Our post about Syria in London for the World in London series comes from journalist Dania Akkad.
If you want to go to the official Syrian embassy in London, you’ll find yourself in well-heeled Belgravia Square surrounded by the gigantic mansions and high-flying flags one might expect for a diplomatic neighbourhood.
You might even get lucky and meet Syrian Ambassador Sami Khiyami, an effusive diplomat who’s served in London since 2000 and has been known to make a room of expats belly laugh.
Of course, if it’s the unofficial Syrian embassy that you want, you will have to head to Shepherd’s Bush. Here, on busy Uxbridge Road where you can hear all sorts of languages just walking down the street, you will find Damas Gate.
What looks like an unremarkable green grocery from the outside is often the first port-of-call for Syrians who have just arrived in London. Consider Samer al-Lamadani, 44, the unofficial ambassador.
Since he arrived from Damascus in 2000 to work as the store’s accountant, al-Lamadani said he regularly connects newly arrived Syrians with other Syrians who can help them with jobs and lodging, no resume or references needed.
“People who come,” he said, “they are easy to trust because you will know their family.”
Today, according to Ambassador Khiyami, there are an estimated 25,000 Syrians living in the United Kingdom of whom 70 to 80% live in London. It wasn’t always this way: the earliest recording of Syrians coming to the UK was in Cornwall in the 5th century BC. They had come to trade tin with the Romans.
More recently, starting in the middle of the 19th century, Syrians could be found mostly in Manchester where they came to establish trading houses to export cloth and other products of industrial England to the Middle East and to other Syrian expatriate communities in Africa and South America.
Where once it was possible for a Syrian to arrive in the UK and set up shop with a modest amount of money, many Syrians say it now takes millions of dollars to start one’s own business, a fact that has drawn many expats to London for professional careers in finance, education and medicine.
Still, in London, it is rare to find a distinctly Syrian neighbourhood because, as many expats say, Syrians tend to blend in.
“Syrians,” says Father Nadim Nassar, the only Syrian priest in the Anglican Church and co-founder of the London-based, peace-building nonprofit, The Awareness Foundation, “are the people in the Arab world who are most able to integrate because we do not see integration as assimilation . . . I don’t know why – we have an ability to integrate without losing our identity.”
In fact, many expats say that at least half of the Lebanese restaurants in London are likely offering Syrian dishes by Syrian staff, but keep up the image of being Lebanese because it’s a “brand” that is better known.
That is not the case at Damas Gate where Syrian products stand out – from foul, a bean dish which is traditionally eaten for breakfast, to olives to sweets like dried apricot and nougat, a chewy, pistachio delight.. And where Syrians, newly arrived or longtime British residents, can connect with home, an island of Syriana in a cosmopolitan capital.
Damas Gate is open every day of the year, from 9am to 10 pm, except on the Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha holidays. It’s located at 81 Uxbridge Road, W12 8NR. Photos by Nicholas Adams. For more see: http://guerillaphotography.photoshelter.com/portfolio
Do you know where else you can find Syrian culture in London? Let us know in the comments below.