Damascus, the City That Evicted Me

Hayat moved to Damascus in 2003 for a well-remunerated job position. But then the housing crisis brought her on her knees.

17 November 2017

Alice Al-Shami

Alice Al-Shami (pseudonym) is a Syrian writer.

Translated by: Yaaser Azzayyaat

[This article is part of a SyriaUntold series featuring daily life stories from Damascus]

With her last bag placed in the luggage compartment, Hayat gets into the bus leaving Damascus to Tartus.

“Too much baggage, ma’am. You’ll have to pay extra.”

“It’s okay, this is my last time. You’ll never see my face again.”

Hayat (35) has lived in Damascus for over 14 years. After obtaining a BA in English Literature from [Latakia’s] Tishreen University, she moved to the capital for work.

During the decade that preceded “the events” (al-ahdath) in Syria, job opportunities in development and humanitarian agencies were attracting many young men and women from different governorates, rendering Damascus a magnet for all sorts of NGO workers. Thanks to a booming private sector, the emergence of The Syria Trust for Development, and the newly opened UN organizations and other operations in response to the influx of Iraqi refugees, tremendous job opportunities were created for young people, politicized and apolitical alike. With its dynamic labor market and numerous economic and development projects, the capital was thriving – at least ostensibly.

Hayat had hardly searched for a job after graduation when she was offered a good salary at a relief organization. This allowed her to rent a decent apartment, save some money, and help her modest family in Tartus, as well as secure her livelihood in the capital.

Hayat’s salary was equivalent to $1,000 when the revolution broke out. As the Syrian pound (SYP) deteriorated, INGOs opted to fix their employee salaries in hard currency, which left Hayat unaffected by the pressures felt by most Syrians due to the gap between their earnings and ever increasing prices.

Hayat was saving up to buy a house in the capital, and was living in a furnished apartment in a middle-class neighborhood rented at 10,000 SYP($200 at the time) per month. As the crisis unfolded in 2011, however, with IDPs flocking from Rif Dimashq and other governorates such as Homs and Daraa, a housing crisis began to emerge, along with a more acute moral crisis. Rental prices quadrupled in a few months, and the capital became increasingly overpopulated with new arrivals, whose temporary refuge turned out to be anything but temporary.

After a slight fall in the exchange rate in 2011, a furnished apartment of two rooms cost 40,000 SYP ($700 at the time), whereas a room in a shared apartment cost 20,000 SYP ($400). This was at a time when the highest salary of a state employee did not exceed 30,000 SYP ($600). Of course, public salaries did not change significantly, and the pound continued to fall in value.

Hayat was still paid in dollars, and hence was not upset when the landlady increased the rent to 20,000 SYP. What was upsetting to Hayat at the time was the grave injustices inflicted upon the displaced people. Not only did they lose almost everything in their towns and cities, but the city they fled to and the greed of its property owners were draining all what was left of their physical strength.

She soon became involved in relief activities as part of her work at the NGO. In consonance with her own principles, however, she tried to deliver aid to all Syrians, including those in the besieged areas. Since the regime was exerting political and security pressure to prevent INGOs from accessing these neighborhoods, Hayat was soon called into question and then detained.

After her release, she was given the choice between abiding by the NGO’s policies or quitting. She quit. She was fed up with voluntary withholding of aid in exchange for permission to stay and operate legally in Syria. Moreover, she was uneasy with her six-figure salary of nearly 400,000 SYP vis-à-vis families unable to secure one tenth of this amount.

Hayat did not care too much. She could find another job, and she could also work in translation and tutoring, and until then she could live off her savings. But that was at the height of the hostilities in 2013 and its accompanying housing crisis in Damascus.

Things did not go as well as Hayat had hoped. Her past as a former detainee discouraged NGOs from hiring her. She finally found a job in a translation agency with a salary of 70,000 SYP. This was not enough, of course, and as she kept on supporting her family and other needy families, she continued to rely on her savings. “I will sure find other opportunities,” she kept telling herself.

In 2014, her landlady called. “I am increasing the rent to 50,000.”

“God! Why? That’s too much!”

“I would rent it for 100,000 if you leave, as I trust you know. I wouldn’t wish you harm and neither do I wish you to harm me.”

Hayat searched for another place at a lower renting price, but rents were exorbitant and way above 100,000. She grudgingly agreed. But a sense of fear began to overwhelm her, especially with her dream house savings nearing depletion. She had to find a solution soon.

