a visit or a move (she didn’t try to be clear). Her Syrian husband would not agree, and would not allow her to take her son if she did so. She told me, ‘I am a normal Texas girl, and I am trapped’ [no one forced this on her–she entered this life willingly, but there are things she never understood when she did so.] I think of her often.
There were/are obviously great differences in culture, beliefs, and freedoms, between our countries, but so many similarities of all humanity — love of family, good food, friends and hope for the future of your children.
We loved our time there — walked on the street “called straight”, touched walls over two thousand years old, photographed the window through which the apostle Paul was lowered in a basket, and we enjoyed our friendships. We kept in touch after we left, and I have several letters from my Muslim neighbour, referring to me as “my sister”. The letters stopped coming once chaos began in Syria, and we no longer write or email as we don’t want to draw attention to or compromise anyone’s safety. We hope our friends are well, but we have no way of knowing.
I know immigration is a serious issue, needing wisdom, compassion and firmness. We have laws that need to be kept and screening that needs to be done, but we watched last night’s turmoil with bewilderment and sorrow. To us, having first-hand experience with the people of Syria, we experienced a confused attempt at making sense of an executive order which appeared to be written with little wisdom, even less compassion, and overruled firmness. Hopefully wise concern and better advisors can come with a more suitable oversight.
In Timmies, I asked mom, “Did you live in the parts of Syria which have been ruined?” They did not, although in the course of his employment, dad once travelled to Aleppo, now destroyed. They lived in Damascus. “I think Damascus is still largely intact,” mom said, “Although, Marlin,” she said to my dad, “They’ve turned off the water to the outskirts of the city.” This leads them to their own conversation. She only has a general sense of the details. They bring up the names of aviation officials they worked with. “Oh, he’ll be long gone,” my dad says. He’ll be…” and they speculate on the probable current global location of some of the people they worked with, and knew. But, that is all it is – speculation. They simply can’t know for sure.