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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Syria’s legacy of hospitality: Embracing refugees throughout history

Unlike many divisive people across the world who have demonized Syrian refugees in recent years (some as a tactic for gaining political support), the country of Syria itself has stood as a beacon of compassion and refuge throughout most of its history. Before its more than 50 years of oppression and brutality under the Assad family’s rule Syria was a nation whose rich tapestry was interwoven with stories of embracing those fleeing from hardship and persecution. From the ancient Silk Road to the region’s more recent history of 20th-century conflicts, Syria’s past is adorned with instances of extending a welcoming hand to those in need.

Whether they were fleeing war, famine, or oppression, refugees found solace within Syria’s borders where hospitality was not just a virtue, but a way of life

In antiquity, Syria served as a crossroads of civilizations, a melting pot where diverse cultures converged. This cultural mosaic was not only a testament to Syria’s geographical significance but also to its ethos of inclusivity. The ancient cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and Palmyra were not merely centers of trade and scholarship, but also sanctuaries for the displaced and dispossessed. Whether they were fleeing war, famine, or oppression, refugees found solace within Syria’s borders where hospitality was not just a virtue, but a way of life.

In the decades that followed World War II, waves of Palestinian, Iraqi, and Lebanese refugees also sought refuge on Syrian soil, finding hope and a sense of belonging amidst turmoil.

Fast forward to more recent times and we find that the Syrian people’s commitment to sheltering refugees has remained steadfast even if their government has not. Throughout the tumultuous events of the 20th and 21st centuries, Syrians opened their homes and hearts to those in search of safety. During World War I, Syria welcomed Armenian refugees escaping the horrors in their homeland, providing them with sanctuary and support. In the decades that followed World War II, waves of Palestinian, Iraqi, and Lebanese refugees also sought refuge on Syrian soil, finding hope and a sense of belonging amidst turmoil. This left every Syrian surrounded by an abundance of ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity.

despite the immense hardships being forced upon them, Syrians continue to be true to their history of hospitality and generosity towards others in need, even as they struggle with their own challenges

However, the most poignant chapter in Syria’s history of hospitality is its own government’s creation of the recent Syrian refugee crisis. Due to the regime’s brutal response to the people’s demands for government reform and an end to the corruption and attempts to control the people with brutality, oppression, and intimidation, millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes since 2011, seeking refuge both within the country and beyond its borders. Yet, despite the immense hardships being forced upon them, Syrians continue to be true to their history of hospitality and generosity towards others in need, even as they struggle with their own challenges, a fact that has been supported by the many stories told by humanitarian workers and journalists who experienced their innate generosity first hand while visiting a wide variety of Syrians living in refugee camps.

As the world continues to grapple with ongoing refugee crises, Syria’s historical record of opening its doors to those fleeing violence and persecution serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy, solidarity, and hospitality

This legacy of embracing refugees has proven to be not merely a footnote in the history of Syria as a country, but a defining characteristic of the national identity of the Syrian people that they have carried with them even as they have been dispersed throughout the world. It reflects their profound understanding of our shared humanity that transcends borders and differences and is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the enduring power of compassion. As the world continues to grapple with ongoing refugee crises, Syria’s historical record of opening its doors to those fleeing violence and persecution serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy, solidarity, and hospitality in times of adversity.

Yasser Ashkar
Yasser Ashkar
Former instructor at Istanbul University. Ashkar is a Founding Member of the Association of Syrian Refugees, Human Rights Activist and Journalist. He currently lives in Michigan, USA.

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