People have continuously lived in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria, for more than 5,000 years. In 2003 I went there to research a story about efforts to preserve the twisting labyrinth of narrow stone-paved streets. I intentionally got lost, and spent delightful hours just wandering, repeatedly trekking into dead-end alleys and having to retrace my steps. And although the place was ancient, it wasn’t a museum. It was an organic community, where people still lived among neighbors. Yet “urban renewal” was slowly eroding the old metropolis. Modern ideas of what a city should look like, including such concepts as the wide boulevards of Paris, had pushed the community to the edge of extinction. I wrote about the efforts of people to keep the Old City intact and viable, an effort that was having some success.
What they labored so hard to preserve has now succumbed to the urbanicide of war. More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed and, not counting the internally displaced, some 1.3 million refugees have fled to neighboring countries. And Aleppo is in ruins.
This week I went looking for some images from that 2003 trip, but those were the waning days of film, and I couldn’t find the box in which those slides were stored. They’re around somewhere, but for now the magic of Aleppo’s ancient architecture will have to reside just in my memory, as it does these days for the residents of Aleppo, many of whom have fled.
I went back to Syria in 2009, when I wrote about how the country was at that time dealing with a massive influx of refugees who had fled neighboring Iraq because of the bloody chaos unleashed by the U.S. invasion. I met people like this young man, whose name he has requested I not use. He was an accomplished violinist who was a rising star in his native Iraq until he fled the violence in 2006. When I met him, he was playing his violin once a week at a nearby Chaldean Catholic Church, packed with Iraqi refugees seeking solace in their faith. The rest of the time he practiced his music in front of a mirror in his sisters’ bedroom, like many refugees fearful of wandering far from the safety of the family’s crowded apartment. His father told me he only played sad songs. [Photo removed for security reasons.]
Another Iraqi refugee I met spent his days making others laugh. Back home in Baghdad, Rahman Aidi Mashoof had belonged to a clown troupe, the Happy Family Team for Childhood Peace, but after repeated threats and the assassination of two colleagues in 2007, the rest of the group fled. Three clowns went to Cairo, and Mashoof and two others came to Syria. Soon they found work with the United Nations refugee agency, and several days a week they entertained children while their parents sat for hours in a cavernous warehouse waiting for interviews. “We want to save a generation, so we tell the children they have to go to school. We want the children to have a new future, because when they came here they brought with them many bad memories of the war. We have to clear those memories from their minds, and there is no better way to do that than with laughter,” he told me.
[This photo was removed for security reasons.]
I also documented some of the work that churches were doing to welcome the refugees. This ranged from a preschool for Iraqi refugee children, run by the Chaldean Catholic Church in Aleppo, to a vocational training program in Damascus, where the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All The East conducted a program funded by the ACT Alliance to train women in hairstyling and makeup, thus giving them a way to earn a living.
The refugees were both Muslim and Christian, and the church’s work didn’t discriminate. Such a peaceful relationship is more characteristic of the region than it often appears from afar, though events like the U.S. invasion, and the continuing repression of Palestinians by Israel, only accelerate the conversion of those relationships into enmity.
There’s also a selfish motive of sorts in the church’s desire to work with refugees who happen to also be Christians. Many refugees are looking to emigrate to Europe and North America, because they feel that the war in Iraq has made the cordial interfaith relations of the past an impossibility in the present. Yet the departure of Christians only contributes to the dramatic decline in Christian presence in the region, something that worries many. In the wake of the US invasion, Iraq is not as hospitable to Christians as it was under Saddam Hussein. And in Syria, the protection that Bashar al-Assad provided to Christians (something that explains why many Christians in the region still defend him), allowed for the church to more or less freely carry out its work, though always under the watchful eye of the government’s security forces. That delicate balance of religion and politics that Assad maintained, perhaps because he also came from a religious minority, is now gone. Many worry that an eventual triumph by the rebels will create an environment where Sunni hostility will convince many remaining Christians to leave.
The only remaining question is how far the Christians will go in their flight from war. Many church leaders believe that if they can somehow keep their people in the region, in the Arab world, instead of emigrating abroad, then there’s hope that the church will remain viable in the region. A Catholic leader in Lebanon, referring to the Iraqi refugees, told me in 2009 that the international community needed to focus less on resettlement and more on finding ways to keep them close to home.
“If you want to do something for our people, help the people inside Iraq. Don’t resettle them elsewhere. They need jobs and security and protection so they won’t feel they have to leave,” said Chaldean Catholic Bishop Michel Kassarji of Beirut. “Everyone tells me they are scared, that they can’t find a job, that they want to leave. But it’s our mission to stay in this land. We’ve been there since before the time of Jesus. If everyone leaves, the middle east will be like a desert without Christians. So I encourage them to stay. But we are a poor church in Iraq, thus it is the mission of the whole world, especially America, to make sure people can stay.”
Yet now the civil war inside Syria has produced its own refugees, and Syrians–and many Iraqis with them, have fled. According to the latest United Nations estimates, more than 1.3 million Syrians are currently living as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and other nearby countries. The giant Zaatari camp in Jordan, which was packed with more than 40,000 refugees when I was there in November, now hosts more than 170,000 people.
