A brief encounter with a Syrian refugee in Kurdistan
Mohammed greets all his customers with exuberance, cheerfully offering a free kibbeh before anyone has a chance to order. These little, deep fried rugby ball shaped snacks made of bulghur wheat stuffed with mince and onions are a tasty little momento of his Syrian homeland that his Iraqi Kurdish customers munch upon approvingly. A Kurd himself, the demands of hospitality come naturally, a deeply embedded cultural norm, not sullied by even a hint of obligation. He eagerly rushed to a nearby stall to furnish me with a tea, only moments after putting a second free kibbeh into my hands, squeezing lemon into the sweet brew, another reminder of home to cling to perhaps.
It was only after talking for a while that his shoulders sagged a little, borne down by the daily load that, even after four years away from the hinterlands of Aleppo, a refugee has to bear. He arrives at four every morning at the taxi station in Suleymania, to sell snacks to drivers and passengers from his three-wheeled cart until the late afternoon trudge home, when he can wash the film of falafel pan oil from his face. After paying rent and the fee to carry out his modest business he clearly has little left to settle into the kind of comfortable routine that most people would like at the age of 53. On reaching 50 who would have much appetite for leaving everything behind to scrape a living in a foreign land, your children scattered across Europe, safe but unreachable, a distant phone call away? Maybe he and his family escaped the worst of the horrors but having friends from Aleppo I know that no one leaves untouched by the war and did’t need to ask for details.
“Have you made friends here”? I asked. His eyes looked briefly to the sky with that brief upward nod of the head that Syrians do to mean no, but with an exaggerated expression of exasperation and perhaps a glum resignation to those eternal divisions that have soured Kurdish history. He would always be an outsider here but he saw no hope for returning home. Doomed to a life in limbo.
On asking if I could take a photo he whisked off his grease stained work jacket and splashed water onto his hair to smooth it into presentable form, clearly a man with pride in appearances, anxious to be at his best for a guest in his adopted home. The next time I came he promised to take me out in the old car he had managed to save up for and it was with much effort of persuasion that I finally got him to accept a contribution for the food he had given me and the two cups of tea I had seen him pay for. Even my limited budget would have provided a more decent life for him and his family but the hospitality and generosity I remember so well from the people of Syria had not faded a fraction in his years of hardship.
The final passeneger for my shared taxi finally arrived and we bid our farewells, Mohammed soon surrounded by new customers as we drove off. Next days news announced the latest refugee figures: more than 5 million outside of Syria, over 6 million internally displaced, in total over half the country’s population have fled from their homes. Take a moment to imagine the same in your own country.