Syria Crisis

Syrian Christians Find Safety From ISIS In Beirut

When Islamic terror groups arrived in their Syrian hometown of Al-Hasakah, Assyrian Christians were systematically victimized. The lucky managed to flee.

Syrian refugees in Beirut, Lebanon
Syrian refugees in Beirut, Lebanon
Patrick Strickland

BEIRUT — Standing in front of a local Assyrian church, Jack Zayya, an Assyrian Christian refugee from Syria who arrived in Beirut two months ago, recalls the difficult journey from his hometown of Al-Hasakah, situated in northeastern Syria and home to many Christians and Kurds. "We are searching for the quickest way to go to Europe or Canada, maybe America."

Before the war, Zayya led a good life in Syria, making a home for his wife and two children. "I had a car wash and, thank God, it provided for us for a long time," he says. "But it's all gone now — the house, our belongings, the car wash, everything."

During the first two years of the conflict, Al-Hasakah was relatively calm. But when President Bashar al-Assad's military forces pulled out of the region in 2013, local residents had to fend for themselves against a variety of armed factions. They were able to protect the area for several months, until Jabhat al Nusra arrived and took control of much of Al-Hasakah towards the end of that year.

"Things were hard under Jabhat al Nusra, but it got much worse when Daesh arrived," Zayya explained, using an Arabic name for ISIS.

Kidnappings became a regular occurrence, and Assyrians, who numbered around 40,000 of the 1.2 million Syrian Christians before the violence started in 2011, have often been targeted. ISIS took an estimated 220 Assyrians hostage by ISIS in late February, and only 19 have been released to date. One Assyrian refugee from an Al-Hasakah area village, who asked that his name not be used, says that nearly 90 relatives from his wife's extended family are among those still held by ISIS.

"No negotiating" with ISIS

"Kidnappings were about getting ransom from rich families or individuals at first," Zayya says. "With Daesh, though, there is no negotiating. We had to pay the jizya tax or die." He's referring to the compulsory tax that religious minorities are required to pay under the ISIS rule.

After a hard-line ISIS sheik was appointed as emir of the Al-Hasakah area, ISIS removed crosses from the churches and destroyed them. Wearing a crucifix was forbidden, Zayya says. Christians weren't allowed to drive or ride in automobiles, and women were mandated to wear burkas.

Al-Hasakah, Syria — Photo: haitham alfalah

"Our children saw many beheadings," he says. "We were obligated to watch public executions. What kind of world is that for kids to grow up in? They were always scared."

As of July 2014, ISIS controlled an estimated 35% of Syria, with other hard-line Salafist groups controlling large swaths elsewhere.

Since then, U.S.-led coalition forces have used airstrikes to push the militant organization back in certain parts of the country, but ISIS has strengthened its grasp on core areas.

In February, ISIS swept through roughly a dozen villages in northeastern Syria. In April, after a long battle against rebel forces, the terror group took over an estimated 90% of Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus.

Beirut's local Assyrian community has helped organize the flight of Assyrian families from Al-Hasakah and elsewhere to Lebanon, negotiating an exception for Assyrians despite Lebanon's borders having been officially closed to Syrian refugees for months.

"More are coming"

There are some 800 Assyrian families from surrounding communities who have been exiled to Al-Hasakah, according to Lebanese Assyrian Church Bishop Yatron Koliana, who works with the government to facilitate shelter for Assyrian refugees.

"Of course, we're in touch with the families that are still in Al-Hasakah," he says. "When they want to come, they send us their names, we send their names to the border and they are let in. Now the Lebanese army will not let a Syrian citizen into the country unless his name is on the list."

He adds, "I'm sure more are coming. They're giving us new names every day."

Upon arriving in Lebanon, the displaced families continue to struggle for survival, largely because they are legally barred from working in the country. Most of the families fled under attack and were unable to bring more than what they could carry with them along the dangerous trek.

Assyrian church in Hal-Hasakah, Syria — Photo: Bertramz

Many have had to resort to working menial, under-the-table jobs, such as construction and other forms of manual labor. They are nonetheless burdened by expenses for health care, education and rental costs while in Lebanon. "The three biggest problems they face are sickness, education and a place to live,” the bishop says.

"For the time being, most families are dependent on donations to get by. Now we have the capabilities to continue because we have food and money donations, but how long will these last? This situation can't continue for much longer. Another six months? Difficult. Another year? Impossible."

On Easter, ISIS bombed an Assyrian church in Tel Tamer, an Assyrian village in eastern Syria, according to the Assyrian Network for Human Rights. The bomb was detonated as Assyrian and Kurdish fighters attempted to retake the village from ISIS, which has controlled it since early March.

Bishop Koliana says he and others in the church have urged Assyrians in Syria to remain steadfast. "I'm telling them not to leave this land," he says. "This is our land. They say, "OK, we're with you. This is our land, but what are we supposed to eat? Dirt?""

For his part, Zayya says he doesn't want to return to Syria. "We didn't used to have sectarianism in Syria," he recalls. "We all lived together. We didn't ask our neighbors about their religion."

But those days are long gone. "We're not returning."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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