Don’t speak ill of Syrian refugees. Instead, learn their language

Our schools need to teach Arabic. The act of trying to speak another’s language is a respect, writes Victoria White

Don’t speak ill of Syrian refugees. Instead, learn their language

WHAT can they teach us? That is the question we should be asking. The first 600 refugees will be here by the end of the year. We’ve committed to hosting 3,400 more, and if they bring their families we could be hosting 20,000 soon.

Yes, the logistics are important, but they seem to be sketchy. But focus too long on what we can do for them and already they’re not people any more, they’re a problem to be solved. We need to focus, also, on the gifts they are bringing us and stretch out our hands to receive them.

“Their courage” is the first gift the veteran travel writer on Syria, Mary Russell, mentions as the possible gift of Syrian refugees. “Instead of waiting for Brussels to say if they could come or not, they just started walking. It lifted my heart.” Russell visited Syria regularly for a decade, and published a book on it in 2011, called My Home is Your Home, which is an expression she heard constantly as the Syrians welcomed her to their country.

Now, the responsibility is ours. Will we learn to say the words, ‘my home is your home’, or retreat to our narrow view of the world, taking potshots at the refugees by texting radio shows?

Syrian refugees in Turkey

English lessons for the new arrivals are not enough. Our schools need to teach Arabic. The act of trying to speak another person’s language is a respect which would go a long way. The focus on French and German and Spanish, and even Italian, is a relic of the European empire.

There is already an Arabic curriculum and Leaving Certificate exam, but I can’t find a school teaching it that isn’t private or Muslim. Don’t tell me there’s no-one to teach it.

There are many Arabic speakers living in Ireland, and there have to be some teachers among the 40% of Syrian refugees who are university graduates.

It’s not as if Arabic is useless. It’s spoken by 420m people, is the liturgical language of 1.6bn Muslims and is one of the six UN official languages.

If we learned Arabic, we would bridge one of the biggest chasms of understanding in the world today, that between Christian and Muslim. “Imagine if Barack Obama spoke Arabic?” as my 16-year-old said to me. Imagine, indeed. And Angela Merkel, too.

Angela Merkel and Barack Obama

“Patience and civility” are other things the Syrians can teach us, says Russell, faculties we have lost in our rushed, Western way of life. She thinks the Syrians will bring their culture with them wherever they go; that Syria can’t die as long as there are Syrians: “They were crushed by Timur (Tamurlane, the 14th century Mongol conqueror). They have come back again and again,” she says.

Reading Russell’s book now, just four years after it was published, is an experience both sad and entertaining, because the Syria she describes is gone.

She seems to have had a premonition of what was coming, as she sat in the Temple of Bel, in Palmyra: “The Palmyran pillars, as enduring as the Great Wall of China, have stood here for 2,000 years, but what if they suddenly toppled down upon me? This could be the year they fall, disturbed by a distant earthquake, a shifting of the sands. By a movement of the Gods.”

The Temple of Bel, Palmyra

Maybe that is how ISIS would describe what they did to Palmyra. But too much of a focus on Palmyra is only playing their game. What is crucial is that we, as hosts, try to get an idea of the rich and complex culture from which the Syrians come.We need to get a sense of what they have lost.

The city of Aleppo, which appears on our TV screens as a heap of rubble, was described by Russell four years ago as “a city of high fashion and smart restaurants, of prosperous businessmen and well-heeled women, a city with an impeccable history of high culture.” But also a place of ancient Arab mystery, “only a breath away from a biblical place of black goatskin tents”.

The city she visited was growing by 50,000 people a year and a €40m, German-funded urban renewal plan was reaching completion. Now, half of Aleppo’s listed buildings, including the minaret of the 11th century Umayyad mosque, have been destroyed and some of the same, committed urbanists are trying to start all over again.


But a culture is not entirely embodied in its buildings. Aleppo was also a centre of Sufism, for instance, a mystical form of Islam which was heavily influenced by Christianity and is often expressed through art and music. Surely, Syrian culture is not so much in its buildings as in its people?

In the past, Syrians brought Europe so much. Take silk, for instance. The word ‘damask’ comes from Damascus. Syrian craftsmen learned to dye it: cinnabar for red, malachite for green, indigo for blue, acorn cups for black and clam-shell powder for white.

Syrian silk became highly prized in Italy and Spain, hanging on the walls of Byzantine basilicas and even making burial shrouds for the popes. When, in 750 AD, the Syrian Umayyad Dynasty fell, the survivors fled to Spain and founded al-Andalus, or Andalucia, bringing the silk industry with them.

The land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates was fertile and, no doubt, it is because of that that so many of the foundations of our culture were laid there.

It was in what is now Iraq that the plough and the wheel, and the 60-minute hour and the 60-second minute, were invented.

The Babylonian King Hammurabi wrote the first written laws and is commemorated on the wall of the House of Representatives in Washington.

TO SAY that our refugees are coming from a culture that is “the opposite” of ours, as George Hook said on Newstalk earlier in the week, makes a mockery of history. Yes, Syrians and Iraquis are mostly Muslim and their women mostly wear headscarves. Get over it — your mammy or granny wore a mantilla to mass.

Islam is a sister religion of Christianity, one of the three great monotheisms, and Muslims never say the word ‘Jesus’ without adding, ‘Peace be upon Him’.

Peace be upon them, all our refugee newcomers. I can’t offer any of them a real home — even good friends have commented that staying with us would only add to their trauma.

But if someone will teach me, perhaps in return for English lessons, I’ll learn to say the words ‘Bayti Baytak’, so that I sound like I mean it: ‘My home is your home’.

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