I arrived alone in Bethlehem with a backpack two thirds full of shortbread. Suddenly, there I was, after ten hours of travelling, the last two of which I spent going in circles in an Israeli taxi with an angry sounding sat-nav that did not recognise the crossing into the West Bank. Now, having lost most of my money to the driver, and having had to negotiate with a fierce Israeli soldier in a maze of dim passages and turnstiles, I found myself spat out into the baking sun. ‘Taxi! Taxi!’ A sea of yellow and black Mercedes cabs were waiting; drivers shouting; boys with carts laden with fruit dodging the traffic; men everywhere; no hiding my foreignness from their eyes.
A young family put me up for the night. I lay in the dark and sobbed until a tentative voice invited me to join them for breakfast. I was welcomed without question, provided for as one of the family and quietly restored.
The Arabs are renowned for their generous hospitality. The Bedouins (a nomadic desert people), have a tradition of offering food and shelter to strangers for three days without even asking their name, a necessary agreement which emerged from life in the harsh desert. The Arabic word for hospitality, Diyafa, has at its root the idea of extending space for the visitor: a metaphorical stretching out of the tent pegs to make room. The greeting Ahlan wa sahlan literally means ‘a people and a land’, signifying a welcoming people and place, where one can belong and be at ease.
Throughout my time in the Middle East, I was overwhelmed by the unquestioning welcome and embarrassing generosity of even the poorest of people. ‘Eat, eat! You don’t like it? You don’t like us?!’ they joked. I developed a way of eating in layers downwards so as never to leave an exposed patch as a target for more ladles of chicken. On leaving a village one day by minibus, I was half way down the road when a woman I knew ran to stop the bus to give me one of her own hand-embroidered dresses.
No amount of shortbread could ever redress the balance. It was a losing battle. I slowly learned to stop resisting, to release my sense of debt and accept their generous hospitality with an open heart.
Fast-forward ten years. I am at Edinburgh Airport to meet some Syrians arriving through the Government’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement (VPR) Scheme. There is a subdued hubbub of anxious council employees, tired translators in winter coats, and Arabic family names on posters held upside down.
The family we are waiting for arrives with drawn, pale faces and exhausted eyes. Their child throws himself on the floor and wails in desperation. A colleague offers to take their two small cases. I step forward and greet them, ahlan wa sahlan! and the wife’s eyes fill with tears. On the bus they tell me they had no idea where they were going and did not know if anyone would meet them. They were afraid they would have to spend the night in a forest or somewhere else outside. Arriving in Dundee, they soon learnt that there is a whole network of support was available. There are Arabic-speaking support workers and other families who have also escaped the war in Syria for the sake of their children. Soon their boys will be in school and the family will start rebuilding their broken lives.
In three years of delivering refugee support in Dundee, I have tried to give back some of what I received when I myself was a stranger in Bethlehem, fearful and far from home. Sometimes this is practical assistance, showing people how to top up their phones and manage their post. Other times, it is listening to their frustrations or answering questions they have about life in the UK. On occasion, that hospitality takes the form of silence. They tell some stories to which one can find no words to reply. I have learned that sitting in silence can also be restorative, as it was once to me.
Welcoming refugees to our country receives considerable criticism. Too much money is spent; they get help with all sorts of things that local people have to manage by themselves; we do not know who they are or if we can trust them; nor do we know what long-term effect they will have on our country. All of these concerns are valid from a perspective of fear, but not from one of shared humanity: we should help our neighbours with their difficult lives and trust that we will be helped in return. I suggest a hospitable response such as that offered by the Arabs, to welcome without question with overwhelming generosity.
This has great potential to create a more positive and hopeful future. Despite all that has been done for and given to the refugees arriving in the UK through the VPR Scheme, I have the strong sense that we are the ones who gain the most. No imaginable kind of house can replace a home destroyed by war. No number of comforts or activities can distract the mind from grief and pain. I doubt that even the future opportunities for their children here can overcome the heartache of losing their homeland. Despite all we provide through our refugee support services, their generous spirit still wins.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of joining three busloads of Syrians on a day trip to Braemar, a village in the Scottish Highlands, followed by entertainment and a meal at Lonach Hall in Strathdon. I was there to assist with proceedings but had the distinct feeling that it was me who was being cared for, while the Syrians provided the hospitality. At Braemar Castle, I found myself in the company of a two-year-old boy. In constant, wordless babbling, he gave me a guided tour that focused on the numerous stag heads displayed on the walls.
Arriving at Lonach, it became apparent that the meal would not be ready for another two hours so two young mothers, who had boxes of home-made food stowed away in prams, invited me to join them for a sneaky picnic behind one of the buses. I felt I had better not, seeing as I was there to work, and politely refused. But ten minutes later, one found me and gave me a plate heaped high with fatayer (savoury pastries) so I would not go hungry. When the men had finished their frenzied falafel making in the kitchen and the entertainments had ceased, the buffet was declared open but I held back to let the 200 hungrier people in before me. Seeing me by the door, a lady insisted she would get me something and no amount of protesting could deter her. I acquiesced in the way I had learned, to graciously receive for the sake of the giver, and watched her bee-line straight to the front of the queue to pile a plate for her honoured friend.
Once again, I am the guest.