“We people from Aleppo are hard workers, we’re renowned for that,” said Mohammed, as he showed a team of AFP journalists around a clothes factory in strife-torn Aleppo city, Syria’s economic heart.
In a building in the eastern district of Tariq al-Bab, the din of sewing machines has replaced the sound of gunfire and bombing, as bombardment of the neighbourhood by regime forces becomes less frequent.
A dozen young men work tirelessly to make a living more than two years into a war that the UN says has left some 70,000 people dead.
Some were still at school when the battle for Aleppo broke out around nine months ago.
Today, they are sewing onto children’s T-shirts and baby bibs the insignia of Barcelona F.C.
Ibrahim, 27, has worked for around four years for the company, which sells its products in Iraq. He used computer technology to design the logo, which is then sewn onto children’s blue and orange shorts.
“We chose Barcelona because that’s what the clients wanted. Personally, I don’t support anyone. I just back the winner,” he said with a smile, but without taking his eyes off his work.
On the streets, young people freely discuss which football team they back, but when it comes to the civil war that is tearing Syria apart, no one wants to talk.
Mohammed makes regular trips across the front lines into regime-held districts to buy goods he needs for his factory.
“I don’t support anyone. I’m just a little citizen who doesn’t understand all these political games,” he told AFP.
“All I know is that there are weapons everywhere. My house is a 10-minute drive away from the company, but I only go home at weekends. My wife and children are home alone because I’m afraid of what may happen on the road.”
Aleppo takes pride in its commercial tradition, key to the whole Middle East region. Mohammed’s firm only stopped work for a few days in the past nine months, when the fighting became unbearably fierce.
But war has also caused many of his workers to flee.
“There are those who fled the province altogether, and others who have stayed. But why should I leave? God will provide for me,” said Hisham, an 18-year-old, as he thought about colleagues who have joined the millions who had fled their homes.
“People don’t want to flee, they need to work to be able to eat,” said Mohammed, thinking of a time when some 150 people worked for him in round-the-clock shifts.
More than nine months on from a massive army assault launched to repel a rebel advance on Aleppo, the company stays open eight hours a day, thanks to generators that keep the power going in a city deprived of electricity.
Those who have stayed behind in Aleppo must face bombings and steeply higher prices for basic commodities.
“It’s hard to work with everything that’s going on around us, but I need to take care of my family,” said 25-year-old Ahmed, father of two.
“Everything has become more expensive. Thanks to our salaries, we can cope with the cost of living.”
Mohammed says his employees are paid some 3,500 Syrian pounds ($35) a week.
In Aleppo, a pack of cigarettes costs 70 pounds, while a kilo of meat costs 800 — making it a luxury few today can afford.