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.

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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."


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