I was in Syria in 2011. Here are three photographs.
The one above shows a huge waterwheel in the city of Hama near the Lebanon border. They are called norias there and date from the 5th Century; a time when Britain was officially in the dark ages, forgetting all most of the gifts the Romans had given them. This noria has burnt to the ground now. It took 30 minutes to reduce something that had stood for 1600 years to ash. Most of the city around it is ash too.
In the second photograph I’m sitting with my husband in front of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra. This is the exact place where 25 teenagers were executed by ISIS three weeks ago. They also executed the Head of Syrian antiquities when he refused to disclose where the townsfolk had hidden ancient gold and statues. They have probably blown up the temple too; a temple that was dedicated in 32 AD, a time where Jesus still walked the earth.
In this one a man, a friend, stands with his arm around me in Aleppo. The restaurant he used to run was called ‘Warm Apple Pie’ – “how Western this seems”, I thought at the time. This man is now probably dead, most of his family are now probably dead, and the restaurant is probably rubble. I hope he is in a refugee camp or among those thousands walking from Hungary to Austria to Germany. You will have seen the news or the photos in the papers I’m sure.
There are tens, hundreds of thousands of people displaced in Syria and Iraq. They are refugees. This is different from being an economic migrant, where you cross borders in hope of a better job, or better financial prospects. Refugees are escaping danger. Most refugees are housed in Camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan but for some, the conditions in those camps is intolerable; they leave and they travel north to Europe. They are looking for a better life, a little bit of this life: and who is to say that that it isn’t due them? We are, after all, citizens of the world. It is not necessarily down to us to say ‘admito te’ but rather that very benediction was given to us all the moment we were born and became part of that ‘club’: humankind.
What does Europe do about all the refugees fleeing across Europe? According to EU law, refugees/asylum seekers must register in the first E.U country they come across. But people don’t necessarily want to stop where they are simply safe; they want a real future for themselves, an education for their children. So they head to Germany or Sweden or Norway or the U.K. Ask yourself – would you do the same?
These people fleeing horrors in their own country put their lives in danger and their money in the hands of people smugglers. Many, many people from Syria cannot swim; in the last ten years 23,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to escape from war torn countries in the Middle East. For refugees trying to make it to a better life, they have a 1 in 20 chance of dying en-route. That is raised to 1 in 10 for women and children.
You will have seen the photo of the dead boy washed up on the beach in Turkey. A few of you will have sunbathed on that very beach. He and his family were trying to get a boat to Greece. The boat couldn’t cope with the waves. He had never been taught to swim. He was three. My daughter is three. It is no age to die.
But that boy – Aylan – is not the only one. The internet is awash with photos of dead children, dead women, dead men… All washed up on the journey to Europe. Some of you will have seen them. Some of you don’t need to: just shut your eyes and the imagined picture replicates the horrors of reality. What can we do?
Four years ago, my now husband asked me to marry him in Aleppo. The minuet under which he asked me has collapsed, the second oldest city in the world in which that minuet stood is now bombed to bits. There isn’t much left. But some of the people are left. They have fled and some find themselves on our doorstep. It is good to help. In a world where politics can often leave the ordinary man helpless, we must help where we can.