Syria Provides Refuge for Lebanon Evacuees

Although some foreigners are escaping Lebanon by boat, many people have been forced to evacuate over land into Syria. Damascus has opened its borders — waiving visa fees and relaxing strict border controls. The evacuees are traveling by bus, taxi, truck — even on foot.

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JOHN YDSTIE, Host:

Most of the Lebanese civilians fleeing the country are forced to travel over land, and, as Ivan Watson just told us, many are headed to Syria. The Syrian government has opened its borders for those who are able to get out, waiving visa fees and relaxing the usual strict border controls. The evacuees are traveling by bus, taxi, truck - even some on foot, as we hear in this report from NPR's Deborah Amos, in Damascus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN AND CHILD SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

DEBORAH AMOS: Another family arrives at the el Besham Hotel, on the outskirts of Damascus - tired from the dangerous drive from Lebanon, happy to be safe at last. The exodus is nonstop. More than 100,000 have crossed over the Syrian border, according to government officials. The hotel lobby is packed with anxious people. Many came to Lebanon as tourists, their holidays cut short by the unexpected violence.

Sonya Ali Hassan(ph), an Irish citizen, spends summers in Lebanon to visit family. She decided to get out after a heavy night of bombing.

SONYA ALI HASSAN: It's too bad to say, there's too much bombing, everything. You can't go outside. We're 10 minutes from the airport in Beirut. We have two children. We have to leave.

AMOS: Her son, Kythe(ph), anxious to get home to Ireland, cannot forget what he saw.

KYTHE HASSAN: When the bombings happened, they were bombing places, and smoke came out of it.

ALI HASSAN: There's too many deaths, too many. (Unintelligible) nobody we know.

AMOS: There are so many pouring into Syria, hotels are overwhelmed. Ahmed Fahey, also an Irish citizen, hopes to get a seat on a plane home in the next few days. He says people sleep wherever they can.

AHMED FAHEY: Some people, I saw them in the park. Some people in the hotel I stayed, they have a nice terrace outside. Some people just slept in the airport.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON SINGING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

AMOS: In downtown Damascus, in the narrow streets of the old city, tucked behind a spice shop and a restaurant, the Danish government has an educational institute. This school has been a haven for Danish citizens. The courtyard is filled with mattresses. One hundred and thirty people have camped out here, in the open. This winter, Danish citizens were fleeing Syria after an international crisis sparked by cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper. The embassy here was burned. Now, Danes in Lebanon are coming to Syria for safety. The Danish government is using the latest crisis to make a point to these Danish citizens of Arab descent, says Jan Nielsen, head of the institute.

JAN NIELSEN: After the cartoon crisis, when the government was accused of discriminating against its non-Danish, Danish citizens - they are very much making a point.

AMOS: An emergency evacuation team arrived from Copenhagen to coordinate evacuation buses from Beirut and free plane tickets home - an effort that has been noticed by Syrians who have watched as more than a thousand Danes have been evacuated in the past few days, says Nielsen.

NIELSEN: The shopkeepers around here are asking, what's going on? And we say we're moving Danes out. So, but these are Arabs. Yes they are Arab origin, but they're all Danish citizens. And they say, ah, and they say, may God reward you, and these kinds of responses. I mean, if you want to be cynical and say it's propaganda, it's been very, very good propaganda.

AMOS: Yasser Miyadi(ph), his wife and three children wait in the courtyard with packed luggage for the next flight out. The escape from Lebanon was a 12- hour ordeal over mountain roads that were a target for Israeli bombs. Miyadi says he could see explosions in his rearview mirror.

YASSER MIYADI: After the bombing, we tried to go before they come again and bomb again.

AMOS: Were the children afraid when you were in the car?

MIYADI: Yes, they was very afraid. Therefore, I tried to move from my place. They were very afraid.

AMOS: The exodus continues, but some are too sick, too poor, too trapped to get out. Israel and Hezbollah continue missile and bomb attacks and threaten even more violence in the days to come.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

YDSTIE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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