Going Back to Aleppo With a Wheelchair, Hope, and 5000 Syrian Pounds

Tuesday 18 October 201611:08 am

Just another day in Gaziantep, on the noisy crowded streets of this Turkish border city, the Syrian presence is easily noticed. On Ataturk street one constantly hears people speaking Arabic and even distinguish the ever recognizable Aleppo accent. Most people here are Syrian refugees heading to work in the sixth biggest city in Turkey. The life stories of people are written on their faces, their suffering leaves its mark on their bodies, and their eyes are a mirror for their thoughts and the future to come after the war ends.

Only a coincidence can break the city’s routine. An empty wheelchair sits on the sidewalk in front of a shop. It belongs to Abou Abdo Al Hairan, a well known man from Aleppo. Al Hairan is someone who meets life’s challenges head on refusing to ever give up. He transformed his wheelchair into a kiosk, selling cigarettes and books for learning Turkish.

Abou Abdo lived most of his life in Aleppo’s Sakhour neighborhood. Like many of the city’s inhabitants he worked as a textile merchant. In 2006 his shop burned down and his merchandise was all lost. Reluctantly, he says that it was an intentional act by some unknown individuals. When asked about his age he avoids giving an exact answer, instead he says that he is still young and his hands are still strong. Abou Abdo has two little girls in elementary school and a 23 year old son helping him with work.

Commerce and Singing

Sitting on the sidewalk with Abou Abdo feels like sitting in his stories and seeing things through his eyes. He was provoked when I asked him how he can see the world from his little corner. After all, he preferred this little job as a cigaret salesman to his personal comfort. People in Aleppo are good with two things, he says: Commerce and singing. He describes himself as a workaholic and adds that nothing will keep him from rebuilding what was lost. This was the case when his shop burned down. The wheelchair will never prevent him from rising again.

Abou Abdo believes in working hard during his lifetime knowing that all his deeds will be judged in the afterlife. Hisfather raised him with a deep love for Aleppo and taught him to work hard in the service of his city. This is what makes his return so certain. He mumbles a song by Fairuz about return. This alone keeps life going and brings his dream of return closer to realization. After all, neither his age norhis disability ever stopped him from working. He is a merchant from Aleppo who has risen several times in a city which was called the most dangerous in the world.

Return to Aleppo

Abou Abdo might be too busy to follow the news and images coming out from Aleppo. When told about the death in the old city and the destruction of its souks and industry, he does not care. Instead he responds: “The people of Aleppo can create anything from nothing.” He adds that every details in life is necessary for survival: “We sing during funerals and in hours of sorrow, our music, the Aleppo Quddud, will fix the chaos, and if the citadel of Aleppo is destroyed we will age the stones and rebuild it.” And then he lets go a smile and sings a song.

Talking about Syria always involves war and politics, but Syria is much more than that for Abou Abdo who opposes all the violence. Suddenly, he tries to stand up leaning on a wall behind him, and says with pride that the roots of his family go back to Suleiman Al Halabi who assassinated General Kléber who led the military campaign on Egypt between 1798 and 1801. He recalls his house in the Sakhour neighborhood, and how a barrel bomb destroyed it. It was the third barrel to drop on his neighborhood that forced him and his family to seek refuge in Gaziantep. His financial situation did not prevent him from working as a merchant and sending his kids to school. He refuses to take any assistance from what he calls the merchants of war, so his wheelchair is a central part of his life and the capital of his new job.

Abou Abdo is waiting for the war to end so that he can go back and help rebuild his old neighborhood. I tell him provokingly: “Too much hope fosters disappointment.” He puts his hand in his pocket and takes out 5000 Syrian pounds and says: “Almost five years ago, I decided to keep this money for the ride back to Aleppo. If it is not enough I will walk the rest of the way even if my feet cannot carry me. After all, it is only 100 Kilometers.”

His resolve makes his return inevitable. One day in the future, he will be missed by the young Syrians who are always around him, and the Ataturk street will no longer be the same. Abou Abdo never forgets. In his memory there is all that is beautiful in the old Sakhour neighborhood. Regardless of the cost, he will return

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