HOMS – Akram al-Khoule and his 7-year-old son hold hands as they stare at the once familiar primary school building, now demolished, looted of its contents and stripped of its identifying markers. "This is where my children studied," al-Khoule says in a melancholy voice.
Al-Khoule returned to the Homs district of al-Khalidiye this year, after being displaced to the coastal Syrian city of Tartous for six years. He is one of 600,000 Syrian refugees and internally displaced people who are estimated to have returned to their hometowns this year – many of whom now face a barrage of problems trying to resettle in a place that war has made vastly different.
After he left al-Khalidiye, Syrian rebels and government forces fought intense battles there, turning it and part of Homs Old City into a pile of debris. Pro-government forces reclaimed al-Khalidiye in July 2013, and by May 2014 nearly all of Homs was under regime control. However, more than three years later, little has been done to help civilians whose homes have been destroyed by the fighting.
"We need to conduct proper studies to assess what is needed. That has not been done yet," Mohammad Samer al-Khalil, Syria's minister of economy and foreign trade told Syria Deeply.
Al-Khoule is relying on his savings to rebuild his house brick by brick without any assistance from the government. His job at the Syrian Red Crescent enabled him to get a water tank installed, but there is still no electricity. There is no school for his son to attend in the vicinity and no provision for healthcare, he says, pointing to the charred remains of a hospital near his house. It could come crashing down any second.
"There used to be a bakery on that street, but it is all buried now," al-Khoule says.
The lack of public services is tough to live with, but he is still happy to be back home. However, for many others, having to rebuild homes and infrastructure is just one reason why returning isn't a viable option. Take 19-year-old Ayah Kaslan, for example. Now living in Rome, she left Damascus when she was 13 and says her priority is making a career in the West. "I will start going to college soon," she says, the excitement clear in her voice. Her future lies with Europe, she thinks. "I can't return to Syria, because where will I study or what will I do?"
If she returned, she would be unlikely to get a proper higher education and job in Syria, where around 6.1 million Syrians are neither working nor in any form of school or training, according to the World Bank. Worse still, unemployment among young people reached 78% in 2015, and six out of every 10 Syrians now live in extreme poverty because of the war.
Beyond the absence of physical, social and economic infrastructure, some fear for their safety should they return. Moonis Bukhari, a Syrian photographer who moved to Berlin, has a lingering fear of what the government might do to those who stood against it. Bukhari, who became an activist in Germany and spends a lot of time with other Syrian refugees, claims that for many, the idea of packing their bags seems life-threatening. Bukhari has reason to believe returning may not be safe. His uncle was a supporter of the Communist Action Party during Hafez al-Assad's brutal crackdown on the group in 1976. "My uncle was an activist," he said. "He tried to return from Libya in the early 2000s, but he was arrested at the airport."
In cities where the government has struck reconciliation deals with opposition-run local councils, the current Assad regime has promised to pardon those who previously opposed its rule and agree to give up their weapons.
"The regime offers reconciliation but goes back on its word, so a lot of people are scared to leave the refugee shelters that they consider safe," he said. In August this year, President Bashar al-Assad said in a speech that Syria had "lost its best youth and its infrastructure," but "won a healthier and more homogenous society."
For some refugees, like Samar Halbone and her family, who have lived in a refugee camp in the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon since 2014, the president's own statements are a deterrent to returning. "We were hounded out because we are Sunnis," she said, with tears in her eyes.
Halbone and her family are from al-Qusayr in Homs province, which was captured by the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah in 2013. It has reportedly established a base in Qusayr and held public parades there. Her eldest son Mohammad works as a plumber in Tripoli and makes less than $50 a week. He is visibly angry when he asks, "if Qusayr is liberated, why are we holed up here and why is Hezbollah on our land?"
As an increasing number of former opposition areas come under regime control, the international community and host countries have opened the discussion of returns for the estimated 65 percent of Syria's population that has been displaced because of the war. While much of this conversation has so far focused on reconstruction, al-Khoule says it may be a long time before that happens. He worries that the unseen wounds inflicted on the social fabric of the society will be harder to mend, as he knows firsthand the daunting challenges that await.
"It is like rebirth, a new beginning," he says. "Will my neighbors ever return? I don't know."
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.
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.
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?
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.
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