Although renters often have to accept any house at any price, given the heavy demand for places and the severe supply shortages, there is a plenty of vacant houses whose owners shut down before traveling abroad. Most of these do not intend to return soon, but they prefer keeping their houses locked to renting them out and risking their takeover. Many of these houses have nevertheless been subject to looting and burglarizing, and sometimes to illegal fraudulent sales, owing to the absence of their owners and the country’s civil and legal disorder.

Hayat reached out to her acquaintances and friends to find one of these houses, and a friend of hers gave her the key to his empty house in the capital, to which she moved in exchange for a modest monthly rent.

Hayat thought that the ordeal was over. But a few months later, she was surprised to learn that the house was sold, and that she had to start searching for another place. She did not find places with less than 70,000 SYP a month, which was too expensive for her now that her savings were depleted. Eventually, the Tartus native resorted to a shared dwelling in the city’s old quarters.

Hayat paid 20,000 SYP for one room, with a bathroom and a kitchen shared with other girls. In addition to her work at the translation agency, she also began tutoring English every day. But she could hardly make 150,000 SYP ($300) a month, and as she continued to support her family, she was unable to save any money.

Due to the lack of privacy in her new residence, the disorganized use of shared facilities, and the landlord’s rationing of primary services such as hot water, laundry, electricity and heating, daily inconveniences drained out Hayat’s energy and made her lash out several times over petty details. She was constantly reminded of her detention and her cellmates, who often made troubles over simple needs such as sugar, water, soaps and blankets. Hayat felt that her life was not very different now from the days she had spent in the cell, and that the owner of her residence was not unlike the jailer.

Yet she spent two years there, because she could not find a better accommodation, and because obtaining a rent security clearance was not less difficult than finding a good place. In some neighborhoods in the capital, only Syrians coming from specific towns and sects could obtain the security clearance to rent or purchase a property. In areas like Al-Jisr Al-Abyad, which falls under the jurisdiction of the State Security, it is nearly impossible for Syrians from [opposition hotbeds such as] Idlib, Homs or Hama to rent a place, their willingness to pay a prohibitive price notwithstanding. Furthermore, the quarters in the Old City are largely divided by sects, with the Shiite neighborhoods being particularly inaccessible to non-Shiites. In other areas such as Masaken Barzeh and Rukneddin, which both fall under the jurisdiction of Political Security, security clearance is easier but the demand is immense and the prices are much higher than anywhere else.

Indeed, renting a place became a distant dream for Hayat, let alone purchasing one, and as such, the shared dwelling was her only option.

When the landlord asked for an increased rent of 35,000 SYP, a huge quarrel between him and the tenants occurred, not because of the new price but because of the poor services and mistreatment. Stunned by the extent to which her crisis spiraled, Hayat resolved to find another residence.

She found a room in another shared dwelling. The rental rate was 50,000 SYP, but this was the most affordable place she could find. The house was comfortable and more organized. But after six months, the landlord asked for 70,000, and a new quarrel ensued and resulted in Hayat having to search for another house and to move her belongings once again. Every time she moved from one place to another, she lost a piece of her memory: a gift from a friend, a piece of furniture, or an electrical appliance. She found herself forced to sell or distribute stuff due to limited space.

Her new apartment looked more like a cave, with very poor services, yet it cost 50,000 SYP. She cleaned the room and sorted out the remaining belongings that had survived all the movements. She then waited for the security clearance, but her request was rejected.

Hayat requested another clearance, but she received another rejection. She tried to look for another place, but did not find any shared apartment for less than 100,000 SYP.

The Tartus native did not sleep that night. She looked around the walls of the cell-like room. Even the cell was rejecting her. Why all this trouble? The details of everyday life became unbearably exhaustive. She began to feel an uncharacteristic hatred towards all the owners of the empty houses; she hated Damascus and the people of Damascus, a city she had lived in for nearly 15 years. With all these dark thoughts and feelings weighing on her heart and head, a berserk Hayat grabbed her phone and called her parents in Tartus:

“This city no longer wants me. I no longer want her. It has long spit me out and I was in denial. I was clinging to it and convincing myself that perhaps she still loves its people. I was so wrong. Prepare my room and my stuff. I will be right back in my bedroom, my old, long abandoned bedroom. I’m coming back.”

[Main image: Damascus, the city that evicted me (Comic4Syria/SyriaUntold)].

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