It is December 2008. I arrive into Damascus as part of an international team of peace-makers. The sun is setting. Up in the hills, outside the city, where I am staying are olive trees, and earth ploughed over ready for the seasonal sowing of next year’s crops. Now, these fields are unsown.

We are hosted by the Syrian Orthodox Church and here to learn from a country with a history of interfaith living of over 2,000 years, here to learn from the experiences in Syria of receiving and offering sanctuary to over one million refugees from the Iraq war.

In our meetings with Iraqi refugees we listen in appalled silence to the suffering of people. Listening to stories of refugees when this is something you have studied and worked with means you quickly recognise structures, patterns of narrative, turns of phrase. It’s easy, in such times of listening to hear one long story, the same story, The Story of Exile, echoing down the centuries.

Listening to these stories in Damascus means also hearing the stories with an underlying cadence of Biblical narratives. I am sitting metres from the window where Paul is supposed to have escaped through the walls of Damascus in a basket. I pull myself back to the present to listen again, more deeply.

This Story of Exile I am listening to is from an Iraqi woman who watched her family executed in the chaos of the conflict and post-conflict situation in Basra. She cannot tell her story without tears. She fled for her life into Syria, along with the millions of others. I find myself weeping with her as she speaks. In times of war, such as these, sometimes we work with and in tears as wordless expressions of solidarity.

The groups where we are guests, learning of their work, show us how they attend to two social aspects of peace-making: beauty and work. Their projects attend to the bodies and minds, scarred by war, through work with beauticians. And they make courses available for learning to work with the internet, to fill gaps and help people know how they might connect with other family members who fled in a different direction and ended up somewhere else.

This gentle hospitality and attention, together with the vast numbers of refugees in Syria brings a lump to my throat. We, in the UK, responsible for the displacement of these people from their homes, are concerned that 20,000 Syrian refugees a year from the conflict are too many. We think to give a fridge or TV would be too much of a luxury. Here, there were an estimated million from Iraq, displaced by actions taken by the UK and its allies.

As I write this the UK is preparing yet again for a vote on airstrikes on Syria. Protests are being co-ordinated, MPs are trying to come to decisions.

I am only repeating what has already been said by others, but we have been here before. And we have learned nothing. The civilians who will be casualties – there are always civilian casualties – are those who took bread in Damascus, from a small bakery, on a street corner, and tore it in half, and gave it to me, and called me a friend, despite being from the enemy country. I wonder where they are now, what has become of those gentle projects in beauty and learning. There has been no news from them since the civil war in Syria broke out.

War is chaotic and the flows of people, money and weapons, bodies and their blood are tangled in the midst of struggles to love and survive and protect. Refugees there will be aplenty from our ill thought-through air strikes and determination to bomb because we cannot, yet again, think of anything better to do. It will be the wretched of the earth who suffer most, those who have already suffered at our hands and the hands of the many different sides warring in this tragic country.

I have no answers here beyond ending the profiteering that desires this war, arms embargos, and the only means to peace which reside ultimately in healed relationships, forgiveness and love.

Alison Phipps is co-convener of Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet) and is professor of languages and intercultural studies at the University of Glasgow.

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