Ahmad Al-Abdallah, a sweetshop owner, spends long hours waiting for customers to pass by his sweetshop at the souq-market in the heart of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. But despite opening late hours, he is barely able to make ends meet.
Scrambling to feed his family of five, Abdallah says that he is only able to afford basic food staples and vegetable oil, whereas mixed nuts and snacks are considered “luxuries” and had to be taken off his household shopping list. Ironically, Abdallah’s shop sells mixed nuts and sweets but business has been dreadfully slow.
Abdallah is hardly the only shop owner struggling with the economic slow-down which has hit Aleppo. Commercial traders had been hopeful that business would improve as locals observed the Islamic holy month of fasting, Ramadan.
But contrary to the trend in demand for commodities increasing during this period, sales took a nosedive as a result of lowered consumer purchasing power coupled with the regime’s hyper regulated commercial processes. The situation in the city, “is going from bad to worse,” Abdallah complained to 7Dnews in a phone interview.
“The purchasing power of the population is very low because of the lack of commercial activity in the city now,” he explained.
For months, merchants in Aleppo have suffered from low consumer purchasing power as unemployment worsens and the national currency continues to free-fall.
Many Aleppo residents have chosen to leave their hometown and migrate to work across borders, especially in neighbouring Lebanon. Firas Mustapha, a Syrian refugee residing in Lebanon, whose family returned to Aleppo in summer 2018, described the situation back home as “tragic.” In an interview with 7Dnews, Mustapha said he needs to send remittances to his parents and siblings back in Syria monthly. “My brothers have not found work for about a year, so I had to send money daily for them to survive. In the city, high fuel rates mean there are neither construction projects nor the capacity for agricultural work in the nearby countryside,” Mustapha told 7Dnews.
Living conditions in the month of Ramadan have deteriorated. Abdallah, recognising the toll of war, said, “production dropped by about 90%. People do not have enough money to even buy necessities let alone what they consider as indulgences, such as sweets, candies and clothes.” What now are considered as luxuries once used to be in high demand, especially before the Eid al-Fitr holiday. “The situation is difficult and people can barely afford to buy food because of the high prices,” Abdallah added.
Aleppo residents, crippled by a weakened currency, have curtailed their spending on food and stuck to agricultural produce. Lean meats, selling at a rate of $10 a kilo, are considered too costly for a median income family there. Even the prices of fruit and vegetables have nearly doubled in Ramadan.
The rise in prices since the start of Ramadan has forced the Syrian government to intervene. Pro-regime Syrian daily, Al Watan, reported that prices in Aleppo markets had shot up during the first two days of the month of Ramadan as a result of traders not keeping their promise to maintain them at pre-Ramadan levels. Authorities intervened to fine offending vendors, the newspaper said. Semi-official media outlets cited Internal Trade and Consumer Protection Minister, Nader Al-Nadaf, weighing in to stress the need for traders to carry out their promises and not to raise prices, especially during Ramadan. Nadaf also reportedly stressed the need to take all necessary measures to enhance the ailing economy.
Apart from economic struggles, Syrians in Aleppo also suffer from poor security, which has negatively impacted the city’s markets. Security risk implications coincided with reports of a regime military campaign waged against opposition groups and hardliners in the north of Syria, which triggered opposition retaliatory shelling that targeted civilians at south-eastern Aleppo’s al-Nairb camp.
The outlook for Aleppo, once the industrial heart of Syria, is exceptionally gloomy. There isn’t much sign of hope as the area continues to plunge deeper into unemployment and poverty. Hundreds of families have also lost their breadwinner to war violence.
Amer al-Shehabi, a young labourer at an Aleppo shoe factory, noted that total catastrophe has been avoided by charity work done by merchants and wealthier families. “Aleppo’s population has long been accustomed to the culture of supporting poor families. Helping the needy is a popular social practice, especially during the holy month of Ramadan,” he told 7Dnews in a phone interview. Despite people of goodwill working to help the underprivileged, Shehabi stresses that they are failing to meet the full brunt of the great increase in poverty.
However, several local initiatives have started distributing humanitarian relief in Aleppo. Saed, for example, is an Aleppo-based non-profit organisation that recently published photographs of its volunteers helping distribute around 8,000 daily breakfasts in Damascus and Aleppo to the poor as part of the “Hunger Hunger” initiative. The initiative aims to provide breakfasts for poor families, orphans and eligible beneficiaries chosen by a local board. Other initiatives are campaigning to raise the number of food rations available, using the slogan, "Good to Do."