American Thomas Webber, 71, loves living in Damascus despite the brutal civil war in Syria
He has been living in the capital for more than 40 years
"One time I was caught in a barrage of rockets and the day before we had a mortar shell land in front of our door"
But one American says he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Thomas Webber, 71, has called the capital city of Damascus home for more than 40 years.
“I had a pretty bad landing when I flew into Damascus in 1975 so I didn’t fall in love with the place on the first day,” he says with a smile. “But I did on the second day.”
Webber calls himself the last “True American” in Damascus, a reference to the fact that there are still some Syrians with U.S. passports living here.
He’s originally from Orchard Park, a suburb of Buffalo, New York, and worked as an entrepreneur and business developer in the Middle East and Gulf countries for several decades.
Now he also has a part-time teaching job at an international school in the Syrian capital. He lives in a middle-class neighborhood with his wife, Salma.
‘I feel extremely safe’
U.S. authorities have repeatedly asked him to leave Syria, to no avail, he said.
“I am an American, I have been living here for years,” he said. ” And I feel extremely safe in this city of Damascus.”
There have been close calls. His neighborhood has been repeatedly shelled. Neighbors were killed and wounded.
“One time I was caught in a barrage of rockets and the day before we had a mortar shell land in front of our door,” he said.
American authorities warned he might be a target for kidnappings.
“I have never been worried that I will be kidnapped,” he said. “But of course in five years I haven’t. I don’t think the Syrian people want such an old American. They can deal with somebody younger.”
‘No other place like this’
Webber takes us on a tour of his favorite shops in Damascus’ historic market. He clearly enjoys walking around the Old Town, taking in the sights and the smells of the vendors’ stalls with their exotic spices and fragrances.
He led us to a traditional soap maker who obtains his products from the northern Syrian town of Aleppo, one of the places most damaged by the war,
“It is so amazing that they still get their soap from up there,” he said, pausing to smell a bar of olive-oil-based soap. “It shows that people are trying to keep the industry going even in these hard times.”
He smiles when asked why he still lives in this war-torn country.
“Look around you,” he says, gesturing around the busy market. “There is no other place like this in the world.”
‘People are feeling free’
Webber says the ceasefire recently brokered by the United States and Russia has brought the Damascus market back to life. Scores of people crowd the narrow alleys and sit in cafes around the famous Umayyad mosque.
“People are feeling free,” he says. “They see the light at the end of the tunnel and never before in the past five years have they seen the light at the end of the tunnel. They are hoping and praying that the ceasefire continues.”
Webber gets angry when he hears people in the West equating Syria with international terrorism.
“This is what I want to tell the world: It’s safer here. The Syrian people are not terrorists. The Syrian people are the most honest, down-to-earth, loving people in the world.”
But of course many parts of Syria are not safe. The civil war still rages in the area around Aleppo, ISIS holds sway in large parts of Syria’s east and there has been brutal fighting in the countryside of Damascus as well.
He favors Russia’s role in the war
Many would find Webber’s views on the conflict controversial. He is in favor of Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war and he doesn’t believe embattled President Bashar al-Assad should step down.
“We need an Arabic coalition that fights one source,” he says. “Not the government, not the Syrian army, they have to fight ISIS. If ISIS gets out of hand in Syria, it will be a scourge for the rest of the world.”
With the political talks over Syria making incremental headway at best, few in Damascus trust that the current ceasefire will last.
But Webber has faith in the country he calls home. He believes its people will overcome the present turmoil and one day thrive again.