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War had reduced Syria’s largest industrial complex to a ghost town, but displaced residents of nearby Aleppo are now creating a bustling lifestyle amid the abandoned factories and warehouses.
Petrol station attendant Salem describes the industrial zone of Sheikh Najjar as the “New Aleppo,” saying it is home to thousands of people forced out of Syria’s second city by deadly fighting.
“At first it was a ghost town. All the factories were abandoned. But today it is full of life: there are restaurants, gas stations, boutiques and even a barber,” he says.
“We have many clients,” the 22-year-old adds with a grin, before pumping gas into a vehicle carrying seven rebels, likely on their way to the front lines of the 30-month-old war aimed at overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad.
Aleppo is Syria’s commercial hub and Sheikh Najjar, which opened five years ago, was touted as a huge economic success, with around 6,000 factories that used to churn out everything from textiles to biscuits to medicine.
Most are now shuttered, and residents of Aleppo displaced by the fighting between regime forces and rebels have set up home there as they struggle to survive.
The U.N. refugee agency says the Syrian conflict — which began in March 2011 as a mostly peaceful uprising but has since swelled into a full-fledged civil war — has displaced more than four million people internally while sending another two million fleeing across Syria’s borders.
Salem and his family fled their home near Aleppo’s al-Kindi hospital six months ago.
Ahmad, who also left his home in the city, opened a barber shop four months ago in Sheikh Najjar, offering a shave and a cut for 150 Syrian liras (a little under a dollar).
“At first I wasn’t sure it would work, but now we have more than 100 clients each day,” says Ahmad, who hired an assistant to help him in the shop.
Abu Mohammad, 26, is also among the lucky few to have found a job in Sheikh Najjar, working in a textile factory that has remained open.
“I went door to door from one factory to the other and was lucky to find this one. The owner decided to reopen his business and was looking for employees,” he says.
The young man shares his weekly wages of around 4,000 liras with his family and lives in a makeshift dwelling with blanket walls that sway when the wind picks up.
His mother Um Yassin allows that conditions are tough, but says “at least we are not afraid here that a bomb will destroy our home.”
“Here at least I sleep nights and I don’t have nightmares,” she says.
Like most families here, they have no electricity and have to draw water from a nearby well — sometimes making as many as 10 runs a day to meet their needs.
Taxi driver Abu Ahmad had initially fled Aleppo for a refugee camp across the border in Turkey before deciding to turn back and join the Sheikh Najjar community.
“Winter (in Turkey) was harsh.. and I saw how many people suffered, so with some friends we decided to come here,” he says.
“My family is safe. I have a job. What more can I ask for?” says Abu Ahmad who now makes a living selling food.
Father of four Hazaa Shahud has not been so lucky. There is no work for a bricklayer in Sheikh Najjar and the little money he brought with him is running out.
Like others in the same plight, Shahud relies on handouts of bread and food from Al-Tawhid brigade, a unit linked to the Free Syrian Army, the main Western-backed rebel group.