ATME, Syria: Among the olive trees in northwestern Syria, displaced teenager Wissam Diab plucks an oud outside his new home, a tent surrounded by luscious plants.
Inside, there are more tumbling indoor plants and a collection of tiny cacti, as well as dozens of books lined up on a cloth-covered table from authors such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Haruki Murakami and Egypt’s celebrated Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
Syria’s war forced the Diab family to flee their village of Kafr Zita in central Hama province, but when 19-year-old Wissam moved into a tent in northwestern Syria he decided to recreate his childhood home.
“It’s been four years, and we haven’t been able to find a house or go back home,” said the young man with green eyes and shoulder-length brown hair.
“What I’ve done with the tent is me trying to settle down.”
And settle down he did in his own tent in an olive grove in the area of Atme, in Idlib province near the Turkish border, while his parents and two sisters have a separate tent next door.
A patterned stone path leads up to the front door and wooden sticks top the canvas roof.
All around, plants and flowering shrubs thrive in large plastic pots, or in neat rows in the soil of his front garden.
Indoors, he has hung a textile curtain along the tarpaulin wall, and made a small living room with a floor-level sofa.
An ornate red carpet pads out his tent underfoot.
“Our home was like this. We had a garden, we had a library, we had a lot of flowers,” he said. It “was like this, but much, much better.”
Syria’s war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011.
In Idlib, a major rebel bastion, around half of the 3 million inhabitants live in tents or shelters, many after losing their homes in other parts of the country now back under government control.
In October 2016, Diab and his family were forced to flee their home further south, as regime aircraft bombarded the surrounding area in a bloody campaign that killed his only brother.
Scrolling through his smart phone, Diab shows images of their old home in Kafr Zita, which he says was blitzed in the fighting.
The family lived in a displacement camp until eight months ago.
But as fears mounted over the spread there of the novel coronavirus, they decided to move away to somewhere more secluded.
When they ran for their lives four years ago, the Diabs grabbed the bare necessities and Wissam managed to save a few of his precious books.
His collection now contains 85 novels and other books, including translated works by Dostoyevsky or Murakami, he says.
“Here I had to start again from scratch. I bought plants and books, and built the library up again,” he said.
To pass the time, he is also teaching himself to play the oud via tutorials on YouTube.
Diab says many of his neighbors were surprised to see how much energy he had poured into transforming his tent.
But the young Syrian says he fears it will be some time before anybody can go home.
“I know we will be here for a while,” he said.
So in the meanwhile, he looks after his cacti collection and waters his creeping jasmine.