LATAKIA — "I hope to God we'll go back to Aleppo," 13-year-old Muhammad writes whenever he has a chance to express his longing for his hometown. "I didn't imagine we weren't going back to Aleppo when we left it two years ago. I was very happy there, and now I pray to God to go back there."

Muhammad was displaced with his family of seven after his father, a policeman, was murdered by unknown assailants in the al-Bab area of Aleppo. Muhammad didn't return to school after that. He now lives in Latakia, where he sometimes works in the fish market or in a supermarket where his brother is employed as a delivery boy.

"We didn't bring our school papers with us, and when my mother took us to register in school, the principal said we must take a level-determination test set by the Ministry of Education," he says. "But we didn't go because we needed to work to help our family — the rents are high and everything's expensive, and my father's pension salary doesn't cover enough." 

He has a difficult relationship with some of the local kids, boys his age who tease and taunt him. "Some of them don't like me. We fight with them sometimes, me and my brother, and they call me al-Halabi ["from Aleppo"] as if it's an offense! So what if I'm from Aleppo. Isn't that in Syria too?"

He shakes his head with great resentment and continues, "But there are also nice kids, and they play with us, but not always because we're mostly working."

Abdul Rahman, 56, is the owner of the supermarket in Latakia where Muhammad and his brother work. "I'm actually against child labor and I don't need workers in my shop, but their family is very poor," Rahman says. "They rent a room in our neighborhood, and their mother begged me to help them work in a safe place. I understand their circumstances as displaced people, and I'm doing this only as humanitarian help."

Displacement in itself is a problem, but many others stem from that, says Nisreen, a 42-year-old Latakia social worker. Communities often reject refugees, she says. "The displaced are generally poor, and they move to live in poor places, too, so each party blames the other for any problem that happens."

Samer, a 55-year-old Latakia teacher, sees a social and cultural divide marking the local dynamic. "There are many aspects to the relationship between the displaced community and the environment of Latakia, the most important of which are the differences in lifestyles and traditions between the displaced communities coming from the very conservative societies of Aleppo, Idlib or Homs, and the community of Latakia, which is considered to be somewhat more liberal," he says. 

In Latakia — Photo: Yazan Badran

Cultural differences

"There's also a very important point that we must not ignore — and it's that many of the people of Latakia and the coast, and their sons, were killed in places such as Aleppo, Idlib and other internal areas," Samer says. "This makes these displaced people guilty in the minds of many, as they believe them to be the relatives of those who joined the Islamist groups and caused them to lose their sons."

This is evident for Nadia, a 51-year-old nurse in Jabla. "I won't lie, I can't deal with any of the displaced people coming from Aleppo without thinking that their relative could be the one who killed my brother, who died in Aleppo," she says. "And I don't think it's fair to put the son of a martyr, who sacrificed his life, in school next to the son of the armed man fighting against our government and our army. I know it's wrong to generalize, but ... I won't rent my house to any of them."

Om Adnan, 45, was displaced from the Homs countryside three years ago and now lives in Saqubein with her family of five since the death of her son in the army. "We're all Syrians, and this is a plague on all of us," she says. "I miss my big house, and it makes me so sad to think that everything I made in my life was either stolen or burned."

As she wipes away her tears, she continues, "But most importantly, my kids are fine here. They have friends in school and in college, unlike some of our relatives who considered us traitors because my son didn't escape his military service and stayed in the army until he died."

Bashir, a 34-year-old tailor, came with his small family from Idlib to Latakia. "I understood the rejection of the displaced by some of the people of Latakia at the beginning, because many of them don't respect the privacy of the society here," he says. "Some of the teenage boys who came with their families from conservative areas, they harassed the girls here rudely, but they weren't respectable in their own homes in the first place. If one wants to live peacefully and with dignity, then one must respect others. I have a lot of customers from the people of Latakia, and they all treat me with respect and kindness. I wish I could go back home and to my old life, but this is what I have right now."