STAUNTON – It was the summer of 1997, after his junior year in college, when Timothy Fitzgerald decided to go to Aleppo, Syria. He had never been off the East Coast and the only language he could speak at the time was English.

His grandmother said to him, “Why don’t you start by going someplace normal, like England?”

Now Fitzgerald wants people in Staunton to come together as a community on Thursday night at Mary Baldwin University and talk about what’s happening in Syria.

The idea to organize a discussion surfaced when a friend of Fitzgerald’s discovered he had an intellectual and personal connection to the place.

The talk/discussion, “Syria now: Understanding conflict, migration and refugee status,” is 7 p.m. April 27 in the Miller Chapel on 101 E. Frederick St. at Mary Baldwin University. The event is free and open to the public. Light refreshments, including a traditional pepper dip, will be served. Donations to both nonprofits will be accepted.

Fitzgerald’s own conversation about the Syrian people started over 20 years ago. As a history major at the College of William & Mary, he took a course on the history of the modern Middle East during his freshman year and became fascinated with the region.

Like most people, he put together a photo album of his travels there.

“This was before 2001,” he clarifies. “Before the attacks on September 11, when there was kind of a dark glitz to Middle Eastern studies.”

His teachers, who were scholars in the field of Middle Eastern studies, had taken him under their wing, he shares, and by his junior year he was encouraged by some of them to try out the summer in Syria program.

“There was so much to take in – from the food, the people – just the depth of history, too. It turned out to be a remarkable experience.”

From Aleppo, he traveled around the country, and the experience became a major turning point for him that crystallized his path in life.

“I already knew that this was a country, this was a people, that weren’t thought of very highly internationally,” he remembers. “A pariah state. It was on the wrong side of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It already had a reputation, justifiably, for being an authoritarian country.”“One of the things I was immediately struck with was how unjustly that seemed to flatten and distort the reputation of Syrians and the people there,” he says of his experience. “People were so warm and hospitable. So eager to hear about me as an American. So eager to tell me that, ‘We like you. We like Americans. We just don’t like the…