DAMASCUS – Now in its sixth year, the war in Syria has torn through the country's cities, sects and social fabric. For families like Um Mahmoud's, Syria's frontlines have even invaded their homes. The mother has seen her three sons join opposing sides of the war and has been unable to stop them from turning on each other.
Her story is just one example of how the war has torn families apart for countless reasons. Some families have been divided by ideological differences and political affiliations. Other families have fled the country and been scattered across borders.
Um Mahmoud blames herself for the bad blood between her sons, she told Syria Deeply from her home in Damascus. Before the war, 35-year-old Mahmoud worked as a plumber, 32-year-old Kamel worked at a car-rental shop and 23-year-old Hadi had just graduated from business school. Um Mahmoud encouraged her sons to join the popular demonstrations against the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in 2011.
"I still remember how I woke them up every day to join the demonstrations," she said.
In the early months of the civil uprising in Syria, the largely peaceful protests were quickly met with a brutal crackdown from the government, which gradually gave way to the emergence of an armed opposition fighting against Assad's regime.
Even then, Um Mahmoud continued to support her eldest and youngest sons, Mahmoud and Hadi, when they decided to join the armed opposition in November 2013. As the armed opposition began to take control of territory on the outskirts of Damascus, Mahmoud and Hadi joined the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting the Syrian government in the capital's suburban al-Qaboun neighborhood. There, they fought side-by-side, and they later moved to the fight in Jobar neighborhood.
Soon after, increasing sectarianism and the emergence of more hardline factions saw a splintering of rebel groups under the banner of the FSA. These more extreme groups – most notably the group now known as the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) – began fighting more moderate factions. Taking advantage of the power vacuum left by opposition infighting, ISIS militants were able to advance in the Damascus suburbs.
Um Mahmoud realized the situation was spiraling out of control and begged her sons to put down their weapons, even offering them money to leave the country. They refused. Hadi continued to fight alongside the rebels, and Mahmoud joined a faction affiliated with ISIS in the Damascus suburb of Tishrin.
"There was intense fighting between the two groups," the mother said. "I prayed every night that they would not face each other on the battlefield."
The two brothers never wound up fighting each other. Yet, Mahmoud was eventually killed in June 2015, during clashes between the rebels and ISIS. His brother Hadi had not participated in fighting that day.
Near Kobani, Syria — Photo: Kurdishstruggle
"We both joined to fight for the same goal," said Hadi. "I tried many times to stop him from joining the Islamic State, but he never listened to me."
While both his brothers were battling pro-government forces and each other, Um Mahmoud's middle and married son, Kamel, had refrained from taking up arms, though he had sided quietly with the opposition in the beginning of the conflict. In January 2015, however, he was arrested at a government checkpoint, and detained for seven months at the notorious air-force intelligence security branch.
Throughout this period, Um Mahmoud lost contact with Kamel, unsure of where he was being held. The family later learned that he was released from prison, but had been forced to join the government's military reserve service.
Hadi, who was still fighting alongside the rebels, did not have direct communication with his brother for some time. Until one day, despite his fears that the government had tapped the rebels' lines of communication, Hadi attempted to contact his faction's operations room over the radio. On the other end, he heard "a voice that I knew so well. It was my brother's," Hadi said. "It felt like he wanted to talk to me in particular."
But when the voice spoke and threatened him, Hadi realized his brother was no longer the same man he had known. "He ordered me to surrender … as if he was brainwashed. It felt like the person on the other side of the call was not my brother. When he threatened to kill me, I got really angry and I threatened to kill him, too."
Government and rebel forces have since reached a truce in al-Qaboun where Hadi and Kamel are stationed, but the two brothers still do not speak. The divides created by the war are so deep that even when the bullets stop, many shattered families will probably not be able to put the pieces back together, and their loved ones may never be reunited. Though Um Mahmoud has already lost one son, she still holds on to hope that the love of a mother is enough to bring what remains of her family back together.
"Mahmoud, Kamel, and Hadi are my beloved children. Since the day their father died, I've been everything they had," she said. "I love each one of them no matter what side they are on."
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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