In Lebanon, the government has resisted building such large camps. The concept is a non-starter in the country, where a sizable population of Palestinian refugees has lingered in “temporary” camps since 1948. The presence of armed factions among those Palestinians contributed to the 1975-90 civil war. And many Lebanese have resisted the assimilation of the largely Sunni Palestinian refugees in order not to upset the fragile sectarian balance in their own country, a balance which has come close to tipping over in recent weeks.
With Lebanon’s political culture closely linked to Syria’s political factions, no one wants to import the violence that has torn apart cities like Homs and Aleppo. So no large camps, which many worry could become bases for Syrian militants or other armed actors in the region. But there’s no way to keep the refugees out, given the long and porous border between the two countries, and there’s broad support for some kind of humanitarian response. So most Syrian refugees in Lebanon are staying with friends or relatives, or renting space in crowded buildings or rustic encampments. As demand for living space has risen, the supply hasn’t kept up, leaving many to pay exorbitant rents for rustic accommodations, as we see here in the Bekaa Valley (faces are covered by some for security reasons):
Many of the refugees are children, and we can only wonder at the trauma they have experienced and how it has affected them. The ACT Alliance is supporting psycho-social programs to help the children cope with the emotional aftermath of war, and I visited a center in Kamid al lawz where children’s drawings were taped all over the walls. They’d drawn them to help get their feelings out. There were several predictable ones showing the violence, but, in a reflection of our globalized world, a whole lot of drawings of SpongeBob SquarePants.
Back in Jordan, many refugees aren’t interested in living in the Zaatari Camp. Its massive size and close links to Syrian rebel factions push many to crowd into urban apartments in Amman and other cities. Souad Kasem Issa is one of them. She fled Syria last year with her family to take refuge in Jordan, and stayed with friends for two weeks until they found an apartment to rent in Amman. Yet they quickly fell behind on payments. When they couldn’t pay the water bill, that got shut off, so now she buys water from a neighbor and lugs it up three flights of stairs so she can cook and her family stay clean.
Like many refugees, if she’s evicted she faces a choice of moving to the overcrowded Zaatari Camp or moving back to Syria, though she’s not sure where they’d go, as the family’s house in Homs was destroyed in the bombing. She says she and her husband and six children are likely to be killed if they did return. She fears that’s the fate of her relatives back in Syria; she has tried phoning them but they don’t answer. So she stays where she is.
“Life is difficult for us in Jordan, and I wish our country were safe enough that we could return and live our normal life. There is nothing better than being in your own home, your own country. But the most important thing for us now is to feel secure, so we’ll stay, no matter the difficulties,” she told me.
Issa’s husband wasn’t home when I visited. He’s disabled but has a part-time job cleaning a nearby shop. That small income isn’t enough to survive. Issa applied to the UN refugee agency for assistance, but when I interviewed her, she was still waiting for word on official assistance. Three of her children attend school, while the other three remain with her in her cold apartment. She says she can’t afford the school fees to send them all.
“I can’t buy anything but rice and oil and bread, just what we need to keep us going. I owe 60 dinars on the electricity bill and I expect they’ll soon cut it off. I’m three months behind on rent, and I expect the landlord to come asking for it. Yesterday I saw a toy I wanted to buy for Nour Eddin, my five-year old son, but I realized I couldn’t afford it and I started to cry,” she said.
I interviewed Issa in her sparse apartment. I had gone there with some ACT Alliance staff who were delivering hygiene kits. She was gracious in letting me photograph her and her children. Yet as I reviewed the images and my notes that night, I realized I had some more questions, and I could use a photo with the father present. So I had people contact the family again to see if I could come by another day. I suggested perhaps I could come by at meal time as they’d be relaxed and I could photograph them eating together. Fine, no problem, I was told. So I went by a couple of days later, and photographed them eating on the floor of their small apartment. I asked my remaining questions. It all seemed very natural. But I learned as I was getting ready to leave that when they heard I was coming back to photograph them eating together, they worried that they had no food for the meal. A neighbor, Dhamyah Mahdy Salih, learned of their plight, and provided the food. My photo op became their food op.
Salih is a refugee from Iraq, and she and her family were welcomed warmly to Jordan almost a decade ago. Today she’s repaying the kindness. Salih says that when her family came to Jordan from Iraq, they assumed they would go home eventually. So the spent their money on rent and food, and on paying ransom for a son in Iraq who was kidnaped. Soon the money was gone. Her husband tried to get a job, but was twice arrested by the police for working without the right documents. It was ordinary Jordanians who helped them survive, so Salih says that today she is merely returning the favor to someone else. “I’ve suffered the same difficulties, so I want to help. It’s a heritage of my family, to help others as I was helped,” she said.
Issa’s Jordanian landlord, Isam Alhuniti, has helped the family with food and blankets, even though they owe him back rent. He says he once lived in the U.S. and a daughter’s medical expenses bankrupted him. It was some Catholics and other social service groups that helped his family survive. “Thank God for our humanity,” he told me. “Most of us are willing to share what we have for others to survive. And I may soon end up like them. I own the building but have taxes and other bills to pay, and I can’t pay them if no one pays me rent.”
He said there’s nothing unusual about the solidarity that has made it possible for the Syrian refugees to survive in Jordan. “The borders that separate Syrians and Iraqis and Jordanians are small borders,” he told me, “and we can easily reach over them.”
Memories of the Old City of Damascus:
Portions of this text appeared earlier on the ACT Alliance website.