After decades in Damascus, American says he'll never leave

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Thomas Webber stoops to check his car for bombs every morning before heading out, but the 71-year-old American has no plans to leave Damascus, a city he has called home for more than four decades.

See Full Article

He is perhaps the last American not of Syrian origin living in the capital, after the United States closed its embassy and urged citizens to leave the country in 2012. The Czech Embassy, which has handled U.S. interests since then, told him to be careful.

"Foreigners were being kidnapped at the time," Webber says of the chaotic period four years ago. "I guess I don't look like a Syrian. I'm a little bit taller than most."

At 6 feet 4 inches, he is a lot taller than most, and his silver hair and bespoke suits -- complete with pocket squares -- also make him stand out. But policemen at nearby checkpoints wave him on with a smile, and he stands by his decision to stay.

"The Syrian people are just the most beautiful people in the world," he says. "There's no way I'm going to leave this country. They're going to have to carry me out."

He said that when the Czech Embassy contacted him, urging him to leave, it told him he was the last American not of Syrian origin still living in Damascus. An official at the Czech embassy in Damascus contacted by The Associated Press said he could not confirm whether that was the case.

Webber was born and raised in Orchard Park, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. His father was a German railyard master and his mother was a Polish nurse. He flunked out of dental school, skipped the Vietnam draft due to a technical error, and was living in California when he was offered a job teaching science at Damascus Community School, a private American academy.

"I said OK, and then headed to the public library and got out an atlas," he recalls.

He arrived in Damascus in 1975, and went on to convert to Islam and marry a Syrian woman. Except for a brief stint teaching in Iran, he has lived in Syria ever since. Today he has three grown children, 11 grandchildren and a great grandchild living in various countries. He visits them often, but always comes home to Damascus.

Syria has been hostile to Israel and to U.S. policies in the region for as long as Webber has been there, but thousands of Americans and other Westerners, including diplomats, teachers, businesspeople and clergy members, called it home. And the country was a relatively safe destination for American tourists, students and other visitors.

That began to change in 2011, after Syrians rose up with mostly peaceful protests demanding political change. President Bashar Assad responded with a brutal crackdown, an insurgency erupted, and soon the country was in the grip of a full-blown civil war that has now killed more than 250,000 people.

In the chaotic early months of the conflict foreigners fled, fearing kidnappings and bombings. The government has maintained a tight grip on the capital, with security checkpoints at almost every intersection, but insurgents have lobbed mortar rounds into the city centre from suburbs under their control.

"One hit about 3 metres in front of our door," Webber said calmly. "Wiped out seven cars."

He and his wife began taking "strong precautionary measures," he said. "When I went out by myself I told her where I was going, and same with her. When I'm driving, I am very observant of cars around me. We started doing a lot more things together, which is good for our relationship," he added cheerfully.

The security situation in the capital has improved since then, and over the past week a U.S. and Russian-brokered cease-fire has brought about the first major lull in the fighting.

On a recent day, Webber walked up the stone steps of the botanical garden cafe in the Old City, greeted the waiter and took a table on the rooftop, which offers a panoramic view of the old citadel. Nestled between the Barada River and the entrance to the famed Umayyad Mosque, the garden offers birdsong and quiet tranquility in the heart of a busy city, and seems a world apart from the war.

Webber recently wrote about it on TripAdvisor, where he is a level 6 contributor. He has written more than 300 reviews on the site, trumpeting Syria's famed restaurants and attractions.

"I have the choice of any country, including America, and I choose to stay here," he says. "It's part of my heart now."

Many of his friends have left, and a landscaping business he founded is suffering. But the exodus of qualified teachers made it easy to get a part-time job in the English department of a local high school. Several times a week, Webber shares his love of Charles Dickens with teenagers from the French-speaking Lycee Charles de Gaulle.

"I feel 45 years old again after a good day of teaching," he said.

