Middle EastSyria Letter

For Syrians in survival mode, there’s always the sun

Times are hard, but there is a refusal to be crushed by adversity

Photovoltaic panels turn their faces to the sun on rooftops of elegant 200-year-old Ottoman mansions in Damascus, in handsome 20th-century apartment blocks in Aleppo’s suburbs, and modest homes in both cities.

The world’s oldest cities, along with Homs, Hama, and towns in between, are at the vanguard of the battle against climate change. Electricity starvation has made Syrian households among the greenest on earth during the country’s darkest days. Syria is rich in resources but 90 per cent of people live in poverty.

Syrians with decent incomes have to go green. Several Chinese-made panels, thin as paperback books, connected to batteries, provide modest homes with the power to run a fridge, television and lights.

With a dozen panels, a home has 24-hour electricity which is no longer delivered by power stations wounded by warfare and denied fuel and spare parts by sanctions. Whenever households receive a random hour from the grid, a cry goes up. “Isha al-hakoumi”: government power has come. When this happens, lights dim and fridges cackle.


Syria’s pound was 48-50 to the dollar before the war; now it is 6,600-7,000 to the dollar. A brick of notes must be handed over for large purchases. To feed their families, Syrians must work at several jobs. The average monthly wage is worth $18 (€17). Civil servants, who had comfortable lives before war and sanctions, receive a salary equivalent to $45 a month, says Faris, a bank employee who considers himself fortunate because he makes $240.

He remains unmarried and lives with his parents. Paul, who supports six people, is a wedding and christening event manager who moonlights as a driver and volunteers at church charity events.

Abu Rashid is a Kurdish refugee from the northern Turkish-occupied Afrin district. He is a cleaner in a hotel and works at private homes on weekends. He is trying to save enough money to refurnish his looted home in Afrin, if ever he is allowed to return.

Downtown Aleppo’s pavements have become markets for shirts, shoes, and plastic goods hawked by men without jobs.

Paul argues that refugees should not return. “We have enough Syrians.”

The pre-war population of 24 million has shrunk to 18 million.

Issa, who is in “import-export”, insists that Syria needs labourers to rebuild infrastructure, homes and the economy. However, Syria cannot rebuild until sanctions are lifted. He repeats the national mantra: “The situation now is worse than during the war”, which wound down in 2019.

Islamic State (also known as Isis) fugitives and landmines have killed scores of desperate Syrians while they hunted for seasonal white truffles in the eastern desert. Since truffles — which are less fragrant than the black European variety — sell for $25 a kilo, many are willing to risk their lives to collect them.

Despite privation, Syrians refuse to be crushed by adversity and cannot be denied enjoyment. In Aleppo, Amo Hamid’s fast-food joint is mobbed from noon to midnight by youngsters who can afford falafel and burger sandwiches wrapped in twists of paper. At the vast Tourquase restaurant, middle-class clients who cannot afford meals spend entire evenings sipping water and puffing on water pipes.

A wealthy middle-aged bride and groom are greeted by drummers and dancers when they enter Aleppo’s four-star Shahba hotel before walking arm-in-arm to their lavish reception in a ballroom.

At seven in the morning in Damascus’s Old City, denim-clad labourers gather outside the sole open stall to sip small cups of coffee before work while errand boys pass by with bicycles laden with boxes and bags of cheap goods for delivery to shops near St Thomas Gate.