Is making ends meet in Syria becoming tougher? Together with Adel, we hit the streets to ask a number of working class Syrians – a second-hand clothes seller, a taxi driver, a fishmonger, a plumber and two factory workers – if they feel they are benefiting from the new economy.
Photos by Adel Samara
A Vicious Circle
Nine-year-old Yahya leads me to his house through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways in Idashareye, an industrial area close to Bab Sharqi in the Old City of Damascus, expertly jumping over piles of rubbish. His mother, Aisha Nasrallah, a robust woman wearing a long black galabeya and a tightly knotted scarf, is waiting for us at the doorstep. A drawing of the city of Jaffa adorns her front door, along with a spray-painted message: “Palestine is Arab”. I ask Nasrallah if her family is Palestinian.
“No, we are from the Hauran in southern Syria,” she says, laughing. “Have you seen the Syrian soap opera Al-Dawameh [The Whirlpool], the one about Palestinian refugees? They shot it at our place. They searched the whole neighbourhood, but they couldn’t find a house better than ours that resembles those found in the rundown Palestinian refugee camps.”
With two tiny dark rooms looking out on to a small courtyard, Nasrallah’s house is indeed reminiscent of a refugee shelter. The makeshift kitchen consists of a fridge, a small oil heater and some bowls and saucepans piled up at the side of the courtyard.
“When we got married, my husband already had nine children from his previous marriage,” she says. “Only four of his children survived, the others got sick and died. I gave birth to four children. Now that my husband’s oldest sons have married, there are only seven of us living here.”
Nasrallah’s husband, Mohammad Deyab Nasrallah, works at a food-processing factory in the morning and drives a van delivering goods at night.
“I took out a loan to buy a small second-hand van hoping that it might increase our income, but I got stuck in a vicious circle,” he explains. “I’m now paying twice as much to repair the van because it keeps breaking down and I still have to pay back the loan. So now I’ve ended up working all day, while the family lives off just SYP 8,000 [USD 174] per month. This is all that is left over from my salary.”
Mohammad says he regrets his decision to move to Damascus, but is unable to return to the Hauran because he doesn’t own a property or a piece of land from which he can generate an income.
“Life used to be much easier,” he says. “Everybody is talking about modernising the country, but all we have seen are soaring prices. As for me, I’ve lived my life, there isn’t much left. But God help the younger generation. How will my children survive?”
Begging to Sell More
As I chat with a shop owner in Souk Al-Harameye in downtown Damascus, a young man with a sunburned face interrupts me: “Hey, are you a journalist? Listen to me – I have a lot to tell you!”
Abu Yazan, 19, has been selling second-hand clothes in the souk since he was 12 years old. He is desperate to explain that times have become tougher since he was a child. Abu Yazan used to return home each day with at least SYP 800 (USD 17.40) in his pocket, but today he says he is lucky if he earns SYP 300 (USD 6.50).
“This souk is for the poor,” he says. “Those who can’t afford to buy a pair of shoes for SYP 2,000 [USD 43.50] come here and buy a pair for SYP 250 [USD 5.45]. But people aren’t buying many clothes anymore and when they do they aren’t willing to pay more than SYP 100 [USD 2.17]. I have to pay SYP 7,000 [USD 152.17] each month in rent for my house in Kabun. I can’t afford to buy my own house. How can I get by on such a small income?”
Abu Yazan doesn’t own a shop in the souk. Instead, he sells his goods on a table in the middle of the street. As the stall is illegal, he often runs into trouble with the police.
“I’ve been arrested several times,” he says. “I spend two days in jail and then go back to work until the police catch me again. We play a game of cat and mouse.”
Abu Yazan smiles mischievously while recounting his dealings with the police, but he soon becomes angry.
“People think I’m homeless,” he says. “They treat me like I’m a beggar just because I work on a street stall in the souk, but I’m not. I work hard from morning until night to earn the little money I have. I work harder than any of those rich guys driving around here. They say I’m living on the street, but they are actually the ones who roam the streets all day doing nothing but spending their parents’ money.”
By the time Abu Yazan has finished his speech, a small crowd has gathered around us. He draws a large X with his trembling hands, turns on his heels and shouts “that’s it” before disappearing into the crowd.
Have a Little Faith
Entering Riad al-Hamwi’s home, I find his family gathered together cheerfully sipping tea and munching Easter chocolates.
“Our life is not easy, but we are grateful to God that he puts food on our table,” Hamwi says with a smile.
Life is a struggle. The 40-something Hamwi used to work at an iron foundry, but when he developed asthma some 17 years ago he was forced to quit his job. Without a diploma and few savings, he turned to the taxi business.
“Neighbours and family members raised money for me so I could buy a taxi,” he explains. “Without them I don’t know what I would have done.”
When the Syrian government issued a law in 2004 prohibiting car models dating past 1976 from operating as public transport, Hamwi was forced to buy a new car.
