Last week, at Budapest’s Keleti station, the Observer’s Emma Graham-Harrison mingled with the refugees hunkered down on the concourse there. In today’s paper she retells eight of the stories she heard from those fleeing persecution and war. This is one of them.

Mary Al-Aboud fled the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor as it was surrounded by ISIS forces which now control 40% of the town, according to Time magazine.

Mary Al Aboud, 33, and her children (left to right) Jena, four, Muhammad, five, Rua, two, and Nada 10
Mary Al Aboud, 33, and her children (left to right) Jena, four, Muhammad, five, Rua, two, and Nada 10

In a life she can barely remember, Mary al-Aboud taught English at a primary school in the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor before the war. On her mobile phone, she shows a video of the bomb that flattened her home and killed her husband.

”It’s just me and my babies now,” she says as four young children play around her legs.

They have been on the road for about 50 exhausting days, she estimates, after finally deciding to flee their home this summer as Isis closed in. Mary and her children are trying to join her brother, already in Germany, whom she describes as “the only person I have left”.

He has sent what money he can to cover the costs of their journey, but it is never enough. Mary has the gaunt look of a mother who has gone without to feed her kids. For days, they have eaten little but bread and the odd tin of fish.

They have only the clothes they stand up in and Mary races to a queue of handouts in the hope of finding jackets or blankets to protect the family from the creeping chill of autumn evenings.

She is juggling a sheaf of worries about her children; some pressing, others less immediate but more disturbing to a mother.

Two-year-old Rua needs shoes, after hers went missing in the Hungarian camp where they were briefly detained and fingerprinted. Muhammad, five, needs to see a doctor after a bomb that exploded too close to his young ears left him permanently deaf.

Her oldest, Nada, 10, has not been to school for two years. She was a good student and should have graduated from sixth grade, but the schools closed after she finished fourth grade.

And all of them are still living with the trauma of the war they fled, even in the difficult but safe forecourt of the Budapest train station. “When my babies hear any plane go overhead, even here they are frightened,” says Mary.

The ISIS-controlled area of Deir-ez Zor, greatly damaged by artillery and aerial bombing, photographed by Time magazine
The ISIS-controlled area of Deir-ez Zor, greatly damaged by artillery and aerial bombing, photographed by Time magazine

In the same newspaper, the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that this is a moment to reinforce the ideals upon which the European Union and other international bodies such as the United Nations were formed. He writes:

Many of the conventions and protocols establishing legal rights for refugees emerged in the aftermath of the second world war, as did the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the dark moments in that history occurred in July 1938, when representatives of 32 countries gathered in the French spa town of Evian to discuss the humanitarian disaster that everyone knew was about to overtake the Jews of Europe wherever Hitler’s Germany held sway. Jews were desperate to leave. They knew their lives were at risk and so did the politicians and aid agencies at the conference. Yet country after country shut its doors. Nation after nation in effect said it wasn’t their problem.

In a powerful passage he continues:

Nothing in our interconnected world is a long way away. Everything that could go global does go global, from terror to religious extremism to websites preaching paranoia and hate. Never before have John Donne’s words rung more true: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Therefore, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”.

A strong humanitarian response on the part of Europe and the international community could achieve what military intervention and political negotiation have failed to achieve. This would constitute the clearest evidence that the European experience of two world wars and the Holocaust have taught that free societies, where people of all faiths and ethnicities make space for one another, are the only way to honour our shared humanity, whether we conceive that humanity in secular or religious terms. Fail this and we will have failed one of the fundamental tests of humanity.

I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Then I realised that it is easy to love your neighbour because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers”, resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now. A bold act of collective generosity will show that the world, particularly Europe, has learned the lesson of its own dark past and is willing to take a global lead in building a more hopeful future. Wars that cannot be won by weapons can sometimes be won by the sheer power of acts of humanitarian generosity to inspire the young to choose the way of peace instead of holy war.


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