MESOPOTAMIA NEWS BACKGROUNDER : The West African Shi’a Community of Damascus: Interview

by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi  •  May 9, 2019 – It is known that prior to the war there were both Iraqis and Afghan Hazara living in Damascus. Less well-known is the community of West African Shi’a. These West Africans have come from different countries in that region and had been living in Damascus prior to the war. Many of them have also been born in Syria. Yesterday I interviewed a friend who is from this community and was born in Syria. His native language is Arabic and his father is from Sierra Leone. He still resides in Damascus. For a time, he fought alongside Hezbollah as part of the defence of the Sayyida Zainab shrine in the Damascus area.

The West African Shi’a in Damascus are not only the black community in Syria. Note also the black people of the Yarmouk Basin in west Deraa countryside, though they had settled in Syria well before the West African Shi’a began coming to Syria.

The interview is slightly edited and condensed for clarity. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.

Q: First when did you come to Syria? You were born in West Africa, right?

A: No I was born in Syria but my father was born there. And my father has been in Syria for 26 years.

Q: When did people start coming from West Africa to Syria and for what reasons did they come?

A: People began coming to Syria from the year 1948 and most of them came for the purpose of religious study.

Q: These people who came from West Africa were Shi’a or Sunni?

A: Shi’a.

Q: And your father came to Syria for the same reason [religious study]?

A: Yes.

Q: But also some of the people fled from the civil wars in West Africa to Syria?

A: Yes but I do not know about them or their purpose. I just know those who have come for study.

Q: From which countries in West Africa have people come to Syria?

A: The people have come from a number of countries: from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast and many countries nearby, but I do not know them all.

Q: How many families from West Africa are present in Damascus currently? Have some of the families returned to West Africa because of the war?

A: There are many families in Damascus but a few of them have returned to their countries.

Q: You don’t have an approximate number of the families present in Damascus currently? During the war did some of the people from West Africa join the formations defending the shrine of Sayyida Zainab (peace be upon her)?

A: You can say that there are hundreds of families in Damascus. As for the area I live in, there are around 35 families. And there are some of the families who defended the shrine of Sayyida Zainab (peace be upon her).

Q: Did they join Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas? And how many martyrs are there from the people from West Africa who defended the shrine approximately?

A: No, rather they joined Hezbollah and there is only one martyr from Ivory Coast.

Q: Yes I remember him. He was martyred in 2013.*

A: Yes.

Q: Have any people from the West Africans obtained Syrian nationality or is this thing impossible?

A: No I don’t expect there is anyone who obtained it, with the understanding that there was a decision regarding nationality but it is possible they cancelled it.

Q: I see. You yourself have nationality from Sierra Leone?

A: Yes.

Q: The West Africans in Damascus live in the Sayyida Zainab area only? Or in other areas as well?

A: No, they have also come to dwell in areas besides the Sayyida Zainab area?

Q: Which other areas for example?

A: Zahira, Bab Touma and al-Salihiya.

Q: You have never been subject to problems of racism in Syria?

A: No. If we have been subject [to them], they are simple problems only.

Q: Have some of the West Africans married Syrians?

A: There are, but a small proportion.

Q: No people have come from West Africa to Syria since the beginning of the war?

A: No.

*Muhammad al-Kuwni. Though his case was noted at the time, no consideration was given to the fact that there were already West African Shi’a living in Syria prior to the war.