Since 2013, dozens of Aleppan families have fled to Tartus to escape the shelling and clashes between the opposition and the regime. In spite of the regional and sectarian differences [Aleppo's displaced people being mostly Sunnis and Tartus being home to a significant Alawi community] that the Syrian war has brought to light and the reservations held by some Tartusians against the influence of newcomers on their society, Aleppans have been, over time, able to become part of the social fabric in the coastal city. According to local NGOs, they carved out a space for themselves in a province where the population has been dramatically increasing with the influx of internally displaced people (IDPs).
The Aleppan Traders
Upon arrival to Tartus, Aleppan traders rented apartments in the affluent Qusur and al-Hamra neighborhoods. They had not anticipated the war to last for years and therefore did not establish businesses or buy land or shops in the first months following their arrival. With passing time, their financial situation deteriorated, forcing them to work, so they opened clothing, food, and homeware shops at the city center.
As for capital holders, they struck deals with Tartusian traders in order to remain incognito while said traders manage the projects. “Such deals accommodated Aleppan traders who wanted to maintain a low profile [in the eyes of the security forces] in Tartus, in order to preserve their personal safety,” according to Ghadir Ghanum1, a member of ʻObour, an organization which works with Aleppan IDPs, “this was also ideal for the city’s inhabitants who did not want to deal with the Aleppans.”
The continuous interaction between the capital holders and the traders from Tartus resulted in a growing mutual trust between them, and in time, the establishment of social relations among them. “Many Aleppans abandoned their religious habits, quit fasting in Ramadan, and started taking part in the Tartusian parties, which often include music and alcohol,” continued Ghanum.
Not all Aleppan traders prefered to remain incognito. While wandering in al-Hamra Street looking for a new shirt, ʻImad, a 28 year old born in Tartus, prefers to visit stores managed by Aleppans rather than Tartusians. “Aleppans better answer customers’ questions, present them with various options, and do not mind if they ultimately do not buy from the shop," said ʻImad. Sellers from Aleppo have a long experience in trading and promoting their goods, and they have brought this experience to Tartus, which has enabled them to promote their products.
Another example of the shifts in norms is the work schedule. For decades, Tartusian traders were accustomed to working until 2pm, but this habit has changed with the arrival of Aleppan traders who close their stores at 4pm. The Tartusians then started keeping the same schedule as their Aleppan counterparts, as well as settling the bills with their customers ʻthe Aleppan wayʼ, weekly instead of monthly.
In spite of the war, no clashes between Tartus inhabitants and displaced people took place so far, with the exception of an attack perpetrated by a group of regime supporters on the Karnak camp on May 23, 2016, which followed the bombings carried out by ISIS on the same date in Jableh and Tartus. In that occasion, the attackers burned down a number of tents.
However, the presence of Aleppans in Tartus has not been homogeneously welcomed, because some of Tartus’ inhabitants see the displaced as a burden. Negativity is to be expected when the country is being torn apart in a war, with numerous young men of Tartus having been killed while serving in the regime army and its allied militias.
The well-off displaced Aleppans have partially exacerbated the economic situation by raising rents due to their willingness to pay higher prices. Others believe that Aleppans are not fit to integrate into Tartus’ society because of their habits. Laila ʻAli, a young girl from Tartus, told SyriaUntold: “We see Aleppans everywhere, in quarters where we live, in our markets, on the seashore. I'm not a racist, but I am against their presence amongst us in such abundant numbers. With time, they have begun changing the identity of the city, and we have traditions that are not similar to theirs.”
Asked whether displaced people were forced to come to Tartus because of the war, she replied: “They are not forced, they can go to other provinces, [...] but they probably prefer to come here because they find jobs in our city more than other places.”
Aleppans in Camps
Initially, Tartusians had been also uncomfortable with the presence of the Aleppans residing in camps. However, economic interest provided the key to shift their perspective.
Salim (46), the owner of an iron lathe, was renting it to a Tartusian worker, earning him 25,000 SYP (around $50 in the black market) per month. He managed to double his gains after renting it instead to an Aleppan worker living in the Garages (al-Karajat) camp.
Abu ʻAghid is another former camp resident who has benefited from the burgeoning business relations in Tartus. He used to own a textile shop at the ʻcotton Suqʼ in Old Aleppo, but it burned down at the end of 2012 due to clashes between regime and opposition forces. He then decided to move to Tartus, and while living in the Garages camp managed to open a shop on Hanano Street in partnership with a Tartusian trader.
“We’ve been working in this shop for three years, and despite the deteriorating economic situation, we’ve been fairly successful. My partner has many contacts and benefits from a wide reputation in Tartus, while I have connections with wholesalers in Jordan and Turkey, so each of us invested his connections in the success of our enterprise,” said Abu ʻAghid.
The Aleppan Women
In 2014, while passing by the Garages camp in Tartus, ʻObour activist Fuʼad Shudud came across Umm ʻAbdu, a woman surrounded by children whom she was teaching how to write and read with simple tools, mere pens and notebooks for them to trace the letters on. After discussing it with the teacher, Shudud and a group of Tartusian youth provided her with a board, coloring pencils, and booklets as part of their project aiming to support displaced children’s education.
The cooperation between these young people and Umm ʻAbdu later developed to include organizing workshops for Aleppan and Tartusian women about polygamy, sexual harassment, and civil society, under the supervision of specialists and psychologists. Umm ʻAbdu participated in organizing these sessions with ʻObour members and the al-Shaalaah Center, another civil association: they would choose a location - a cinema or sports hall - and Umm ʻAbdo would bring along Aleppan women to take part in the workshops.The Aleppan women, most of whom are religious Sunnis who wear the veil and refuse to shake men’s hands, managed to adapt to the new society. It became in fact imperative for them to go out and work sometimes due to declining living conditions.
Nadia, a 37-year-old Aleppan woman, told SyriaUntold: “Even if peace returns to Aleppo, I would only go back to visit, for I got accustomed to life here. In Aleppo, my husband forces me to wear the niqab [the full face veil, while she now only wears the hijab]. I was also closely observed by everyone in a closed-off environment, while here, I feel free.”
The Children's New Dialect
A number of young people from Tartus have worked on identifying children who have been forced to stop their education and those suffering from war-induced psychological disorders. This was done in order to work on their psychosocial needs and to prevent future resentment towards society.The youth group called their initiative ʻEducation in Placeʼ. They organized theater, drawing, singing, dance, and cinema workshops to support children psychologically. They also provided homework assistance. According to ʻObour member Fu'ad Shudud, this enabled the Aleppan children to feel they are present in an inclusive environment, which allowed for friendships to flourish between them and the children of Tartus. “It became very common to hear both Aleppan and Tartusian dialects spoken by children playing by the Garages Camp, and this merger of dialects created a sense of equality amid Aleppan children,” added Shudud.
Despite some tensions, the collaboration and coexistence of the Aleppans and Tartusians leaves one cautiously optimistic. On the one hand, many of Tartus’ inhabitants realized that these new arrivals could be a catalyst for renaissance in the city, so they offered them any services they could possibly offer, whether in terms of food, psychological support, financial aid, education or shops and trading spaces. On the other hand, Aleppans have become more open and keen to learn as a result of being influenced by Tartusians.
[Main Photo: ʻObour Association members visit the Garages Camp in Tartus - 24-5-2016 (ʻObour member Ghadir Ghanum's Facebook Page)].