“The new law, coupled with the rising price of fuel, made it very hard to start all over again,” he says. “We bought another second-hand car and are paying for it in installments, but it’s very expensive and keeps breaking down.”
To make matters worse, Hamwi’s wife suffers from kidney problems. With weekly dialysis sessions and medication bills to pay, not much money is left for the family to live on.
“We live day by day,” Hamwi says. “It’s impossible to save any money. But thank God we are together, that’s all that matters. The Lord will help us.”
The Big Squeeze
Bahaa al-Din Shahada, a plumber-cum-locksmith in his early 40s, is the proud owner of a small shop tucked away in the bustling streets of Shaalan.
“I work as a plumber,” he tells me. “But I also make keys and anything else a customer might need. I’ve been working in this shop for more than 25 years now.”
Shahada is eager to talk about how times – and prices – have changed since 1985 when he opened his shop.
“Everything has become more expensive and people are getting poorer,” he says. “A simple lock which used to cost SYP 150 [USD 3.25] now costs more than SYP 800 [USD 17.40]. Before, if the bathroom started overflowing, people would change the whole bathroom suite. Now they ask me to fix it. They can’t afford to regularly change their bathroom fittings and accessories anymore.”
Shahada blames the rising prices of raw materials and fuel for the “soaring costs”, as well as higher taxes.
“Even though I’m charging more for my services, my income has decreased,” he says.
Competition from larger companies entering the market is also a huge concern.
“Syria is opening up and the competition is growing,” he says. “Soon, big companies will start providing similar services to mine, at cheaper prices. Once that happens people will no longer need self-employed handymen like me. I’m not available 24 hours a day like company employees. If I get a phone call from someone who needs his bathroom fixed, I will go. But if another customer calls me at the same time, I can’t do that job as well. I don’t have employees who I can send to fix the other bathroom, whereas the big companies do. If this happens I will either have to go and work for one of these big companies or change my profession altogether and start selling clothes. Everyone always needs clothes.”
Casting the Net Wider
“What kind of fish would you like to buy?” Salim Leila, a tall, slender man in his early 30s asks. To my surprise, when his young customer asks for a kilo of ‘sea fish’, Leila advises him to rethink his order.
“I wouldn’t recommend you buy that fish today,” he says. “It’s not fresh.”
Perplexed, I ask Leila why he would choose to send a customer away. He answers with a smile: “People need to trust me or else they won’t come back. Once they know I will only give them the best I have, they will never buy fish from anyone else.”
And indeed, this cheerful fishmonger is not short of customers. His shop is bustling with people and the phone has not stopped ringing with delivery orders since I arrived.
So, is the growing competition from large supermarkets entering the market a worry?
“People are not naive,” Leila tells me. “They can’t be fooled. These big malls might have tonnes of fish on display, but they can’t guarantee their freshness and they don’t have fishmongers who recommend which fish tastes better. They only have employees who sell fish like they sell clothes.”
While Leila may not fear the competition, his business has struggled in recent years.
“I’ve been selling fish for 25 years, but over the past 10 years work has become more difficult,” he says. “While I used to employ 10 people in my shop, now I can only pay the salaries of two. After 2pm, I now usually spend my time drinking tea. Why? Because fish that used to cost SYP 700 [USD 15.20] now costs SYP 1,700 [USD 37]. Not many people can afford these prices.”
Yet Leila remains optimistic about the future.
“As the economy opens up, I’ll be able to start importing a larger variety of fish at cheaper prices,” he enthuses. “Chicken is very expensive these days and full of hormones. People will soon turn to fish.”
Hoping to Strike it Lucky
When Hassan Ismaeel was offered a job at a textiles company in Damascus 14 years ago, he did not think twice about leaving his hometown of Banias on the Syrian coast for the big city lights. What seemed like a dream job back then, however, is no longer enough to put food on the table, Ismaeel says. For the past year, the 40-something-year-old has been walking the streets selling lottery tickets after his shift at the factory in order to earn some much needed extra cash.
“Every day I work for eight hours at the textiles company and then another six hours selling tickets, yet things are getting more expensive by the day,” he complains. “Once the price of fuel rose, so did everything else including food and clothing.”
Not many people are buying Ismaeel’s lottery tickets either.
“Only poor people buy lottery tickets and they usually buy them at the beginning of the month,” he says. “Most of the time I sit here doing nothing. I’ve been buying lottery tickets for the past 15 years, but I have never won more than SYP 500 [USD 10.60]. But it’s OK. Syrians are accepting. This is how God planned my life to be – so be it.”
While times may be tough, Ismaeel is hopeful that the new social market economy will create more job opportunities and bring his only son a better future.
“I want my son to go to university and get a diploma,” he says. “I don’t want him to lead the same kind of life I have. Without the right qualifications he won’t get the chance to work at any of the big companies. He will end up selling lottery tickets on the streets like me.”
This article was published in Syria Today magazine.