Most Damascenes place little stock in the cease-fire, and fear the shelling may soon resume. But Webber -- ever the optimist -- thinks the peace will hold, and after spending four decades immersed in Arab culture, he has taken on its belief in divine providence.

"My wife agrees with me on this -- when it's your time, it's your time. I could leave school and slip on a banana peel and die," he said, folding his arms. "It's God's will."



Advertisements

Latest Canada & World News

  • N.L. woman heartbroken after local SPCA puts down three-day-old moose

    Canada News CTV News
    GANDER, N.L. -- A Newfoundland woman who bottle-fed a baby moose after it got lost in the woods without its mother is reeling after the local SPCA put the animal down. Brandi Calder says her husband was building a cabin in the woods near Glenwood when he heard a strange crying noise and discovered the three-day-old calf on its own with no sign of its mother. Source
  • Girls say Vancouver Island gender segregated hockey proposal is offside

    Canada News Toronto Sun
    Is forcing gender segregation in minor hockey a human rights issue? A proposal before the Vancouver Island Amateur Hockey Association (VIAHA) has some parents and girls up in arms asking the motion be put in the box. Source
  • Canada Post issues first ever Eid stamp ahead of Ramadan

    Canada News CBC News
    Canada Post has unveiled its first ever Eid stamp honouring Islam's most important holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, which begins Friday evening. Source
  • South Carolina man who chained woman in shipping container pleads guilty to killing 7

    World News CBC News
    A South Carolina man who admitted killing seven people over nearly 13 years while running a successful real estate business pleaded guilty Friday to seven counts of murder and a number of other charges.3rd body found on South Carolina man's property where woman was found chainedBody found on South Carolina property where man kept woman 'chained up like a dog'Todd Kohlhepp admitted his role in the deaths of seven people less than seven months after he was arrested when investigators checking on…
  • City council could pull Pride funding as Toronto police asked not to march in uniform

    Canada News CBC News
    If police officers can't march in this summer's Pride parade — in uniform — some councillors want the city to pull $260,000 away from Pride Toronto. The entire city council is set to make its decision by 2 p.m. Source
  • 'Sweaty' strippers demand more money for 'gross work' in settlement with club

    World News Toronto Sun
    These dancers want a little more than just a tip. The number of strippers joining a class-action settlement is growing in a case against Deja Vu gentleman's club. According to the Detroit Free Press, it's alleged the Michigan-based business is exploiting its exotic dancers by paying them only a few hundred dollars each. Source
  • Niki Ashton represents new breed of Canadian leader

    Canada News Toronto Sun
    Earlier this week, the Toronto Sun published an op-ed entitled “NDP MP Niki Ashton has made her priorities clear.” While I disagree with virtually everything the op-ed sought to assert, I do agree with the title, as indeed, it is clear that the rights of the oppressed are the priority in Ashton’s distinguished political career. Source
  • Dozens of civilians killed in Syria airstrikes

    World News CBC News
    A fresh wave of airstrikes in eastern Syria killed at least 35 civilians including women and children, state media and a monitoring group reported Friday, as the UN human rights chief said civilians are increasingly paying the price of escalating attacks against ISIS in the country. Source
  • Jury in makeup artist murder trial hears accused's apparent taped confession

    Canada News CTV News
    A Montreal jury on Thursday watched the apparent taped confession of a 28-year-old former member of the Canadian Armed Forces who is on trial for murder in the 2009 death of a makeup artist. The body of Pina Rizzi, 47, was found burned and wrapped in a carpet in a shed behind an auto repair shop in Montreal on Aug. Source
  • Woman, boyfriend charged in fatal cocaine overdose of boy, 9

    World News CTV News
    YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- An Ohio woman and her boyfriend have been indicted for the cocaine overdose death of the woman's 9-year-old son. A Mahoning County grand jury on Thursday indicted 39-year-old Raenell Allen and 40-year-old Kevin Gamble. Source