For years as fighting raged in Syria’s Aleppo, property agent Saer Daqaq had fleeing residents knocking at the door of his beachside offices, seeking refuge in his flats in coastal Latakia.
A popular seaside resort largely untouched by the country’s six-year civil war, Latakia became a haven for those escaping Syria’s second city, so much so that part of it was even dubbed “Aleppo Beach”.
But since fighting for Aleppo ended last year, Daqaq’s offices just steps from the waters of the Mediterranean have been much quieter.
With the army’s recapture of Aleppo in December, many displaced residents are now finally heading home after years away, though others who have set up businesses or whose homes are destroyed are staying put for now.
With their faded white paint, the apartment blocks in northern Latakia’s “Blue Beach” area have hosted thousands of Aleppans who fled fighting in the country’s former economic powerhouse.
They were once so numerous that the area was informally rechristened “Aleppo Beach”, but since the army’s recapture of the city, demand for flats to rent has plummeted.
“Between 40 percent and 50 percent of them have gone back,” said Daqaq.
Up to 700,000 Syrians displaced from Aleppo city and the surrounding province once lived in Latakia, but more than 30 percent have now left, the local governorate says.
“In the last six months, not a single family from Aleppo has come to rent an apartment, whether for a month or a year,” said Daqaq, 42, sporting a close-cropped beard.
The area “is half empty”, he said, before returning to a game of cards with his friends.
– No guarantees of work –
On the balconies of apartment buildings, tarpaulin sheets bearing the logo of the UN refugee agency UNHCR have long replaced curtains, and tangles of electrical wires hang haphazardly at building entrances.
Latakia’s population nearly doubled with the arrival of displaced residents from across Syria after the war broke out in 2011.
The economy of the town, a regime stronghold like its surrounding province of the same name, previously depended mostly on its sea port and status as a beach resort.
But it was transformed by the arrival of so many displaced people, including Aleppans with the money to open small or medium-sized business in the area.
“Most of them brought their business with them: bespoke dressmaking, shoemaking, clothes shops, businesses. And some of them bought land and factories,” said Daqaq.
Those businesses have provided some displaced people with a reason to stay on in Blue Beach.
On the ground floor of one of the buildings that has been transformed into a shoemaker’s workshop, 22-year-old Talal relaxes on a weekend with other workers.
“At least here I have a job,” said the young man originally from Bab al-Nayrab in formerly rebel-held east Aleppo.
“If I went back to Aleppo, there’s no way to guarantee I’d have work,” he said.
Other displaced Aleppans in Latakia simply have no home to return to because of the destruction caused by the fight for the city.
– ‘Our house was flattened’ –
Um Muhammed lives in a modest three-room apartment in the area with her husband and four others.
She sleeps in the living room, which is furnished with only a mattress and an old sofa, while the other family members share the two remaining rooms.
It’s a far cry from her traditional home in Aleppo’s Shaar neighbourhood, in the formerly rebel-held east, with its pretty patio and five large rooms.
That home, which she has not seen for more than four years, is just a memory now.
“Our house has been flattened,” Um Muhammed said, her hair covered by a white headscarf.
“My sons went to inspect the house and the ceiling has literally collapsed on top of the furniture. The floor tiles have been shattered. It’s not remotely habitable.”
She can hardly believe that the coastal region they once used to visit for family trips has become their place of exile.
“We used to really enjoy ourselves before when we came to the beach in Latakia. Today we weep for our homes, our sons, our dead,” she said.
Um Qassem, a former resident of Aleppo’s Old City, is also staying in the seaside city for now.
Her family relies on the salaries of a son and two daughters employed in Latakia to pay rent, which at between $50-100 a month in the coastal city is a major sum for Syrians today.
But she has little expectation of returning home soon with her four children.
“I went once to check the house. There’s not a bedroom left and everything has been looted,” she said.
“It we went back, we’d have to start from scratch.”