Lucy Lyon, a diplomat's wife, has lived with the Syrian conflict ever since she and her husband moved to Jordan in 2013. Her children have grown used to the horror stories. Last month, back in Scotland, she brought two of them together with the children of a family who had escaped from Homs. What happened taught her a lesson about the resilience of the young, and the stories that link them together.
Five years ago, I was standing in an apartment in Amman, the Jordanian capital, looking at my three-year-old son, stark naked but for a woolly hat, carrying a small orange suitcase. 'Where are you going?' I asked. 'I'm off to see the Syrian peoples,' he explained. Inside the case were a few pats of butter, some cans of tonic, and a packet of date rolls. I explained gently that now might not be quite the time for a one-child mercy mission to war-torn Damascus.
That boy is now eight, and we're just back from Jordan and Jerusalem – where we lived for my husband's most recent postings with the Foreign Office – and we're taking a three month sabbatical in Perthshire, where I was raised. We felt far removed from the Syrian conflict, but anxious to keep in touch. As a diplomatic family, being rootless is something we've got used to; but completely powerless felt like a very new and uncomfortable thing.
Then a chink of light emerged in our diaries as we met up with a Syrian family in Perth, who fled Homs fearing for their lives after the war began. We had met them thanks to a local organisation, Pitlochry Refugee Support, and they kept encouraging us to bring our children (Laurie, eight, Hamish, six, and Petra, two) to their house one evening. Worried our boys would run riot in their small front room, we suggested the cinema. Abdulhai and Ruhiya were happy with my suggestion to take them to Perth Playhouse followed by a pizza.
Noura, 13, and Aya, 10, jumped into the car with our sons Laurie and Hamish, and the banter began there. 'Did you know,' asked Aya in perfect English with a slight Scots lilt, 'that a Megalodon shark could crush a colossal squid with its teeth?'
'We know about Megaladons!' our boys shouted. 'We watched all about them on YouTube.' And then the conversation drifted in an undersea detour to a creature called a Kraken ('How do you spell Kraken?' they all conferred and came up with some more YouTube films which explained another legend of the deep). Within five minutes I realised the children had much more to talk about with each other than they did with me. So I stuck with my role as driver, and listened intently to their animated chat.
'So how did you escape Syria?' Hamish asked the girls. 'Did you have to run away from bombs and shooting?' asked Laurie. The girls couldn't remember exact details, but explained their dad had been imprisoned by the Syrian government for a year prior to their escape in 2012 and they had fled Homs after his release to Damascus. 'Do you mean Damascus Gate?' suggested Hamish, referring to one of the gates into Jerusalem's Old City which was a 10-minute walk from our previous house. 'No, Damascus, Damascus. The capital of Syria,' said Noura. 'Where's Damascus Gate anyways?'
We were the entire audience in the cinema and the children concentrated intently throughout 'Coco': an animated film set in Mexico, the theme of which touched on remembering the dead as a way of preserving them; I was perhaps the only one to notice the irony.
'I don't really like music but I love Spanish-style music, it makes me feel happy inside,' said Noura. 'Me too,' said Hamish, 'and I also love Chihuahuas.'
All juice bottles and popcorn boxes empty, they skipped out into the dark street. I wondered why we'd bothered with the cinema at all, as they seemed perfectly content with leaping over the enormous puddles we encountered everywhere on our way back to the car.
I'd promised Aya and Noura's father that we'd go to Al Racheed restaurant, as it was halal. But by the time we'd started choosing pizza toppings with one Mohammad from Sudan who was part of a group of Sudanese men running the restaurant, and another Mohammad (the girls' brother) from Syria, the chat was in full flow. The two Mohammads were happy to listen to the boys' and my elementary Arabic and reassured Noura that the pepperoni was certainly not from a pig as otherwise it would not have been anywhere near Al Racheed's counter.
The boys tucked into a large margarita pizza with pepperoni, the girls chose jalapeno topping – each extolling the merits of their own choices. And our boys looked suitably impressed that the girls could nibble on a jalapeno without wincing. And Syrian Mohammad offered us all our food for free.
As they were eating, Laurie noticed an engineer's van had parked outside, and was busy pointing at the man in the grimy orange overalls who had just entered the shop. 'Look, it says, "Engineering Company" on the van. He must be an engineer. And I want to be one of those.'
'I want to be an engineer too!' said Noura. Within a couple of seconds they were chatting with Craig, the engineer in the grubby overalls.
'A mechanical engineer. Wow! That would be so cool.'
'Don't do it,' said Craig, who looked tired and cold and ready for a fish supper. 'Stay at school.'
But they continued unperturbed. Aya asked: 'Is there something like you shouldn't mix the red with the blue cable?'
'That's right – never mix the blue with the red,' said Craig, 'red is the live, blue is the neutral. Red can go with brown…' The children were transfixed and Craig looked pleased.
As we dropped the girls back home later, all four children pleaded to have more time together. I was the kill-joy as I trundled the boys back up the A9 to try and put them in bed before 8.30pm with the usual explanation of school the next day.
'That was really, really fun,' they said, as they kissed us goodnight – a whiff of halal pepperoni still noticeable, even under the toothpaste.
I still feel powerless and very far from being in a position to help the situation in Syria. But there are handfuls of Syrians and refugees from other countries spread around the UK, and our children are ready to welcome theirs if we'll give them the chance.