AMMAN — In early June, Ahmad (a pseudonym) was on his way to the Latakia coastline when he was stopped by Russian soldiers. They motioned for him to turn around and told him that no one could swim along the beach for the next few months; the Russians were expanding the port in Latakia.
For Ahmad, this was just another reminder that the country he lives in is a far cry from the Syria of his childhood. “I just feel like there’s nothing called Syria anymore,” he told Syria Direct.
A young, single man in his mid-20s who grew up in the coastal province of Latakia, Ahmad feels “disowned by both sides” of the Syrian revolution, and has tried to remain non-political over the last nine years, to the extent that it has been possible in the midst of civil war.
As a result, Ahmad has found himself estranged both in his own community, where he feels like he cannot trust anyone, and abroad, since he has little chance of leaving the country anytime soon.
Though a native of Latakia, the birthplace of Syria’s longest-serving Baathist president, Hafez al-Assad, Ahmad did not benefit from the favoritism that the regime often played with the Alawite enclaves.
His father, an engineer by trade, was fired from his job after refusing the request of a regime official to sign documents which showed that a project was completed, when in fact no buildings had ever been built. Ahmad’s father tried to raise a case against the company, but the judge declined to hear it when he learned the name of the regime official he intended to sue.
After that, his father was de facto blacklisted from engineering, and spent most of Ahmad’s life unemployed, working as a taxi driver and picked up the occasional odd job to make ends meet. Hearing that his father had incurred the wrath of a regime notable, Ahmad’s extended family began to shun him. “I have only met them five times in my life,” Ahmad said.
It was tough to grow up with his father as a pariah in the community, and especially to see his schoolmates, “who are sons of regime supporters, live such happy lives because of the theft, while we live such a difficult life,” he said.
Still, he holds no ill will for his peers, he explained, since “people became afraid for themselves and their family when they saw what happened to the ‘straight’ ones.”
When the revolution started, Ahmad and his family tried to leave Syria, but they were denied passports by the government. Undeterred, they tried to travel to Turkey, but the opposition turned them away because they were Alawite.
“It is very cruel to live in this hell without being threatened by both sides. If you criticize one of the fighting sides, you will be considered a traitor and [could] be killed. Maybe this is the only thing that the opposition and the regime agree on,” Ahmad said.
Finding solace in the digital world
Unwilling to take part in what he sees as his peers' exploitation of a corrupt system and depressed watching his country being carved up by foreign powers, Ahmad has turned to the online world in order to form friendships where he feels safe to express himself.
On any given day, he is communicating with friends from South Africa, the United States, Nigeria and various European countries. He met most by joining online language learning groups and courses.
His friends send him pictures of their daily going-ons; snapshots of hikes they went on, a trip to the movie theatre or a family dinner. Most of the pictures and the discussions are relatively mundane; however, it is exactly this normalcy that Ahmad craves. “It gives me hope that I may live a normal and quiet life without fear of being killed,” he explained.
These online pen pals have also become a crucial outlet for him, as Ahmad fears that a careless word or a complaint about current living conditions to the wrong nieghbor might land him an interview with a mukhubarat official, which could have deadly consequences.
“These friends encourage me to face the difficulties in Syria. It’s a great contrast, foreign friends care about my life and try to help me, but [my] ‘brothers’ in the country threaten my life and try to take all my money!”
Still, oftentimes the internet will go out without warning and there is no distraction from the dire situation Ahmad and his family live in.
Ahmad works 11 hours a day as a freelance English tutor and translator, unable to secure steady employment because he dodged the mandatory military conscription. He tallies off the laundry list of costs needed to cover only the bare essentials for his family and looks worriedly at the declining Syrian pound, having seen his modest salary effectively lose 40 percent of its value over the last few weeks.
However, more than anything else he seems worried about his students. “They can’t focus on the lessons at all with the way the situation is,” he explained.
His star pupil, a nine-year-old girl who he had proudly sent a selfie with a few days prior to Syria Direct, has stopped showing up for her regular lessons over the last week. “I called her parents, but they are avoiding my calls because they can’t pay me. It’s a shame because I would continue to teach her; I know they will pay me when they can.”
“She doesn’t like studying at all and she never does her homework, but when she sees me being sad, she cries and asks me to be happy like her. She loves life and is always happy,” he mused.
Despite the worsening living conditions, Ahmad tries to remain optimistic. “Good evening!” he sent in a message a few days before his run-in with the Russian soldiers. “Do you want to see the beach today?”
This article reflects minor changes made on 6/29/2020 at 11:00 am.