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SYRIA SUITE, The Story of a Friendship


Through volunteering with Dumfries and Galloway’s Refugee Resettlement project, Clare Phillips befriended a Syrian family whose lives had been torn apart by the civil war.

The mother was a scriptwriter from Damascus who had lost her young husband, also a writer and film-maker, in the conflict. She came to Scotland seeking safety and a new life for herself and her children.

Clare has written many poems inspired by their ongoing friendship and was honoured to be asked to support her friend during the birth of a second daughter.

The Welcome

I held up my sign at the arrivals gate expecting shyness

but the first time we met he demonstrated how to break

sunflower seeds in your teeth, ice between strangers.

Jumping up from a cushioned bench in the foyer

after we’d cracked out laughing at my lack of skill

he gestured with a magician’s flourish. I looked

helplessly at the interpreter. ‘He’s being polite’

she said in a withering tone, ‘respecting his elders,

inviting you to sit down’. I sank beside his exhausted

Mother who was nervously picking a fingernail broken

in the scrum to stow her shrink- wrapped parcel of shoes.

A child’s bear was peeking out from her duty-free bag.

After what felt like weeks, but was only a day later

we were travelling either side of the aisle in a coach to

Dumfries, he snapping sheep, me letting Teddy do the talking.

Outside, the grey-green Galloway landscape ran alongside us.

I remembered the cliché image of kids in a foreign city begging

beside a bus. Inside, the blanket of fog was beginning to break.

Is it me?

‘Why just an hour a week?’

She’s learning English, the key

to a new life for her family

and I agree

to mount a challenge

emboldened by her indignation

start by explaining red tape

the wood-panelled offices

where people in suits

lose papers.

If my cold war sense

of injustice

might need an upgrade

she’s got the urban intensity

she thought Scotland would have

head down

checking the Arabic

on GoogleTranslate, she’s

more Glasgow than Galloway.

Twice, at a crossroads

in her thesaurus

she’s looked up, blown me kisses

and I’m starting to wonder

is it me that’s at sea here? I might

speak the local tongue but I’ve so much to learn

from her; about family, about sustaining conversations, about love

with her soap on Syrian TV

her drama degree

what it takes to be a refugee.

At Abbey Burn Foot

More than one lonely anchorage boasts of her leaving. My money’s on this tiny beach drowned, twice daily, by the incoming tide.

My ten year old friend from Syria has history homework on our Queen of Scots he already knows her mother was French, her father a king her son became James VI

that VI is IV upside down on a clock face confused him but most new language sticks to him like skin or the grey sand coating the soles of his feet.

Going home in the car, he’s quiet beside me then asks ‘Why did they cut her head off?’ I try to explain. ‘She was smart though, wasn’t she?’

and I think, but don’t say, ‘so are you and ambitious and caring’. Spotting lambs on a Solway hillside he announces he’s vegetarian, declares himself against the use of the guillotine, actually, killing of any kind. ‘It didn’t hurt her though, did it?’ We fall silent until his polite ‘thank you’ as I deliver him back into his mother’s embrace.

Your Birds (For H)

That October Tuesday you spent giving birth

I spotted your special bird, that female swan

you tamed, lying dead on the path near the loch.

‘Don’t tell her’ I said to your boy and he nodded,

your sensitive son, as we swung in from school

then, hugging her to to his chest,

he carried your pet to a grave in long

grass where he was sure you wouldn’t

see her. By the time we’d thrown corn

for the hens, eaten tea, I’d forgotten her, remembering

hours later at the hospital, feeding you ice-cream.

Then one day in spring, the new babe in a rare

midday sleep, you told me how long

he’d kept secret the loss of this mother

who’d come to your kitchen to be fed

and be your symbol of hope and renewal.

Today, a new photo pings in of a peacock bearing

your message: ‘we found it in the garden’.

Amaryllis (for HN)

Her text thanks me ‘for sharing the journey

of your flower,’ the bulb she gave me for

Christmas, in a red pot with a wee bag of earth has been growing a stem, tall as a mast.

In today’s picture, a new, white bloom flares

like a megaphone, proclaiming peace.

I thank her for her friendship, these

WhatsApp exchanges have become our main

means of lockdown communication.

A photoshoot ‘for Valentine’s Day’ arrives;

baby Ayla on a rug surrounded by red roses

baby Ayla in purple trousers, topknot to match

and I think of the journeys this friend

has made - her first family divided

by war, her new, budding ambitions

and the daily courage she must have required

after night-mared sleep, to rise and decipher life

in a strange land; her determination to go on living it.

For Ayla, 6 weeks old today – and for Dan

I gazed into her round, black eyes

thinking of Jesus. Ours are all blue.

If familiarity breeds contempt

what’s born of difference? I was

watching her do what they all do -

legs bicycling, that milky bubble

at the tip of a lavender tongue -

when her enquiring stare

by-passed the rope of toys

dangling across its trajectory

and settled on me, then the tree,

and this felt more like a Christmas

than ever before. Except perhaps

for your first at about the same age

when I photographed a tiny mouth

oval with wonder in the velvet dark,

a hand reaching out for the star.

The Boat in Beirut Harbour

Horror docked

as we watched The News

I muttered fuck

and knew this side-on Leviathan

x-rayed in the blast field

would be what I’d remember

like those bird’s eye views

of people lined up like

chromosomes in the slave ships

the starfish jumpers’

fall to Ground Zero,

Bhopal’s coffined children.

All we could do was swear

at the screen, insult them with money;

I couldn’t even pray.

For her it was family, picnics

on the beach, the only place left in the world she hoped to return to.

Clare Phillips

Clare became passionate about poetry as a teacher in 1970s South Yorkshire inspired partly by the kids, but also by the working class radicalism that characterised their local community. In 1982, with a son of her own, she joined CND out of fear for his future, spent time at Greenham Common, and went on to became a Quaker. Since moving to Scotland in 1991, Clare’s poems have been influenced by her deep belief in peace and equality as well as her love of nature rooted in rural Staffordshire where she grew up and still expanding to include Scotland’s island heritage, as well as its many cultures and languages.

After a short pamphlet (Two of Things) published by Markings (No. 12 in the Galloway Poets series), Clare’s second career in social work left little time for creative development. She continued to publish occasionally in magazines and to read at The Bakehouse poetry venue.

Since retiring in 2016 Clare has upped her output and is currently working on her first full collection. Now active in the Scottish Green party and still with Scottish CND, Clare belongs to three collectives; Crichton Writers, Beltie Poets (based in Scotland’s Book Town) and of course Dove Tales. She’s a regular contributor to Reach Poetry, a Magazine published by Indigo Dreams, and received Wigtown Poetry Competition’s Fresh Voice Award in 2019.


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