72-year-old Webber teaches kids at a private school in the Syrian capital
He and many of his students back Hillary Clinton, though Trump is also popular
All agree that the outcome will have an important impact on war-torn Syria's future
Every Thursday in the Syrian capital, a group of 9th graders meet for a debate club with a difference.
These teenage students at Damascus’ French school live in relative calm in the government-controlled city, while much of their country is engulfed in a brutal civil war.
Once a week, their attention is focused thousands of miles away as they discuss the race for the White House with their English teacher – an American who has lived in Damascus for more than 40 years.
New York State-born Thomas Webber says all the Syrians he knows are following this US election closely.
Last ‘True American’ in Damascus doesn’t want to leave
”They are very well informed as they all know that Syria’s future is in the hands of our new president. In each dinner party or get-together, US politics is the only subject we talk about,” he told CNN by email.
His students, aged between 13 and 15, are no exception.
”No matter who the next president is, I hope they have good plans for the future of our country and the world,” 14-year-old Hasan Latch told CNN in a video filmed on his classmate’s phone.
Echoing the regime catchall designation of the rebels as terrorists, Hassiba Nizameddin, 14, told CNN in a video message that Syria has been “suffering from terrorism for almost six years.
”I would support the candidate that gives us hope in ending this war.”
Ashley Youssef, also 14, said she’s following the campaign because she has relatives in the US.
”I wouldn’t like to see anything bad happen to them or their country,” she said in a video filmed by her classmate Asma Sukkar.
“I’m also afraid that Syrians will have more difficulties traveling to America. The elections are very important to me, because they could affect my country as well, especially its security. The way we live in Syria depends on the new US president.”
Asma, who recently returned to Damascus after four years in Canada and Lebanon, says she enjoys learning about politics and listening to the candidates’ answers in the debates.
Her 72-year-old teacher watched all the presidential debates, which started at 4 a.m. in Damascus, and has already cast his absentee ballot in the battleground state of Ohio where he is legally resident.
“So many people said it was the lesser of two evils. I didn’t feel that was the case,” Webber told CNN in a video message.
“I looked at the candidate that gave us the most experience, and especially the experience on an international basis. And that was definitely Hillary Clinton.”
Trump saying he would contest a Clinton win is “anti-American,” Webber adds.
Some of his students, however, admire the Republican candidate.
Speaking in a class discussion filmed and shared with CNN, 14-year old Carmen Nahat said that if she had a vote, she’d choose Donald Trump.
”I like the way he speaks, he speaks with enthusiasm,” she said, while another classmate thought Trump would be better for Syria.
A non-American’s guide to US election
Teddy Batal, 13, and 14-year old Jude Dirawi told the class Clinton would get their vote because of her experience. They felt the election of the first female American president would show that there is ”no difference between men and women.”
”But it doesn’t mean we don’t like Trump,” they added. ”We just think Clinton is better.”
Dirawi told CNN he hopes whoever wins will ”bring back security all over the world, and especially in America.”
But not everyone was so enthusiastic.
Referencing Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the US, 14-year-old Dani Abouharb felt ”any candidate who has a lot of racism against Muslims and Arabs is not a good choice for Syria.”
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The teenagers at the private Lycee Charles de Gaulle are the children of the Syrian capital’s professional classes and high earners.
Webber says most parents are successful business people, while others are part of the cultural elite.
Elsewhere in Syria …
The students’ expensive, uninterrupted education highlights the deep division in Syria after a grinding war that has left more than 250,000 people dead and millions more displaced inside and outside Syria’s borders.
Millions of children and teenagers are experiencing the war very differently depending on which part of the country they live in.
The United Nations and other international organizations speak of a ”lost generation” of young Syrians growing up under the constant threat of regime airstrikes, in refugee camps or working instead of going to school.
But those growing up in the relatively stable government-controlled parts of Syria are experiencing some semblance of a normal childhood, although many also have to contend with regular rebel attacks.
Little boy in Aleppo a vivid reminder of war’s horror
The United Nations estimates that 60% of the population in Syria live in areas controlled by the government.
”We’re just like everyone else,” Asma Sukkar and her classmate Hassiba Nizameddin told CNN by video.
”We don’t live in ashes like people think. We have houses, we have roofs. We eat, study, sleep. We listen to music, watch TV, just like the rest of the world. Syrians are not different.”
For Webber, there is no contradiction between living and working in government-held Damascus and voting for a candidate who has been very critical of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and who advocates a no-fly zone in parts of the country.
”She’s talking hawkish but she’s a dove inside,” he told CNN, speaking by phone from Damascus.
”It’s not going to be her decision alone to do anything major in Syria, her activities will be controlled and influenced by the House, the Senate, her Secretary of State.’
”I’m very proud that I made my vote in this very important election. Every vote counts in America.”