We Syrians Must Rebuild People, Not Countries

Orient Research Centre associate Zeina Yagan discusses one of the many dilemmas that has emerged for Syrians during the conflict: How does one bridge the deep, sometimes emotionally charged, divides in the Syrian community?

Damascus' old quarter
Damascus' old quarter
Zeina Yagan

When the Syrian conflict began in 2011, I deleted my Facebook profile, thinking that real-life, face-to-face discussions counted for much more than my virtual life on social media. I convinced myself it would be a good break from the negative circles and from the regular disputes among Syrians on Facebook, which had become a platform for both supporters of and protesters against the Syrian regime to accuse each other of betraying the nation.

In the past six Facebook-less years, my life has changed completely. I left my home country of Syria and settled with my family in the cosmopolitan city of Dubai. I started a new job as a researcher. I established a new network, surrounding myself with friends from a variety of nationalities and backgrounds. I believed that all these changes and beginnings would help me live and work in peace, shielded from the divided Syrian community.

But that's not what happened.

The more steps forward I tried to take in my life, the more I found myself entangled in the Syrian conflict.

The more steps forward I tried to take in my life, the more I found myself entangled in the Syrian conflict. On every trip and vacation I took, people asked me where I was from, and I replied: "I am Syrian." They always paid particular attention to me. They usually started discussing the Syrian crisis, to be courteous and show me that they're aware and care. But sometimes it had the opposite effect, and I got very upset. For instance, when they would analyze scenarios as if they were politicians, or pose vague questions such as, "When does it end?" or "Do you think Syrian people can go back to normal after all the atrocities they have seen?" These are questions I don't have answers to.

At times, I've asked myself why I have to go through all of this. I had the feeling that somebody was pushing me, pushing me to think day and night about the Syrian conundrum – and to find answers, to finally reach the light at the end of the tunnel.

After four years pondering this internal crisis and undertaking spiritual efforts, including taking philosophy classes, I started to reap the rewards. Since I cannot escape my Syrian heritage, I came to see my role as a — hopefully successful — mediator between the different cultures and mentalities of Syrian and non-Syrian people. I now have conversations with Syrians from different backgrounds, and we debate a wide range of topics. My aim is to build bridges between the different cultures. It's about interculturality – that's what I've been feeling passionate about recently.

But, recently, I've felt myself going back to square one. In a debate about the recent chemical attack, the flagrant carnage by the Syrian regime and its impact on the region, I was shocked to see that the scourge of the Syrian people reappeared in the discussion. I encountered the same narrow-mindedness, the same yelling and the same lack of respect for each other. Since the beginning of the crisis, many have said that Syrians were repressed and that's why they lacked a culture of dialogue. Yet, we're still not at a level where we respect other opinions. We don't listen very well either.

It remains a dilemma: How do we discuss situations that prompt such highly emotional reactions at times when we need logic and reason the most?

It seems as if nothing has changed. Seven years later, the one thing I tried to escape when I left Facebook I now have to face in reality. It remains a dilemma: How do we discuss situations that prompt such highly emotional reactions at times when we need logic and reason the most?

It is true that what Syrians suffer, at home and abroad, breaks down every layer of logic. But we need to keep in mind that the Syrian government relies on the deep divides between the Syrian people who are left and are still capable of expressing their opinions. Frankly, it has succeeded in fragmenting much of the population ethically, ethnically and religiously. If we, the Syrian people outside of the country, continue to tackle these differences in a way that ultimately satisfies the regime, we will regret when the day comes when we give up Syria for good.

I have heard stories that are both devastating and inspiring at the same time. Stories about people who, at night, lost their loved ones under debris from an attack and yet still wake up in the morning, prepare breakfast and invite the survivors to share the meals.

Life goes on. Our main focus should be to keep encouraging this unique spirit of the Syrian people: to be there for each other; to stick together; to get us, the Syrian people, on the long road to healing.

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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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