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Lebanese refugees flood Syria

Marketplace Staff Jul 26, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Some vague promises were made at an international conference in Rome today. But nothing definitive about ending the fighting in the Middle East. Eighteen countries met to talk about Lebanon and Israel. They agreed on humanitarian aid, and reconstruction for Lebanon when it’s all over. Two of the biggest powers in the region — Iran and Syria — weren’t invited. Both of them are backers of Hezbollah.

Syria’s becoming more closely involved with the current crisis. The government says Syria might now be home to as many as 300,000 Lebanese refugees — about 10 percent of the Lebanese population — whose homes and businesses have been destroyed. Ben Gilbert has been tracking the exiles.

BEN GILBERT: Lebanon is a small country, with only around 4 million people. It’s traditionally had a strong relationship with its bigger neighbor, Syria, for better or for worse. In peacetime, Beirut is only a two-hours drive to Damascus. But these days that trip can take much longer.

[Voice of Kamal Boozikay]

“It took us 10 hours to get to Damascus. There were many cars at the border,” says Kamal Boozikay, who drove from the south of Lebanon to Damascus on Saturday.

Boozikay said Israeli warplanes destroyed his home on Friday night. Saturday morning, he piled into a van with his two sisters and his wife and another family. They came with only the clothes on their backs. He’s now at the Lebanese Red Crescent headquarters in Damascus, seeking clothes, diapers and milk. He doesn’t have money for much else.

[Voice of Kamal Boozikay]

“I had money in the house, but the house was bombarded,” he says. “But I do have enough money to last about one week. Then we will wait for help from the Syrian authorities.

Boozikay is a minibus driver, and his family is just one of thousands of Shiites from Lebanon’s largely poor and rural south who have come to Syria seeking protection from the fighting. With 600 volunteers working at four centers, the Syrian Red Crescent is helping to coordinate the delivery of food, medicine and shelter to the refugees.

Red Crescent President Dr. Abdul Rahman Attar says he still needs more supplies, but he’s grateful that Syrians have been generous so far.

ABDUL RAHMAN ATTAR: Thanks for the Syrian people who donate quite a lot. Until now, all the food for those people are donated by the Syrian people. Nothing is coming from outside.

Attar says many Syrians have welcomed Lebanese into their homes. Other refugees are staying in makeshift shelters created in schools and clinics.

Across town from the Red Crescent, in a neighborhood called Mohajhreen — which means “refugees” in Arabic — Hoassam Sharraf is answering two phones at once. He’s the director of a medical clinic here that’s serving as a shelter. He’s worked the past five days from 3 a.m. to 9 p.m.

There are more than 1,500 refugees in the neighborhood, living at the clinic, and nearby at four schools and local homes. They sleep on the floor, 20 to a room. He says he didn’t expect this many refugees, and that the center needs more money so it can provide drugs for children and the elderly.

[Voice of Hoassam Sharraf]

“There’s a shortage because don’t have enough money,” he says. “We buy drugs and distribute to the refugees for free. There’s no budget.

But some of the Lebanese refugees are better off. They’re in the relatively fortunate position of being able to take care of themselves.

Lebanese graphic designer Basheer Karam stood in line at the Syrian Airlines office in Damascus with his fiancé and her mother. They are Maronite Christians from a relatively safe suburb of Beirut, but lived next to an electricity plant. They feared the Israelis would attack the plant, along with their house.

BASHEER KARAM: Our house is here, the plant right here. So we go.

Karam left Saturday, and now he’s trying to get his family on the next flight to Cairo. Until then, he’s purchased a four-bedroom flat in Damascus for $200 per day, an outrageous amount here for an apartment. But it’s better than the inflated rates for a single hotel room. He does say that most Syrians have been kind, even if others have taken advantage of the situation to make money.

KARAM: The neighbors are great. They give me coffee the first day. Water . . . They teach me how to go places. But taxis are bad. I put lots of money in the taxi.

Karam will have to wait four days to get on a flight for the one-hour trip to Cairo. Flights are booked solid through the end of the week here from Lebanese trying to get out of the region. Karam says he doesn’t know how long he’ll stay.KARAM: Until the war ends. When the war ends, we’ll go back to our country.

In Damascus, I’m Ben Gilbert for Marketplace.

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