Reality bites

Just to let you know, today’s blog is a personal one, with not much to do with education. It’s been prompted by a short trip to Belgium I made yesterday to visit my uncle, who is very unwell. I had calculated roughly while sitting in my train carriage that I hadn’t seen my uncle for 22 or more years. For many of those years, I had simply lost touch with him, until I got a call out of the blue last year.

With my uncle yesterday

My uncle is from Syria, my late mum’s younger brother. I remember seeing him a lot during my childhood. He owned a fashion boutique in Damascus and would travel to Europe every year, visiting Milan, Paris and London to buy apparel from wholesalers to sell in his boutique back home. In London, he would stay at home with us, updating mum on the latest family gossip and showing us the garments he purchased each day. He would always bring with him some tasty treats from Syria, such as home made apricot jelly (a particular Damascene specialty) or pickled eggplants stuffed with garlic and pine nuts (delicious, I promise you). But then we had the Gulf war and the Axis of Evil, which made it more difficult for my uncle to get visas to travel abroad. We saw much less of him after that.

My uncle Marwan, looking dapper at my parents’ wedding

I myself travelled rarely to Syria. My last trip there was, I think, in the year 2000, and was totally unintended. I had been sent on a business trip to Beirut for a few days – at the time I worked for a consultancy that specialised in the Middle Eastern markets. On the spur of the moment, I had telephoned one of my aunts to say hello, and she had read me the riot act about not coming to visit them in Damascus. “Just get into a taxi and come over, it’s only an hour’s journey away”, she said. So I checked out from my hotel and asked the receptionist to sort out a taxi for me, and then made my way towards the Syrian border.

The taxi driver was friendly and chatty, and quite familiar with this commute between the two neighbouring capital cities. At the border checkpoint, I presented my passport (I was a Saudi Arabian national then, not yet a British citizen), had it stamped and sent on my way. However, just as we were about to drive off, a man in military uniform stopped our car and asked if he could nab a ride with us. The taxi driver was unable to say no. This big man, with a gun sticking out from his side, turned to me with false bonhomie and started asking me questions. The taxi driver turned silent and fearful, as for the remaining part of the journey, I was grilled on who I was, what my connection to Syria was, what was my reason for making this journey, who was I visiting, where did my aunt live, and so on and so forth. After half an hour of this inquisition, we arrived in Damascus, and the security official asked to be dropped off on a street corner, allowing us to drive off. I heaved a sigh of relief, as my taxi driver went back to his garrulousness. Looking around the city, everywhere were billboards and posters of the recently deceased Hafez Al Assad, and his son Bashar who had  succeeded him as ruler of Syria, together with patriotic slogans – a daily reminder of the almost totalitarian dictatorship in charge of the country. I kept my visit short. My family was welcoming but I couldn’t shake off that feeling of oppression when everywhere we went involved passing a security checkpoint, where the encroaching power of the state could be felt at every level. I vowed not to return, at least not until there was a better, more open regime.

During that short visit, I met many family members, but not my uncle. He had been ostracised by the rest of the family for his womanising ways. After his long suffering wife had asked for a divorce, he had taken up with a girl half his age, a girl from the provinces, that is, not from Damascene high society (shock horror). I heard he had married this young woman and started a new family with her, but as he was beyond the pale now, he had not been invited to the dinner being held in my honour. There was also another member of the family, my aunty Nadia, who had been similarly excluded. After an unhappy marriage, she had turned to drink and men for solace, and tales of her licentious behaviour had, it was claimed, stained the family name. This all sounds rather Victorian, doesn’t it?

My aunty Nadia, in happier times

When my mum was alive, she had been the glue keeping the extended family, if not together, at least connected. But my mum passed away in 1999, and after that I received little news about my uncle Marwan and my aunty Nadia. The war started, though my family in the affluent part of Damascus seemed curiously unaffected. Facebook posts showed them dressed up to the nines attending weddings and lounging in cafes. About two years ago, I heard on my cousins’ WhatsApp group that aunty Nadia had passed away, and assumed she had died of old age as she was close to 80 years old. I heard nothing about my uncle until that phone call about a year ago, telling me he was now in Belgium but giving little detail as to how he arrived there. I promised to visit, but got sidetracked with work and life. Then I heard he had been admitted to hospital with a life threatening illness, and then sent home for the little time he had left. The visit could not wait any longer.

It’s funny how, you can be apart for decades yet still feel that instant connection and familiarity when you meet up again. This is how it was yesterday. I had brought some old family photos and we sat together and reminisced. I met my uncle’s wife for the first time – a lovely lady – and my two young cousins, a boy aged 11 and a 13-year old girl. Later, I found out about their harrowing journey to Europe. Back in Syria, they had given shelter to my elderly aunty Nadia, whose home in Ghouttah (near Douma) was in a zone of intense fighting. One day however, she had decided to head back to her flat – she wanted to get hold of a stash of money she had hidden away. No amount of pleading could persuade her not to go. She didn’t make it back from that short walk a few blocks away. It’s presumed she was shot dead by a sniper. They never managed to recover her body.

In due course, the fighting got ever closer to my uncle’s home, and they took the decision to leave. Everything they owned was liquidated in a few days, their home, their furniture, any of their belongings that could bring in some cash. They flew to Turkey and paid a smuggler to take them in a boat to Greece. They got on the rubber dinghy late at night, and luckily the sea was calm. After a while, they saw the lights of a boat approaching and panic set in. If it was the Turkish coastguard, they would be returned back to Turkey. But luck was on their side, as it was the Greek coastguard, who took them onboard and deposited them on mainland Greece. From there, they were dispatched straight to Germany, but my uncle’s wife had heard through the grapevine that refugees were no longer being welcomed there, following a backlash against Angela Merkel’s earlier decision to let many of them in. They decided to sneak away from the centre they were at, and with the last of their money, bought coach tickets to Brussels. Arriving there on a cold winter’s evening, they found the office for processing refugees closed, and sat outside, not knowing where they were going to spend the night. They had no money left.

And there, they were accosted by a kindly expat British couple, who took them into their home and gave them shelter for a week, while their documents were being processed. They were then told to go to a detention centre in a small town about an hour away. With help from the British couple, who paid their taxi fare there and even put them up in a hotel when they arrived and found the processing office closed, they finally ‘got into the system’ and were housed in the detention camp, four to a room, with communal bathrooms. They stayed there for four months, enduring many interviews to ascertain whether they were truly who they said they were. The camp was full of Afghan and Iraqis, many of them claiming to be Syrian, with forged passports in tow. Some of the interrogation involved them being tested on streets and details about Douma that only someone who had lived there would know. Finally, they were given residency papers and waited a few more months before they were housed.

In all that time, I was blissfully unaware of their fate. I watched footage of refugees in boats on the news, like everyone else, never thinking it directly affected me. Cushioned by the creature comforts of home, I felt sympathy but disconnected from it all. These awful things were happening far away, to other people. It was sad, yes, and I made charitable donations to organisations involved in helping refugees, to help me feel I was doing my bit. Finally, sitting across from my 72-year old uncle, reality came to bite. In all that time of tribulation, they never called me or my sisters. They didn’t have my number, but a few enquiries would have procured it, as they were able to reach me last year. Maybe it was pride or a sense that they had no right to ask for help from family members they had not spoken to for decades. In the end, it was not me who helped them, but an anonymous British couple. It’s no exaggeration to say that I don’t feel too good about myself right now.