• Sarah Tottle

Life is about kindness



I first met Ali Demashke* on a flight heading to Dubai earlier this year. I had the privilege of sitting next to him on my Emirates flight. Ali was unusually warm and positive for a passenger on a long haul flight. He helped lift my heavy luggage into the overhead lockers, smiled sweetly, and began to read a textbook he had brought on board. There was something different about Ali. He was generous, friendly, and he giggled loudly at the on board entertainment in between study breaks.


I am always fascinated with people. I genuinely want to know their stories. Most people have a testimony in life, but rarely have the opportunity to share. I knew there was more to Ali and I was determined to find out. Thankfully, Ali’s warmth and generosity of spirit meant he opened up easily. He began to discuss his new life in the UK. He had accepted a role in senior management at an engineering and electronics firm, and was pursuing his MBA studies on the side. Ali had also left Syria, fleeing central Damascus, when his home was destroyed by the terrorist group ISIS. He appeared remarkably positive for someone that had lost not only his home, but his family. Ali rarely sees his parents and brother who still live in Damascus. His other sisters, including his twin, had left Syria and emigrated to Turkey and Egypt.


We are continually bombarded with the devastation hitting Syria. The shattering and tragic image of a young boy who died en-route to Greece shocked the world. The image tugged the heart strings of individuals globally, and the Refugees Welcome campaign kick-started around the world. Something had to be done.


Ali had witnessed the changes in war-torn Syria. He began to describe an almost idyllic childhood; one where his parents emphasised the need for academic achievement. He excelled in school and was accepted into an engineering programme at the local university, where he was subsequently head-hunted following the completion of his degree. Life was good. He had saved enough and purchased his first home in central Damascus. His aim was to settle, find a partner, and set up home. He felt fortunate. He had a great bunch of friends that he is still in contact with today.


The problems in Syria changed everything. His friends and family left and fled to the USA, Germany, Egypt and Turkey. He would see them regularly before the war, but because they are displaced around the world, contact with them beyond social media and phone calls is rare. He has not been back to Syria since 2011.


I was intrigued by Ali’s upbeat energy and positivity in the face of such adversity. It is a rare scenario. He had a level of resilience about him and I wanted to find out what he had learned from his experience. Ali agreed to share his experiences with me over coffee this summer. I began to learn a lot from his tenacious character. In fact, I learnt a lot about myself too.


Mindfulness, or living in the moment, is key. “Things are fleeting”, recalls Ali. “It has been a learning process.” For Ali, knowing not to take things for granted was his biggest lesson. He realised one of the best investments he could make was in himself. That is why he pursued his MBA studies. Experiences are the rare gems in life. “My focal point was a home, car, and to marry. My perspective has shifted now I learned that nothing is certain.” Ali no longer takes things for granted. He focuses on enjoying his time and living in the here and now.


When Ali took up his role at the engineering firm in the UK, he entered a completely different culture. “I am a more open-minded person now”, he says. “I find solutions to problems. I am much more resilient. As a Syrian, I have so much to be thankful for.”


A lot of what Ali told me resonated. The salient lessons centred on shifting his focus from being extremely goal orientated to enjoying the opportunities that life brings. His comments could not have come at a better time. I had learned some hard lessons in my own personal life and my own focus needed to shift to enjoying the present instead of racing to finish some far away and often obscure goal. Life is about people, after all. It is our friends and experiences that make life. Those things are not to be wasted.


When everything has been taken away, we begin to ask ourselves the hard questions in life. We realise what is important. The famous quote by Maya Angelou rings true: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Ali agrees. “Treat people with kindness”. The world is desperate for kindness. A kind of authenticity. We are a world craving love.


*Name has been changed.

**Article originally published in The Huffington Post

©2019 by Sarah Tottle.