A combination picture shows Hamam El Nahasin in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria, before and after it was damaged in the war. Photograph: Reuters
Before the war it was not only Syrias biggest city but also the countrys centre of commerce and industry. Today, however, after years of fierce fighting which saw Aleppo divided between a government-held west and an opposition-held east, the city is a shadow of its former self. The government may have
gained full control of Aleppo in December 2016 but destruction remains widespread, including in the Old City, a Unesco world heritage site.
Shamsis neighbourhood fell under control of the government when Aleppo was still divided but his familys textile shop and factory were located in the opposition-held east which bore the brunt of bombing in the city. Both buildings suffered damage during the fighting and remain closed for the foreseeable future amid electricity, internet, food and water shortages.
The climax of the conflict might be over but still you are living the war, says Shamsi, an English teacher who used to enjoy practising his English with tourists in the citys more peaceful days. Amid the chaos of war and the uncertainty that continues, the Facebook group is a place where members can take back some control. Shamsi has shared information on a number of topics, including the textile industry with which both his family and the city share a long history. We cannot preserve the place But at least we can preserve our non-material things, our memories or proverbs.
Among the files in the group is one dedicated to the traditions of Aleppos minority Christian community, which before the war numbered up to 250,000 but has since shrunk dramatically.
Much of the information in the file was provided by Joseph Hatem, a Christian from Aleppos Azeezieh neighbourhood who left the city in 2014 and now lives in Paris. An electrical engineer by profession, Hatem, 69, is worried about the impact that the displacement and migration of Christians from Aleppo and Syria will have on the preservation of the communitys cultural heritage.
Parents may know a lot of Aleppo heritage [but] it is very difficult to transfer it to their children in the countries of immigration, he says. Preserving the heritage of Aleppos Christians is important to emphasise their presence in Syria.
But what to do with all of the information amassed by the group? In April, Souha attended the annual culture summit in Abu Dhabi, a four-day gathering of leading figures from the arts and museums worlds. A focus of this years summit was the preservation of heritage in conflict and crisis. And when one of the speakers heard about the efforts of the Encyclopedia group, she got excited.
From west Aleppo, looking east through a sea of rusty satellite dishes towards the Citadel and beyond to the ruined east. Photograph: Ruth Maclean/The Guardian
Its these links to identity and links to home that allow people to imagine a world beyond their present circumstances, says Kristin Parker, a cultural first aid trainer who has worked with refugees in Greece to help them back up photos and documentation brought from home. In the peacebuilding field thats called a moral imagination. Its being able to activate a future for yourself.
Parker, who is also an archivist at the Museum of Fine Arts in the US city of Boston, is now looking to build a trusted digital repository where Syrians could safely store their stories and which could help connect the dots between grassroots citizen archive projects like the Encyclopedia group.
But whatever its future , the community has already proved an invaluable resource for many of its members.
Of the stories people are sharing, Shamsi says: You cant imagine how precious the things are. Somebody might say, for example, Do you know that place where that person used to sell a certain fruit? So people start telling their stories and its a kind of [way] of getting back to the old days, the beautiful days.
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