New Year without perspective

War and sanctions destroy livelihoods in the Middle East

by Karin Leukefeld, Damascus

“Oh, we booked a table at the Four Seasons Hotel tonight,” Hanan laughs, clapping his hands. “All of us here will be there with our families, celebrating the New Year really well.” The worker squints his eyes and his colleagues grin mischievously and then burst into loud laughter. “Did you believe that? We were pulling your leg there!”
  Hanan and his colleagues work in a small family hotel in the centre of Damascus. They are Kurds from Afrin and, like their fathers, work in Damascus. They still have their houses and gardens in Afrin. They used to be doing well, with the olive harvest that brought a lot of money into their family coffers every autumn. But since 2018, Afrin has been under the control of Turkey and fighters who ten years ago tried to take control of Homs and Aleppo, then stormed Damascus and toppled the government of Bashar al-Assad. The fighting dragged on for years, with millions of people fleeing the war. Regional and international actors from the EU, US-led NATO took sides with the insurgents, while Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah supported the Syrian government army.

Lost homeland

The jihadist fighting units were defeated and had to withdraw from Ghouta east of Damascus, from Homs, from Aleppo and Deraa. Now they live in the homes of Hanan and his colleagues and have driven out the Kurds. “They are really bad people”, Hanan says in a rough voice. Twenty-five per cent of the population in Afrin and in the villages are still Kurds, he says, but the fighters treat them with contempt and violence: “They beat our people, they drive them out of their houses, they steal everything.” No one knows when they will leave Afrin again. “My father always wanted to go back to Afrin to be buried there”, says Hanan. “He couldn't return and died in Aleppo. Who knows if I will see Afrin again before I die?”
  Hanan and his colleagues are poor and live in small cramped houses at the top of Mount Qasioun, Damascus’ local mountain. His colleague Samir had to vacate his brother’s room when he returned with his family from Turkey, where his hopes of finding work had been dashed. From his small salary, Samir spent the summer building a new room on top of his brother’s house to have a roof over his head in winter. “It wasn’t enough for the windows anymore”, Samir says, shrugging his shoulders. “They are too expensive. I have to pay three months’ salary for them.” So, he says, he taped the windows with plastic, which keeps out the worst of the cold. “But where we live, the wind blows from all sides, and right now in winter it’s really cold,” the worker mutters, as if to apologise for not being able to offer his family something better.

No electricity, no spare parts

It is 31 December 2021, and it is cold in Damascus. There is no electricity in the family hotel, mothers sit in the lobby with their children in dim light. New guests climb the stairs to reach the reception on the first floor. Hanan and his colleagues shoulder the luggage and carry it on their shoulders to the guest rooms.
  “Here in the hotel we have two hours of electricity and four hours of no electricity,” explains Nabil, who works at the reception. The generator is rarely turned on because they have to save heating oil. Outside Damascus, the situation is even worse, he adds: “Here in Jdeideh, we have one hour of electricity and five hours without electricity.” This winter, the electricity supply is particularly bad, the Minister of Electricity explained a few days ago, says Nabil. There is a lack of oil and gas to run the electricity plants. In addition, three power plants are out of order because repairs have to be made for which spare parts are still missing. The population will have to live with the poor electricity supply for a few more months, he said. But then things should really get better.
  Nabil is one of those who have had to rigorously cut back their diet to include meat and dairy products, but who somehow still manage to make ends meet in the harsh economic crisis. His brothers have relatives abroad who send money every month. Nabil and his wife receive a modest pension, he also works at the reception of the small family hotel. The younger son is doing his military service, the older one works as an IT engineer. From his monthly salary, the young man pays into the fund of a housing cooperative that is building a housing complex outside Damascus. If all goes well, Nabil’s son will be able to furnish the flat in three years and then think about getting married. For many young men, this prospect is a long way off.

Saying goodbye on New Year

For many families, New Year means saying goodbye to their children. Well-educated and language-skilled young people leave Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Iran to work or study in Europe, the USA, Australia or Canada. What is left behind are parents who have worked all their lives to give their children a better future. The fact that this future is now not in their own country is associated with high costs for the families and a heavy blow for everyone.
  One of the young men who will leave Syria at the beginning of 2022 is Akram (name changed). He completed his medical studies in Damascus and wants to qualify as a heart surgeon. Because he does not currently have this opportunity in Syria, he applied in Germany and was accepted. He passed the language test, and soon, like many young people from Syria, Iraq, Iran and other countries, he will be working in a German clinic for a below-average monthly salary. “Compared to what the boy would get here, it’s a lot of money,” says Akram’s father, proudly showing the boy’s certificates. Today, 75,000 Syrian pounds are equivalent to 30 US dollars according to the official Syrian exchange rate and are neither enough for rent nor to pay for the high energy or food costs. Akram sees no prospects for himself in Syria.
  In Beirut, the parents of Laila (name changed) are also preparing to leave. Their 17-year-old daughter will go to study in the USA, where she will live with relatives. “She can continue to eat tabouleh and hummus,” says her uncle, who supports his niece’s education financially with his brothers. “She will feel at home, only without the problems and insecurities we have to deal with every day in Lebanon.” Of course, tears would flow as he said goodbye on New Year’s Day, because parents and daughter would probably not be able to see each other again for years. “But she is independent, speaks three languages fluently and will quickly get used to the new life,” says the uncle. “She will go her own way. There are no prospects for her in Lebanon.”

EU and US sanctions destroy national economies

Ten years of war and destruction have severely damaged the economies of Syria and its neighbouring countries. The US occupation of Syria’s oil and gas resources, wheat fields and cotton cultivation block the country's access to its own resources. The situation is exacerbated by the unilaterally imposed EU and US sanctions, which, like the war, is leading to an exodus of tens of thousands of skilled workers.
  The unilateral EU sanctions have been tightened annually since 2011 and complement the so-called “Caesar Law” of the US administration, which came into force in 2020. According to this law, not only Syrian but all companies, states and organisations that trade with Syria can be punished. A report by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in July 2021 stated that US sanctions in Syria had “triggered a staggering economic crisis”. The trade blocked by the Caesar sanctions has led to an increase in illicit trade, corruption and black markets.  •

(Translation Current Concerns)

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