Rida Abdelaal was born in the village of Al-Qasimiya in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta. He worked on his father’s land, but the income they made from it wasn’t enough. At twelve years old, Rida took a job at a tile factory in Damascus.
He worked there for about ten years before taking a two-and a half year break to complete his obligatory military service, after which he went back to his job at the factory.
“At that time, in 1997,” says Rida, “my daily wage was about 150 Syrian pounds. It wasn’t enough to help my family with household expenses or to secure my own financial situation so that I could get married.”
Rida moved on to work at another tile factory, this time in Shtoura, Lebanon. He remained there for about nine years, and set aside enough money to help his family and to build a house in his village. Building the house proved difficult: he faced problems from the municipality and the security forces, who demanded bribes to give him the right permits to finish building the house.
At thirty, Rida got married. He had no savings at the time, having spent so much money to finish building the house. He had a long engagement period of about two years, but was finally able to pay for the wedding thanks to some financial support from friends and relatives, who gave him everything he needed.
After getting married, Rida continued to work in Lebanon for about a year, then moved back to Syria to open a small production facility in one of one of the rooms of his house. “In one of the rooms of my house, I placed a special machine to manufacture building materials, and my wife and I operated it together. After a while I was able to build a hangar on the land behind our house and moved the production there. Later, I partnered up with someone and established a big factory in the Nashabiyah area, where we manufactured tile, marble and other construction materials, and as time went on, I had seven workers employed at the factory, along with twenty other employees whose job it was to pay site visits to various residential construction projects. The factory continued to produce well for about ten years before everything stopped when the uprising began in 2011.”
Rida says that at some point, he tried working in agriculture, but the income was very low, and sometimes barely covered the cost of production itself. “I tried it for a few seasons,” he says, “but I was always losing money. The work was exhausting, and there was always so much to do: ploughing, sowing, irrigation and purchasing fertilizer. We were forced to pay bribes to get fertilizer from the government institutions, at several times the regular price. At the end of the day, we were also forced to sell all our wheat harvest to the government exclusively, at a price of ten Syrian pounds per kilogram, when the cost of producing it was more than that.”
After his land began showing signs of drought, Rida decided to dig a well on his land. He did it stealthily so he wouldn’t have to get a permit from the concerned authorities, because that would have meant paying about 200,000 Syrian pounds in addition to the cost of digging, which was an additional 100,000 pounds—money it would have taken years of work to secure, says Rida.
There was quite a bit of industrial production coming out of Eastern Ghouta, the most important of which was an aluminum factory owned by someone with ties to the government. “The factory was huge,” says Rida, “covering about 300 dunams of land. Building it caused a lot of harm to the agricultural land surrounding it, and all the chemical runoff it produced went right into the Barada River, which was the main water source relied on by farms from about ten villages in Ghouta. The harvests were hit hard, and so were the herds of livestock, who drank from the river. The people filed a number of complaints against the factory, but there was absolutely no response.”
The town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta also had a significant industrial district, which included factories producing electricity generators and agricultural machinery, and had auto repair garages. It was also a commercial center for most of Eastern Ghouta’s villages and towns, were people could buy necessary goods as well as purchase fertilizer. People went there to receive medical treatment at the Douma hospital as well, or to complete official procedures at one of its government centers.
Rida recalls some of the development witnessed by his village in recent years, such as the opening of a middle school and the establishment of a municipality to run the administrative affairs of his own village and two other adjacent ones.