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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 August 2006, 23:05 GMT 00:05 UK
Syria's warm welcome to Lebanese
By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Damascus

Lebanese make their way through rubble at the Masnaa border crossing into Syria on 7 August 2006
Lebanese have been streaming across the border into Syria

The Lebanese family is living in a tiny flat, in a poor quarter of Damascus. One of them has cancer. The rest have the usual problems of people in their situation - trauma, boredom and uncertainty.

The Syrians prefer to call them guests, but these are refugees by any other name.

Eight are squeezed into a two-room flat, alongside Munser Moalla's family of four.

"It's a crisis. We had to open our doors," he explained. "They are our families and our brothers, and they are most welcome. We have to do whatever we can."

It is a story repeated across Syria.

Nobody knows exactly how many Lebanese have fled here - estimates vary from 160,000 up to 300,000. But they seem to be everywhere. And they are continuing to stream in across the border.

'Rolls Royce' refugees

I visited one group - almost all Shia Muslims - staying at a half-finished Christian monastery, high up in the hills.

Outside Damascus, a few lucky ones were enjoying the luxury of the Norwegian ambassador's residence, complete with swimming pool.

The Syria population is so generous. They take them into their homes and give them anything they need
Annette Rehrl
UNHCR

We found another group staying in the summer huts of a Young Pioneers camp. Families of six or more, squeezed into huts designed for just two or three children to take their holidays.

There are a few "Rolls Royce" refugees, who have fled in their smart limousines and found suites in luxury hotels.

Many more are packed into schools, universities, mosques - almost any building with some free floor space.

And huge numbers are staying with ordinary Syrian families, both rich, and often poor.

One charity called Syrian Public Relations put out an appeal for hosts by sending a text message to all Syrian mobile phone users. They were flooded with offers from 10,000 families.

Reem Jomah, who works for the organisation, says the response has made her proud to be Syrian.

"The word proud is not enough," she said. "Syrians have closed their houses and their shops and gone directly to the border to offer help."

Reassured

This outpouring of support comes despite the troubled history between Syria and Lebanon.

Only last year Syria was accused of being behind the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri. Syrian troops left after pressure from the United Nations.

Posters of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah in old Damascus
Support for Hezbollah in Syria is strong

Syria has played an often unhelpful part in Lebanon's Byzantine religious and political make-up. But now, everyone in Syria insists they are helping regardless of whether they are Christians, Shia or Sunni Muslims.

Reem Jomah says the refugees who arrive at the border do not know what to expect.

Their first response to the welcome is to borrow a mobile phone in order to reassure the rest of their families it is safe to come into Syria.

"The Syria population is so generous," agreed Annette Rehrl of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. "They take them into their homes and give them anything they need."

Nervous and traumatised

For many of these refugees this is not the first time they have had to leave their homes. There are bitter memories of previous Israeli attacks, and almost universal support for Hezbollah.

One family was reluctant to leave their home again, until an Israeli bomb destroyed the house next door.

And many families are nervous and traumatised after days or weeks of attacks.

A Norwegian doctor looking after them described how they would leap out of their skins when there was any sudden noise, such as a door slamming.

What began as a crisis, has now become a long-term problem.

The host families are providing everything, including foods and medicines. But many cannot afford it. And the public buildings, the schools and universities will soon be needed by Syrians themselves.

All this, of course, is in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, not to mention the Palestinians who have been here for decades.

Unless peace is restored soon, this refugee crisis could join the already long list of festering Middle Eastern grievances.




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