Refugees on the road to Damascus.

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 26 2006 6:52 AM

Refugees on the Road to Damascus

Syria polishes its image as protector of the Lebanese people.

Lebanese refugees in Syria. Click image to expand.
One Lebanese family, fleeing

DAMASCUS, Syria—As we traveled on the edge of Damascus a few days ago, my driver, Imad, noticed a disheveled woman in a leopard-print top trudging along the side of the road. He pulled over. "Do you need a lift? Are you heading into the city?" he called. She thought for a moment then nodded and climbed in the front seat. We drove in silence for a while, then she started speaking—to whom, it was hard to tell. She thought she had a friend in these parts, but she didn't know where. She needed to get home to Beirut to feed her cats, but she didn't know when she'd be back ...

After a few minutes of an increasingly hysterical monologue, Imad sighed in frustration and pity, pulled over near the Souk al-Hamidiyeh, and opened the passenger side door. He didn't ask for money, and she didn't offer any. She climbed out and disappeared into the crowd. "These Lebanese," he reflected as we drove away. "I used to work there. Life was better there than here. Now we are better off, and they are here." He shook his head.

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It's an astounding shift that upends a generation's worth of economic realities. Syria may have dominated its neighbor to the south politically and militarily for decades, but it never quite mastered capitalism; its biggest export to Lebanon was always its poor. Until the assassination of Rafik Hariri last year, as many as half a million Syrians built Lebanese homes, cleaned Lebanese houses, and mowed Lebanese lawns. If they weren't completely embraced by the country they helped rebuild, they were at least mostly tolerated as a necessary nuisance. A few months ago, when anger over the Hariri assassination was at its peak, a Beiruti businessman I met near the Place des Étoiles rapturously extolled the virtues of his Syrian employees ("They're hard-working ... quiet ... they don't whine about their hours or their pay. Not like the spoiled workers who grew up here"), sounding for all the world like a suburban U.S. contractor describing his trusty crew of Central American day laborers.

As Israeli attacks have closed off Lebanese exit routes by sea and air, the overland route through Syria has become the only option. So, normal migration patterns have unexpectedly, overwhelmingly, reversed: It's as though a crisis had sent a sizable portion of the U.S. population—many of them suddenly destitute—scrambling south of the Rio Grande in creaky taxis and overloaded minibuses.

Over the last few days, more than 200,000 Lebanese refugees have made their way to Syria, joining the thousands of Palestinians and at least half a million Iraqis waiting out their own crises caused by war and unraveling societies. Refugee relief centers have sprouted near the airport, on the border, and throughout Damascus. A few days ago, at the main Beirut-to-Damascus-route border-crossing, lawyer Nizar Turjman pulled from his pocket a handwritten list that detailed the donations he'd received from local businessmen in the previous 24 hours: cases of canned produce, imported clothing, coloring books. "We here in Syria are having to do all this on our own, for now," he said, squinting under the cloudless sky. "We are hoping other nations join us, but we cannot wait for their help." The previous day, he said, the aid coalition he'd volunteered for had registered between 6,000 and 7,000 refugees in need of emergency assistance. Some of them had been able to bring one suitcase from home. Others arrived with nothing at all.

It may seem an unsustainable level of charity from a country edging toward economic collapse, but the government here expects a big return on the investment. Every child fed, every family housed, aids Syria's chosen image as protector of the Lebanese people. Officials here, and even some Lebanese refugees I spoke with, say the current crisis points to the need for a continued Syrian presence in Lebanon. Only a strong hand like Syria's can control Hezbollah; only Syria can keep Lebanese society from unraveling completely. "We don't need more anarchy on our borders," said cafe owner Jihad Nahar, gesturing over his shoulder in the direction of Syria's eastern neighbor, Iraq. Still, caution others, the regime should be careful what it wishes for. The average Syrian takes home a monthly salary of around $150; by the end of the decade, say experts, the country will likely be a net oil importer. It's hard to imagine how a country already straining under the weight of economic decay can take on the policing of a failed state. It's almost as tough to comprehend how it can continue to absorb the deluge of new arrivals, along with the Syrian migrants who've made their way home.

These returnees are entering a Damascus temporarily transformed. Yellow-and-green Hezbollah banners and portraits of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah have suddenly become the hottest items in the city. (One best seller is a photo montage of Nasrallah, an exploding building, a mystifyingly placed pair of U.S. soldiers, and a field of bloody, helmeted skulls sporting Israeli army insignias.) Downtown, entire families have moved into suddenly packed hotels, where many ecstatic owners have responded to the influx by doubling and tripling their prices. Packs of bored Lebanese teenagers sit in hookah bars and line up for foreign movies at the multiplex near the luxury Cham Palace Hotel while their parents—who have dealt with this sort of chaos before—try to calculate precisely how long they're willing to live in a holding pattern before joining millions of their war-weary brethren in the permanent Lebanese diaspora.

Not every refugee has the luxury of this kind of dilemma—particularly the poor fleeing the southern region hit hardest in the current conflict. About 15 miles from the border, a few of these families have taken up residence in half-finished homes loaned by merchants in the town of Qusadiyyah. Nadya Muqahad and her extended family had lived in a shelter near Baalbek for days. "The children were frightened the whole time, from the bombs," she said. "It was too crowded to move, and the water was far away from us." Finally, the family decided that the women and children would leave.

Even though there are no bombs in Qusadiyyah, the family still stays safely inside their bare basement apartment. Eight adults and 15 children sleep on foam mats spread on the dusty concrete floor. There is no furniture or clothing in their new home. A bigger dilemma is the lack of televisions, radios, or phones: There's no easy way to track developments back in their hometown or to communicate with those they left behind.

Before the war, said Muqahad, the men of the family had been construction workers and laborers. Now, back in Baalbek, they have taken up weapons for Hezbollah for the first time, preparing to fight against Israeli ground forces. "Hezbollah protects our land, our honor, our houses," said Muqahad, tears streaming down her face as her children huddled together behind her and her mother and sisters began to wail. "We are all Hezbollah now. All of us."

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