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Around Damascus, Residents Adapt or Flee a Life Shaped by War

Civilians like Abu Mohammed – a teacher whose commute is now a four-hour round trip – now feel the conflict drawing near.

Written by Celine Ahmad Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

QUDSAIYA, Syria – Most days, Abu Mohammad, 45, returns home after a long day’s work at his teaching job to a power outage that can last up to 10 hours. It’s become a typical end of the day in this rural Damascus village.

As the Syrian war enters its fourth year, his life in Damascus is getting progressively more difficult. Electric cuts are frequent, and an increased number of checkpoints has made commutes all but impossible – he says he spends half his day in transit to and from the private school where he teaches, in the Mazraa neighborhood of the capital. He says he now spends hours on a bus every day.

“I leave home at 6:30 in the morning to arrive at 8:30,” he says. “I have to prepare myself mentally since it feels like I’m traveling somewhere far away, not just commuting to work. I have my breakfast on the bus and my dinner there on the way back. All I need is my pajamas to make it complete.”

The bus, he says, has become his second home. Half of his monthly salary (20,000 Syrian pounds, or $128) is spent on transportation. He sees the bus drivers more often than he sees his own family.

His wife, Umm Mohammad, has begun washing the laundry by hand so she won’t be left with half-soaped clothes should the power go out. The small pleasures that once informed her days – like meeting friends in her local coffee shop – are, she says, a thing of the past. She says the family’s financial situation now prevents her from being able to afford a cup of coffee.

“We don’t need to go to any restaurant or to the movies,” she says. “The minute the power comes back, we are overwhelmed with such joy. It’s as if we won a jackpot. When the power is off, I pass the time by visiting neighbors in our building.”

Their eldest son, Mohammad, 23, spends his days at a university in Damascus, where he is a student in college of arts. Now he returns home before dark, for fear of arrest along the way, at a government checkpoints. He often tells his parents that should he fail school this year, it’s because of the power cuts that have made studying at night so difficult.

In the areas around Damascus, residents are adjusting to the same changes as Abu Mohammed’s family.

Abed, 35, a cab driver from the Dummar neighborhood, says the war “has taken us back to a primitive life. Syrians now work just to be able to buy food. There isn’t money for luxuries.”

Abed also owns a small convenience store near his house. After finishing driving the streets on his day job, he sits at the shop and listens to his customers talk about their own struggles.

He shuts down at seven at night, as do all other local stores – a neighbor was recently kidnapped at night, triggering fears of a repeat. He returns to an empty house; his wife left home to be smuggled by boat to Europe, en route to Sweden. She nearly drowned.

“All I do is wait,” Abed says. “I’m waiting to be reunited with my wife in another place, a place that has stability. Syria has become a dead country.”

Abu Omar, 65, agrees that there’s no other solution but getting asylum. Like so many other Damascenes, a war that was once at arm’s length has now moved in too close.

After years of holding his ground and saying he would stay in Damascus until the end of the conflict, he now spends hours calling real estate agents, trying to sell his house in Damascus’s al-Muhajreen neighborhood. He says that with the potential sale of the house, he hopes he’ll have enough money to smuggle his family to Europe.

“Seeking asylum has become my obsession,” he says. “I dream of the day when we can be together in a safe place, away from war. Syria is no longer for Syrians.”

Edited by Karen Leigh.

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