Syrians Give the Lebanese VIP Treatment

Times Staff Writer

The barbershop here on a shady side street says it’s for VIPs, and a cut could set you back a hefty $20 or more.

But not if you’re from Lebanon.

A sign lets customers know that Lebanese refugees get trimmed and shaved for free. Barber Tarek Hammami has also hit up his clients, the well-to-do kind who can afford his elite haircuts, and talked them into delivering truckloads of fans, small refrigerators and food to shelters for those who have fled the violence in Lebanon.

“All the Lebanese who ended up here in Damascus, they’re poor people who have nowhere else to go. That’s one reason we help,” Hammami said Monday. “But there’s another reason. We feel that maybe what they’re doing to the Lebanese people, maybe they’ll do to us, to all the Arab people, next. Maybe next year is our turn.”


Syria has opened its doors to refugees from Arab disasters for decades. The war that led to the creation of Israel in 1948 and subsequent conflicts displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Today, an estimated 430,000 Palestinian refugees and their offspring languish in dense, dusty, impoverished camps here.

More than 450,000 Iraqis have fled into neighboring Syria since U.S.-led forces invaded their country in 2003.

Now, a country with an official unemployment rate of 16% and 2 million people living in poverty is absorbing a new wave of refugees. The Syrian information minister says 300,000 Lebanese and other nationals have fled into Syria during the last three weeks, and there is nowhere to put them but schools, mosques and summer camps.

Already, some are asking why Syria should be burdened with yet another round of war castoffs. Iraqis have largely failed to integrate and have been blamed by some for rising crime. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have blended into Damascus society, taking jobs and buying homes. But hundreds of thousands of others remain locked in near-permanent refugee camps, in part because of the determination of Syrians and Palestinians alike to maintain their distinct national identities and help argue for their eventual return to a Palestinian homeland.

That Syria had had its fill of refugees was apparent from the beginning of the crisis, when the government announced it would not allow Palestinians fleeing Lebanon to cross the border.

But the arrival of the Lebanese has been different. U.N. relief officials say they have been astounded at the overwhelming number of private citizens who have invited strangers to move into their back bedrooms, dropped off carloads of food and clothing on the doorsteps of shelters, handed over the keys to their cars and delivered inventory from their factories to trucks bound for Lebanon.

“My wife and my daughter told me the other day” to give them a ride to a certain place in Damascus, said Mohammed Tesh, president of the Syrian Bar Assn., who has been operating a post on the border with 600 other lawyers to provide water and sandwiches to arriving refugees.

“I asked, ‘Where are you going?’ They said, ‘We’ll tell you later.’

“That night when I met them, they said, ‘We went to the Lebanese, and we were giving food.’ ‘Why didn’t you let me give you a ride there?’ I asked.

“ ‘This is our duty,’ they said. ‘We shouldn’t tell you everything we do to help.’ ”

Bouthaina Shaaban, the government’s minister for expatriates, said her son broke his piggy bank to buy 22 shirts for Lebanese families, and her daughter’s friends have postponed their wedding this month to offer their newly furnished apartment to a Lebanese family.

The massive public mobilization in behalf of Lebanese refugees is helping forestall what might otherwise be a refugee disaster and is further cementing Syrian President Bashar Assad’s role as patron of the militant anti-Israel resistance.

“There is a state of anger in the Syrian street,” and the energy it generates is being channeled into charity, Tesh said. “But if there is something like an attack on Syria, then the people themselves will go to war, and they will not be afraid of it. The whole area will be in flames.”

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society has opened shelters and handed out food, but widespread refugee aid through the United Nations has been hampered by the inability of aid convoys in the early days of the fighting to cross into Lebanon without risk of being bombed or stranded. Now, trucks are getting through daily, and U.N. officials are turning to the question of what will happen in September, when refugees housed in schools and orphanages will have to give way to students.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees already has 140,000 Lebanese on the books in Syria, and with 5,000 to 10,000 a day flowing in, officials here are planning for an eventual 300,000, said Laurens Jolles, acting director of the agency’s office in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

An additional 700,000 Lebanese have been displaced but have not crossed into Syria, he said.

“There has been incredible support here, not only from the Red Crescent, but mainly from the local population,” Jolles said.

“What’s happening on the streets is unbelievable,” he said. “Restaurants are providing food [to shelters] on a daily basis. Other people just show up with whole platters of food, and mattresses, and whatever they have. People have opened their homes to people they don’t know.”

More than 7,000 Syrian families have registered to take Lebanese refugees into their homes, Syrian officials said.

“A friend of mine has a summer house outside of Damascus. Four families came to him, about 20 people. He drove them all out and put them in his summer house, he gave them food, he told the local stores to give them credit for anything they want, he gave them a mobile phone,” said Tariq Shallah, who has opened the orphanage he owns to 70 Lebanese.

He said several Damascus residents had left their phone numbers at his shelter, offering to put up refugees if his orphanage becomes full.

“We were trying to get into a youth camp, but it was full. And some people saw me driving down the street looking for a place, and they stopped me and told me they will give me an apartment,” said Ayman Hossain, a 35-year-old emergency worker from Baalbek who had driven family members to Syria.

The apartment had no furniture, and on Monday, the Damascus Chamber of Industry was phoning member warehouses to order a truckload of furniture and mattresses.

“When I go to boutiques and they find out we are Lebanese refugees, they refuse to take money from us. Even the taxis refuse to take money from us,” said Zainab Sablani, 45, a refugee from the Bekaa Valley village of Riaq.

Some Syrians say their impulse to help the Lebanese is probably rooted in the nation’s visceral, decades-long connection to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Ill-fated negotiations in the 1990s notwithstanding, Syria is the Arab nation that has most steadfastly shunned a peace treaty with Israel. Now, Syrians see the Lebanese as the most recent victims of that conflict.

“Last night we were discussing this exactly: Why this time the people have received the refugees with much more open heart and in a much more generous way than ever before,” said Shallah, the orphanage owner.

“Especially since, you know, when the Syrian army left Lebanon, the treatment of the Lebanese people in general wasn’t so good to the troops. They were yelling bad words and throwing stones at them as they left,” he said.

Hassan Zahabi, a merchant in Damascus’ Old City, said he saw a similar response in 1948, when the creation of Israel sent the first wave of Palestinians scattering in what has since been known across the Arab world simply as “the catastrophe.”

The response was much more generous, Syrians say, than that which greeted the arrival of Palestinians, and Lebanese, from subsequent conflicts.

“Everybody contributed any space, any effort, any expense they could,” Zahabi said. “Now, it seems like 1949, not 2006. Because it’s the same story.”