At beloved falafel shop, Syrians get taste of pre-war Raqqa

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Raqqa is still mostly a sinister ghost town of gutted buildings and rubble-strewn streets but there is one place teeming with activity in the Syrian city: Ammar Qassab’s falafel shop. (AFP)
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Syrians buy falafel at the King’s Restaurant, the oldest and most famous falafel restaurant in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa. (AFP)
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A Syrian man prepares falafel at the King’s Restaurant, the oldest and most famous falafel restaurant in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa. (AFP)
Updated 17 January 2018
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At beloved falafel shop, Syrians get taste of pre-war Raqqa

RAQQA, Syria: Raqqa is still mostly a sinister ghost town of gutted buildings and rubble-strewn streets but there is one place teeming with activity in the Syrian city: Ammar Qassab’s falafel shop.
“We reopened almost two weeks ago,” the 33-year-old said, as one of his employees spooned balls of yellow chickpea mixture from a battered, bullet-pierced vat and dipped them in searing oil.
“King Falafel is famous here,” Qassab said, smiling as customers crowded his tiny shop in central Raqqa.
Only a few months ago, the northern Syrian city was still the inner sanctum of the Daesh’s now defunct “caliphate.”
A huge military operation, led on the ground by Kurdish fighters and in the air by US warplanes, defeated the extremists but also left the city completely disfigured.
Once home to around 300,000 people, Raqqa’s neighborhoods were empty when it was declared retaken in mid-October.
Three months on, despite the lack of infrastructure and the lingering threat of unexploded mines and bombs, a trickle of residents — a few hundred families — are attempting to return.
“I cannot say how happy it makes me to see people return to the city and come here again,” said Qassab.
He sells around 1,200 falafel sandwiches a day, a number he explained was the result of recent returnees not having working kitchens to prepare their own food.
King Falafel, across from the famed Harun Al-Rashid park, was itself a food landmark in Raqqa for more than four decades.
It stayed open even after extremists took over the city in 2014 but had to close a year ago as fighting to oust IS got closer.
For Qassab and other Raqqa natives, the reopening of the falafel shop signals a return to familiar things.
The owner and his helpers are back to dropping balls of mashed chickpeas into a deep frier, then pressing the crispy puck-shaped falafel into flatbread with pickles and tahini.
And like they once did years ago, customers pull up plastic chairs to the storefront to dig into their savoury sandwiches.
“I was 10 when I came here for the first time,” said Issa Ahmed Hassan, a white-haired man in his fifties.
“My family and I used to come for the park to watch the people walk by,” he said.
Hassan left Raqqa two years ago with the rest of the city’s Kurdish minority, and King Falafel was one of his first stops when he returned to his hometown.
“A lot of people didn’t come back because of this crisis. God willing, the situation will get better and Raqqa will be even more beautiful than before,” he said.
Across the city, life is attempting to take hold in neighborhoods that were restricted military areas just weeks ago.
Returnees seek out the few shops that have reopened to find basic goods, but many struggle to contain their anger at what they see is the slow pace of reconstruction.
“I came back to find my house a wreck, with rubble two meters high,” said Abdel Sattar Al-Abid, a 39-year-old who returned to rebuild his home in the devastated Old City.
Dozens of security forces and civilians have been killed and wounded since October by the explosion of booby-traps and roadside bombs left behind by Daesh.
Abid was critical of the local authorities, saying not enough was being done to bring back water and clean up the streets.
“I risked my life and started cleaning up without even checking for mines. We just started because we want to live here,” he said.
Across the city, residents have similar complaints.
With infrastructure still ravaged, they are relying on neighborhood electricity generators and water that has been trucked in.
Iman Al-Faraj, 40, returned to Raqqa almost three weeks ago to find nothing standing from her beloved home except a single room.
“Look at our houses. They’re all destroyed. Who has the money to rebuild?” the mother-of-eight cried out.
“From an entire house, I’ve got nothing except one room. I fixed it and put in a door, and now that’s where we live.”
“We pay 1,000 Syrian pounds (about $2) for a single ampere of electricity. We can’t live in darkness,” said Faraj.
Near the Old City’s ancient Rafiqah wall, Mohammad Omar has lined up rows of gas canisters and plastic jugs of diesel.
“If you have money, you buy diesel. If you don’t have money, you burn wood. If you don’t have wood, you burn sponge mattresses or furniture,” said Omar, 25.
And just a few meters away, Ismail Omar gazed at his ravaged home.
“We’re the biggest losers in this war. We’ve got nothing left but destruction, mines, hunger, and poverty,” the 45-year-old said.
“What’s gone isn’t coming back.”


South Sudan surgeon wins UN prize for treating war-hit refugees

Updated 25 September 2018
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South Sudan surgeon wins UN prize for treating war-hit refugees

  • South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, has been ravaged by civil war since 2013 after clashes erupted between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar
  • At least 50,000 people have been killed and one in three South Sudanese have been uprooted from their homes

NAIROBI: A South Sudanese surgeon, who has spent two decades helping the sick and injured in the war-torn east African nation, was on Tuesday announced the winner of a UN prize for treating tens of thousands of people forced to flee violence and persecution.
Evan Atar Adaha — a 52-year-old doctor who runs the only hospital in northeastern Maban county — was given the 2018 Nansen Refugee Award for his “humanity and selflessness” where he often risked his safety to serve others, the UN said.
“I feel very humbled. I hope this award can help draw attention to the plight of refugees especially here in Africa where they are often forgotten about,” Adaha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
“You may hear and read about them, but it’s only when you are face-to-face with people who have left everything and are sick with malaria, or are malnourished, or have a bullet wound that you realize how desperate the need for help is.” Nansen Refugee Awardees are recognized by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) for dedicating their time to help people forced from their homes. Former awardees include Eleanor Roosevelt and Luciano Pavarotti.
South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, has been ravaged by civil war since 2013 after clashes erupted between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.
The government recently signed a peace agreement with rebels, but the five-year-long war has had a devastating impact.
At least 50,000 people have been killed and one in three South Sudanese have been uprooted from their homes. The country also hosts around 300,000 refugees fleeing violence in neighboring Sudan, according to the UN.
Adaha, known locally as Dr. Atar, has been running Maban hospital — which was once an abandoned health clinic — in the northeastern town of Bunj since 2011.
When he first arrived, he said there was no operating theater and he had to stack tables to create a work area.
Over the years, he has transformed the hospital and created a maternity ward and nutrition center, as well as training young people as nurses and midwives.
The 120-bed hospital now serves around 200,000 people living in Maban county — 70 percent of whom are refugees from Sudan — and conducts about 60 operations weekly but under very difficult circumstances.
Adaha said the only x-ray machine is broken, the operating theater has only one light, and electricity is provided by generators that often break down.
Although the hospital receives support from UNHCR, Adaha said a lack of funds remains his biggest challenge to treating everyone who needs help. “In the hospital, we will treat anyone. It doesn’t matter if you are a rebel, government soldier, refugee or a local person. We have pregnant women, malnourished children and even people who are wounded by bullets,” Adaha said.
“The one rule we have is that no weapons are allowed in the hospital. If you bring a weapon, then we will not treat you. Sometimes it is difficult, but most people now agree.”
The Nansen Refugee Award ceremony takes place on Oct. 1 in Geneva, and the winner will receive $150,000 to fund a project complementing their work.