“Where Are the Millions?”…. Syria’s Cities Lose their Young Men
When Syrians compare their lives now to how things were six years ago, they do not only think of the apparent security they used to have, the exchange rate or its effect on markets and prices, the number of people around the dinner table and the numbers of martyrs or detainees on both sides. They also see changes to aspects of their lives they never thought would be affected by war, such as the appearance of the streets and their feel, the tense atmosphere, and the noticeable change to the male to female ratio.
There are many reasons for the migration of young Syrian men but the main cause is the Syrian regime’s emptying of cities from their young male population and forcing the first revolutionaries to leave. Among those who left is Murad, aged 35, from the city of Homs. “Although I participated in the revolution since the first demonstrations in my neighborhood, I was not wanted by the regime because I was very careful about my revolutionary activities, which continue till now. Since I had already completed the mandatory military service before the revolution, I saw no reason to leave Homs despite its hugely deteriorating situation,” Murad said.
Murad continued living with his family in relative security, continuing his work in a mobile phone shop since he was not wanted by the regime and did not risk being drafted for military service, until he received a call that changed all of his calculations. “I received a telephone call from the Conscription Division. They informed me that I was wanted for reserve service and gave me a week to report to the Division. Of course, I did not.”
A Systematic Policy of Emptying Cities
Murad considers the phone call a clear attempt to empty Homs of its young men, after he verified that it was the Conscription Division calling through a number of friends and acquaintances. He said, “Since when does the Conscription Division inform people via telephone and define a deadline for them to report to the Division? It was an indirect message that I should leave the country or they would force me into the military. Of course I chose the former option and headed to the first smuggler who smuggled me into Turkey.”
Murad explains that young men are not being drafted into the reserve service directly “as the regime does not trust them.” He added, “It is true that the regime desperately needs soldiers today but I believe that it does not trust us as we come from an area that rebelled against the regime from the beginning. It knows that we submit to regime checkpoints and regime rule but not because we support the regime, and so the regime’s solution is to get rid of us entirely to ensure that we will not revolt against it or desert its army.”
One of the Lucky Ones, but…
What was a source of sadness for Oum Amr in her son’s childhood became a source of comfort for her after the revolution. Amr’s status as the only son meant that he could avoid the difficulties of military service, carrying arms and participating in battle. Amr, a computer engineer from Damascus, said, “After I graduated, I did not look for opportunities to enroll in a masters degree as my friends did (in order to continue putting off their military service). I looked for a job and began teaching computer science in a school.”
Amr’s feeling of of being one of the lucky few began to diminish as he compared his salary with the salary of his colleagues outside Syria, “I did not study computer engineering to work as a teacher. My monthly salary does not exceed 50 US dollars while those holding similar degrees earn at least twenty times that amount.”
Amr did not want to travel, as he wanted to remain with his family. This left him the sole option of working online as a freelance programmer. He described his experience, “I worked as a remote programmer for different companies through freelance work websites and I quickly I felt the real value of my work, the experience that I was losing by working outside my field, and the skills I could develop by taking on more projects.”
Amr consulted his friends outside Syria and they confirmed that he could find work with his degree and that the salaries were much more appealing than what he was earning. “I am wasting my life without managing to save anything to build myself up. What can I save from a salary of 50 dollars? This made me want to improve my situation and I decided to travel after I signed a contract with a company in Turkey,” Amr said from his new home in Mersin.
After returning from an event organized by a charitable organization in Homs, Maha, a young architect from the city said, “When I entered the hall where the event was being held, I felt as if I was in a ‘women’s gathering’. There were no men in the audience except for the event organizers. Were it not for them, we would have taken off our headscarves as the attendees were all women of different ages.”
Maha added that this “women’s gathering” reflects the situation on the streets and on public transport, “It might seem weird but it has become familiar for those living in Syria. My brothers have travelled abroad and my male cousins did the same. It is the same with most families, only those studying at university or those who are past 50 remain.”
Searching for Employees
What appeared to Maha as a pleasant “women’s gathering” is for Abu Ragheb a real nightmare that is getting worse as time passes. He explained, “I have owned a large bookstore here in Hama for many years. I used to manage it with a team of six men but they started to travel abroad, one after the other, to escape conscription. Today none of them remain.”
Abu Ragheb tried to look for replacements for every employee who left but it was not as easy as he expected, “In the past, employers could find ten employees for any employee who left, but today the situation is much harder. After much searching to find a well-mannered and trustworthy young man and after training him on the shop’s product categories, prices, how to deal with customers and using the copying machines, it all goes to waste when he decides to travel just like all those before him.”
Children… and Women
Finding an employee is even more difficult for Abu Ragheb when he looks for a young person with additional skills such as knowledge of Photoshop or other programs, “Of course, all the difficulties I described are even worse when trying to find a skilled employee with specialized skills. Finding young men alone is hard enough, so imagine how hard it is when they have to have a particular skill?”
Abu Ragheb pointed out that he is not the only facing this problem; many different employers are complaining about the same issue. According to Abu Ragheb, there are those who find ways around the problem, “Some hire children no older than 12 as parents want their children to work to increase the family income and employers need someone to help them. Last year, I relied entirely on university students but they could not continue due to the exam season and university hours, which occurs at the same time as the busiest times of year in the bookstore too
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