On the Way to Homs

“I don’t hope that the West will come here, because it had a big hand in the war against Syria,” said Youssef Alousi, sales manager at Balkis Ceramics, a Syrian tile manufacturer which was showcasing, among other designs, a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad printed on tiles. “Syria will be rebuilding Syria,” he added. (https://apnews.com/25b543ec1d9e4bfab219eecd165145e6)

This is a commonly-held feeling in Syria today. Despite this, all Syrians are anxious for commerce to move and keep moving. There is no active fighting in Syria right now, even in Idlib, where there are radical Islamist groups like Tahrir al Sham, a ceasefire is in effect. Throughout the rest of Syria, there is peace and security. The government has removed all radical fighters from the majority of the country, and while damaged buildings and road checkpoints make it obvious that there was recently a war in the country, life has largely returned to normal.

Here are some of the new buildings, which are being built all over the country – there’s absolutely a real estate boom in Syria right now. I saw construction literally everywhere I went.

The biggest impact of the war continues to be economic struggles. The people I spoke to in Syria blame the U.S. sanctions for these problems. They feel that the U.S. first used sanctions to try to turn the people against their government, a sort of “give up your leader or else” policy, and that now that U.S. policy has failed to overthrow their government, the sanctions are used to punish the Syrian people.

Syrians are, above all things, practical and stubborn, in almost equal measure. As it happens, I think stubbornness wins out. What this means is that the people of Syria will insist on what they believe is the best way forward, even if it means continuing to face crippling U.S. sanctions. Many Syrians even believe that the sanctions help them, making them stronger and more resilient. One day, I marveled at the fact that the internet remains working even when the power goes out. My nephew’s fiancée responded with pride, “yes, this is one of the accomplishments of the war. Our country has developed new technology to survive and even to thrive.”  Thriving despite the sanctions means that they have proven that they are stronger than the U.S. Of course, that is also a general belief now.

Before the war, there was virtually no anti-U.S. sentiment in Syria. In fact, the people who most resented the West were the people the U.S. has supported in this war – radical Islamists. They frowned on U.S. economic involvement in Syria, the popular European and U.S. fashions seen on the streets in Syria, and the generally liberal lifestyles of Syrians (social media access, cable TV, men and women mingling in public freely). The majority of Syrians, however, embraced Western culture and felt that U.S. involvement in Syria was largely a positive thing, especially economic investment.

Now, most Syrians want nothing to do with the U.S., particularly the U.S. government. They read things in the news like this:

“Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., insisted last week that America will not “rebuild Syria” for Assad and his Russian supporters, calling the idea “absurd.”” (https://apnews.com/25b543ec1d9e4bfab219eecd165145e6)

And Syrians respond, “good. We don’t want the U.S. here. They destroyed our country, why should their companies make money rebuilding it?” They also believe that the U.S. only helps countries who bow to their will, and they reject this option entirely. “For eight years, the U.S. government made war on Syria, and now they think we want them to come “help” us?” said one man I spoke to. “We want nothing from the Americans. NOTHING. Only that they leave us alone.”

So, what is Homs like today? I went to the city and spent three days there with my sister, Julia and sister-in-law, Nadia. You can read about my family here, here, and here.

My nephew, Antoun, drove us into the city. I sat in the front with him while Julia and Nadia chatted in the back. Antoun and I talked about the war. He returned to Syria from Trinidad the year before the war started. He and his wife were living in Trinidad when their son was born, but they hated life there. They didn’t have a close-knit community and the streets were unsafe. So, they returned to Syria, and a year later, war broke out. Despite Antoun’s past residence in Trinidad, they chose to stay in Syria.

“Syria will rebuild,” Antoun told me. “No one in the world will stop the will of the Syrian people. For eight years, almost every country in the world was against us, but we worked together to get rid of our enemies, and we will work together to make the country great again,” he said.

I asked him how he felt about the Russian presence in Syria. He shared a common opinion with others I spoke to, saying, “The Russians are our friends. They came because we asked for their help and they have helped us. We are happy to have Russians here working with us to keep the country secure and work toward rebuilding the country. The U.S. complains about the Russian presence in Syria, but the U.S. government wasn’t invited here, and they are against our country. Like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, the U.S. pretends that they want to help, but all they do is destroy and take what they want. Russia has helped the Syrian people and works with us as an ally. We feel very good about the Russian presence in Syria.”

As we drove down the road, we went through a checkpoint. Traffic slowed to a crawl. I looked at the people in the car next to me. There was a woman in the back seat with three children. Her youngest was adorable, all curls and smiles. I waved at the little girl and she waved back. The other kids waved and so did their mom, smiling at me as a mother does when others recognize her children’s beauty. This mother wore a black hijab, but she had no hesitation in smiling at me, a stranger wearing a shoulder-baring tank top. I found this very reassuring. This was the Syria I knew before the war, a Syria where people respected others’ religious beliefs and religion was not a barrier to friendship. Perhaps, Syria was recovering in spirit as well?

Another thing I noticed is that everyone was continuing to smile and converse in their cars. No one seemed nervous or worried about going through the checkpoint. It seemed like a routine matter that people took for granted. It certainly belied the U.S. idea that Syrian citizens are afraid of the army and the government. When it was our turn, my nephew chatted with the soldiers, and one of them walked past our car with a little machine that my nephew told me was meant to detect explosives. The soldier in the front asked us where we were going and why. My nephew said we were going to Homs to visit friends for a few days. And just like that, in under two minutes, we passed through the checkpoint. All told, it added about ten minutes to the trip.

The worst sights I saw in Syria were upon us now, as we approached the city. Off in the distance, I could see the wrecked buildings. Tall apartment buildings bombed out, their top floors exposed and their windows missing. My family said, “see, this is where you can see the war Leila. But don’t worry. It’s only part of the city. Most of Homs is fine. Don’t worry, you’ll see.”

Next: My first taste of the city.

About LeilaPiazza

I am a wife and mother. I am an Orthodox Christian. I am a Syrian American with family living in Syria. I am a also a yoga teacher and freelance writer. I recently described myself in a job pitch as "a person who's lived in Portland, Oregon for over 20 years with a passion for writing and a passion for all things Portland. I'm a foodie, knitter, wine and beer lover, bee-keeper (yep, I said it), mead and fruit-liqueur maker, organic gardener, home-canner, hiker, biker, runner, and occasional skinny-dipper. I’ve camped all over the state, I sail a sailboat that’s moored on the Columbia (o.k., I'm the first mate), and I spend a large percentage of my time at our beach house in Seaside." That about sums it up.
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