On 4 September 2015 the Telegraph published an article written by Wafic Said on the plight of the Syrian refugees. The full text is below:
Britain must help these Syrian refugees, as it once helped me
By Wafic Said
Syria is the land of my birth. One night in 1963, after a military coup that had placed the Arab Socialist Ba’ath party in power and at the imploring of my mother, I fled our home in Damascus, in the clothes I wore and with a single suitcase. I was 24.
Many of my contemporaries who chose not to leave, despite their parents’ fears, suffered beatings, imprisonment, or worse. Escaping Syria did not place me in the same appalling situation as today’s refugees. But as I watch their plight today, I recall the misery of fleeing in fear of one’s life.
The people we see on our television screens in Hungary and Greece have already taken huge risks to get this far, mostly at the mercy of human traffickers. Only the fear of death forces people to make these choices: to walk railway tracks at night, to take the chance of containment in sealed lorries, to risk being drowned on a holiday maker’s beach. Many hundreds have lost their lives, dying in horrendous conditions.
They came in desperation because they had no choice but to leave Syria – they are fleeing torture, bombing, killings, the destruction of their homes and heritage. In running away from hell, they hope for a safe haven to provide a better life for themselves and their families. In such a terrible situation, would we not all do the same?
I stress this point because Syrians are not economic migrants. How Europe handles genuine refugees is a different ethical issue from the challenge of migration. Victims of war, like those of ethnic cleansing, driven from their countries by the threat of destruction, present an obligation to help. European states should respond as they did for refugees from Nazi Germany, or Franco-ist Spain, or Idi Amin’s Uganda.
We should remember too, that while thousands have fled to southern Europe these statistics bear no comparison to the burden being borne by Syria’s neighbours where Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon have in excess of one-and-a-half million refugees, each. These are countries in a much weaker position economically than Europe, and with far more vulnerable social infrastructure.
But as well as knowing what it feels like to be a refugee, I know what it is to be made welcome by another country. I am hugely grateful to Britain, which welcomed me when I could not return, for decades, to Syria. I have lived in the West ever since, and greatly admire European values.
I therefore struggle to understand why Europe, with the exception of Germany so far, is not doing more to help the Syrian refugees. Many Europeans were refugees in the past, during the Second World War for example, and Europe has a proud tradition of welcoming genuine asylum seekers escaping the horrors of war and persecution. Refugees from the Armenian genocide are another example; they were received with compassion, tolerance and understanding.
Above all, Britain has an unequalled reputation for helping victims of persecution from countries all over the world – and not just those with close links to the UK. It stems from basic decency and mercy. It would be a reversal of a centuries-old tradition of hospitality to the persecuted if that instinct were not displayed in Syria’s case. This would be an important message from a country which I have always regarded as a beacon of civilisation and it would be an example to other countries.
I want to reassure Britain of the contribution that people from the land of my birth will make. We all understand the pressures for Britain of a growing population, with new arrivals from within Europe and beyond, and the strains this places upon services.
But in relative terms, the numbers of Syrians will be small and their record of adapting to different ways of life is, in many countries, unequalled. Syrians are natural entrepreneurs, hard-working, sociable, hospitable and ambitious to succeed. Travel the world and you will find communities of Syrians, both Christian and Muslim, in Brazil, in Trinidad, in the US and in Canada. Everywhere they settle, they prosper and contribute to society.
Ultimately, the best outcome will be for the flow of refugees to cease and that requires international action to end the conflict in Syria. I very much hope Parliament will face up to that challenge when it re-assembles. But this will require sustained pressure and there is no prospect of an early end to the misery of the refugees in southern Europe, now.
The Government is evidently giving urgent, daily, thought to its position. The figure of 4,000 people is being bandied around, although the Government has yet to confirm a final number. I implore the Prime Minister to follow Britain’s best instincts and accept a fair number of the refugees who have endured so much, and deserve a welcome in Britain’s traditionally tolerant and humane society. But I must also hope that this number will not be set in concrete and that room will, if necessary, be found for more if the conflict continues to worsen.
Wafic Said is a businessman and philanthropist
The article can be seen on the Telegraph website at:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/11844022/Britain-must-help-these-Syrian-refugees-as-it-once-helped-me.html