By Hussein al-Khattab and Justin Clark
When Ahmad al-Hariri fled from his neighborhood in east Aleppo over a month ago, one of the Syrian government’s “green buses” took him and his family to Azaz, a village in Aleppo’s northern countryside.
Though he’d finally distanced himself from the violence in east Aleppo, he couldn’t stay long in the relatively safe area of Azaz. With rents far exceeding the means of the average displaced Syrian, he was forced to head to the village of Marea—and closer to the frontlines.
“I searched for days in Azaz, but the cheapest rent I could find was as much as half my salary in Aleppo,” says al-Hariri. Though rent in Marea is up to 75 percent cheaper, it is less safe—the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Kurdish militias frequently clash with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to the west of Marea.
To the south of the city, Turkish forces fight with the Islamic State for control of Al-Bab, an ISIS stronghold in Syria’s north. Turkish, Russian, and Coalition airstrikes frequently strike the area, sometimes at a heavy civilian cost.
Al-Hariri—like thousands of other east Aleppans who’ve fled their homes—says he was greeted in opposition territory by exploitative landlords and expensive living costs. Though the opposition government claims it is working to support the displaced, it has been largely unable to regulate the housing market or give newcomers a warm welcome.
No regulations in “safe” cities
For those who can’t afford the higher costs of rent in safer areas, they must head to camps along the Syrian-Turkish border, or to the frontlines of the conflict.
Ahmad Sweid worked as a paramedic in Aleppo before leaving his home last December and heading for Aleppo’s western countryside. Unable to pay rent, he left for rebel-held Idlib province, which is mostly under the Islamist Jabhat Fateh a-Sham’s control and subject to near-daily bombardment.
Though Sweid blames the landlords who exploit displaced Syrians with nowhere else to go, the absence of any regulation from the opposition government contributes to the chaos, he sais. In the worst cases, Sweid says, real estate offices will rent from landlords and sublet properties to newcomers—charging up the three times the normal cost.
Al-Atarib, a rebel-controlled city in east Idlib province, is one of the “safer” cities, says Muhammad Shakurdi, the human resources director for the city’s local council. It has also been a prime destination for east Aleppo’s displaced residents, most of whom stayed only briefly before rent prices drove them out again.
The local council also runs four shelters for families, working in cooperation with humanitarian organizations to provide free housing for the 730 families who have come to al-Atarib. Shakurdi also tells the Syrian Voice that 75 houses have been donated by residents to shelter families who evacuated from east Aleppo.
Shakurdi tells the Syrian Voice that while cases of landlords exploiting residents do exist, they are “rare.”
For those who feel exploited by their landlords, Shakurdi says the local council in al-Atarib established an office for people to file complaints and “solve their issues”—but didn’t elaborate further.
Abdelbassat Sakna is a father of two who left east Aleppo during the evacuation last December. He lived in one of west Aleppo’s local council-funded shelters while he looked for an apartment, but in the end found nothing.
He took SP40,000 ($77) and bought a tent, taking his family to the Turkish border. Now, he lives in one of the impromptu refugee camps set up by the Turkish government, which by their own estimates houses some 80,000 displaced Syrians.
According to Nidal Abdeqader, president of the Office for Social Affairs and Humanitarian Aid in Aleppo’s opposition council, the Syrian Interim Government is working to subsidize rent prices in coordination with “Amal al-Kheir,” a charity organization active in the area.
“We will pay $50 to every family,” Abdelqader tells the Syrian Voice. “It’ll be enough to rent a house in some areas, and pay a portion of rent in others.”
The rent subsidies have yet to take effect, residents tell the Syrian Voice.