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Finding kindness in an unexpected place

Opinion

On a recent trip to Sweden to visit our son who was studying at Lund University, my husband, Tony, and I decided we needed to get away from the big cities and see some countryside.

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We hired a car in Malmo and drove through picturesque farming land and forests in Skane County. Being off-peak, we didn’t bother to book any accommodation but with darkness descending at 4pm or thereabouts, we soon realised a lot of places were ‘shutting shop’ early and not available unless you had pre-booked and made arrangements to pick up keys.

On our first night, after looking for places in Ystad for quite a while we eventually found a boutique hotel in the main street and dined at one of the few restaurants open.

The following day we started looking for hotels a little earlier but other than an over-priced resort in the middle of nowhere, the plethora of accommodation options appearing on Google all ended up being closed.

We decided to push on to a historic seaside village called Molle on the tip of a small peninsula – a little isolated but a popular holiday destination…in summer.

By this time it was 6.30pm (it seemed like midnight) and after visiting a couple of places listed on booking.com, only to find their receptions closed, the panic set in and we decided to have a drink while we figured out what to do.

We found a quirky pizza restaurant which doubled as an art gallery during the day. It was quite busy – not surprising considering nothing else was open – and after ordering a much-needed glass of wine we told the chef/barman our predicament. He told us about a hotel down the road and while Tony went to check it out, I chatted to the chef, Muhammad, and learned he was from Syria.

When I repeated my concern about the lack of accommodation, he immediately said “don’t worry, if worse comes to worse you can stay with me – I have a big apartment”.

Tony spent his early 20s working in the Middle East so speaks a little Arabic, and when he returned and informed me the hotel was closed I told him to ask Muhammad where he was from.

When Tony started speaking Arabic and told him we’d visited Syria twice, Muhammad’s eyes lit up and he repeated his invitation for us to stay the night with him. We were quite taken aback at his hospitality towards two strangers, even more so when he told us he was a refugee and had been living in a nearby camp before getting work as an English teacher and at the restaurant in the evenings.

We could have tried driving to a bigger town to find accommodation but 28-year-old Muhammad was insistent and we accepted his generous offer. While we waited for him to finish work and ate our pizza, we chatted with a Swedish couple who were shocked to learn we were staying with a total stranger.

They told us that there were a lot of Syrian refugees in that part of Sweden which had a policy of accepting all asylum seekers.

Muhammad introduced us to his young co-worker, Ahmed, also from Syria, whose family remained in the war-torn country, whereas Muhammad’s parents and six siblings had all fled to different parts of Europe.

The Swedish owner of the restaurant told us what a difference Muhammad had made to his business with his great customer service and creative ideas for the kitchen.

We dropped off Ahmed at a hostel and then Muhammad asked us to stop at a supermarket to buy some food for us.

Over supper, he talked about the situation in Syria, his Muslim faith and his family, particularly his younger sister who was having trouble fitting in at school in the UK. He showed us a photo of the large home the family was forced to abandon because of the war.

Muhammad left early the next morning for his teaching job but told us we could stay as long as we liked. “It is our culture – my home is your home,” he said. And of course he refused our offers to pay him for food or board.

Tony and I were humbled by Muhammad’s generosity of spirit, particularly after all he had been through. It made us angry, and ashamed, to think that if Muhammad had sought asylum in Australia, he would have been sent to a detention centre on Manus Island or Nauru. It made us angry to think of all the people languishing in refugee camps around the world. It made us angry to know that the Americans and the Russians are spending millions of dollars on weapons being used in the Syrian conflict. And it made us sad to think that Mohammad’s family are scattered around the world when they should be together.

It made us happy to make a new friend, who we keep in touch with through Facebook, and we hope that one day he will come to Australia and we can repay his kindness.

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