Facing Assad’s Arab visit, Syrian migrants oscillate between hope and anger

When you enter Cafe Damascus in Riyadh it is like being in Damascus: the customer can taste traditional bean stew on the menu and listen to folk songs accompanied by nostalgia that will remind him of Syria.

The boss even hired a waiter to resemble the famous Syrian comedian Duraid Lahm, who takes selfies with his “fans” all day long.

But if this cafe’s regulars share the same love for Syria, few agree on the choice of their host country, Saudi Arabia, which welcomed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Arab League summit in Jeddah (west) on Friday. decided to invite ,

Syria, which attended the league’s preparatory meeting on Monday, was excluded from the start of the civil war, which has killed more than 500,000 people and left several million displaced and refugees.

His return seemed to announce the end of his isolation on the regional diplomatic scene and Damascus welcomed his “Arab brothers” sentiment.

“We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” greets one of the cafe’s customers, Hiba Sidawi, a 37-year-old Syrian.

“I hate him, I hate him,” said one woman, referring to President Assad. “Invite him but for what, what will he do? Will he make things better? Will he change the country? He is the one who has to change.”

The client refused to give his name. “I want to say without fear that I am against (Assad), but I still have family in Syria, they will take them and they will kill them.”

– Pain –

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad attends a preparatory meeting of Arab foreign ministers ahead of the 32nd Arab League summit in Jeddah 17 May 2023 (AFP – -)

Riyadh broke off diplomatic ties with Damascus in 2012 in response to the brutal crackdown in Syria. Saudi diplomacy advocated the removal of Bashar al-Assad.

The Arab League is also distancing itself from the regime in Damascus, leaving the Syrian opposition to occupy Syria’s seat at a summit in 2013.

But in 2018, the United Arab Emirates re-established ties with the country.

And reconciliation is intensifying after the February 6 earthquake, which devastated entire regions of Syria and Turkey, prompting an influx of humanitarian aid into the region.

Saudi Arabia then became one of the most ardent supporters of Syrian reunification among Arab countries: Syrian Foreign Minister Faikal Mekdad went to Riyadh and his Saudi counterpart Faikal Ben Farhane visited Damascus.

The two countries announce the withdrawal of their diplomatic representations to each other after 11 years of separation.

At the Damascus Cafe, while the staff are singing a song to celebrate a customer’s birthday, one of the men is in no mood to party.

“When I see the face (of Bashar al-Assad), I remember how many people died because of him,” he says. “Will He bring back to life our loved ones who have died? Will He heal our wounds and take away our pain?”

A client, Fatima, for her part, hopes the Syrian president’s visit will allow a return to normalcy in her war-ravaged country.

“The hardest thing is to travel, or import and invest,” she says. “Now it will go back to normal and things will get better.”

A waitress at a Damascus cafe frequented by Syrians living in the Saudi capital in Riyadh on May 17, 2023 (AFP - Fayez Nureldine)
A waitress at a Damascus cafe frequented by Syrians living in the Saudi capital in Riyadh on May 17, 2023 (AFP – Fayez Nureldine)

Ahmed Abdelwaab, a singer who works at the cafe, shares this optimism. “We were isolated in the past (…) we find ourselves today,” he said, referring to the Arab League.

However, it is difficult for him to wipe the slate clean of the last 12 years of war.

“Any Syrian, when you talk to him about his country, he will have tears in his eyes,” he revealed. “It’s more than sad. It feels like your heart is burning.”

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