Syria Warmly Welcomes Lebanese Evacuees

The Syrian government and people have welcomed Lebanese evacuees from the Israel-Hezbollah fighting with open arms, despite a strained relationship between the two countries. For the moment, their differences has been forgotten as Lebanese stream into Damascus.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, kick-starting water in drought-stricken Africa. But first, thousands of foreigners have been evacuated from Lebanon over the past few days. Many Lebanese have also fled the country amid the ongoing Israeli air campaign. More than 100,000 people have reportedly already crossed into neighboring Syria, by official count, and that number continues to rise.

Syria is isolated by the West, accused of funding Hezbollah militants. Syria says it is doing everything it can to help the refugees. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

These are the latest arrivals in Damascus, Lebanese children fleeing with their families. A young Syrian volunteer entertains them while anxious parents register for a place to stay inside.

This is a school for the blind, run by a Syrian non-governmental agency. In the summer months, it's empty. Now the dormitories and classrooms have been turned into a refugee center housing 500 people, about 90 families.

The Syrian government has pledged aid to Lebanon, but it is Syria's new private organizations, as well as volunteers and private business, which have been doing the hard work of caring for these frightened families day to day.

Maria Lababidi(ph) heads Beena(ph), a new Syrian NGO that runs the school. She has taken charge of these Lebanese refugees.

Ms. MARIA LABABIDI (Heads Beena): You have 24-hour medical assistance. We have hotline service where they can join their families. Though it's a bit difficult, but they are being able to get in touch with them.

AMOS: How long can keep this up? How long can you accommodate all these people?

Ms. LABABIDI: To tell you the truth, it is quite difficult, but we are coping.

AMOS: Syrians have pitched in to help in a country not known to encourage volunteerism or activism. The war has changed the rules of the game. A chef from one of the top restaurants in Damascus came here to cook. His sons are his assistants.

Sandra Sat(ph) and Juanne Laham(ph), high school teenagers, are in a warehouse, sorting donations from the city's business community.

Mr. SANDRA SAT (Teenager): We feel sorry for the kids. They have no more places to say.

Mr. JUANNE LAHAM (Teenager): They have no money, no food.

AMOS: Have you ever volunteered for this kind of thing before?

Mr. SAT: No, not really.

AMOS: They are 16 year olds. By the look of them - fashionable jeans, sleek blonde hair, poised and perfect English - they are from the upper classes of Damascus. For them, neighboring Lebanon was a playground, a place to shop. Now they are learning something new about the people next door.

Mr. LAHAM: Actually, we learned that there are a lot of poor people out there. A lot.

AMOS: You didn't know that?

Mr. LAHAM: No. We didn't know. Like, we thought, yeah, we thought...

AMOS: You thought it was all Beirut.

Mr. LAHAM: Yeah, exactly.

Mr. SAT: Yeah.

Mr. LAHAM: We just thought of the shopping. (unintelligible) that was it.

AMOS: Even these high school girls know relations between Lebanon and Syria have not been good. Syria's army pulled out of Lebanon last year, forced out by the Lebanese and the international community after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Many Lebanese believe Syria was behind the murders. But all that is forgotten now as the refugees pour into Syria's open arms.

Juanne Laham believes the Syrian effort will make a difference later on.

Mr. LAHAM: We're trying to show them that no matter how much they hate us, we're like, we still want to help. We're good people and we have big hearts.

AMOS: At the Syrian border, cars and buses are backed up for miles. Those on foot drag suitcases across the border.

Sonia Karyon(ph) is from the village of Anjal(ph), with its traditional Armenian/Lebanese community, about a 20-mile drive from the Syrian border. She made it out with her baby daughter, her husband and mother-in-law. The rest of her family is still in Beirut.

Ms. SONIA KARYON (Displaced Lebanese Resident): It was awful. Really awful. My mother, my sister are still there.

AMOS: Sonia Karyon has no idea when she can go home again or if her house will be there when she and her family return. They plan to stay in Syria with relatives.

At the passport window, there are handwritten notices - Syrian families who have offered their homes to anyone who needs a place to stay, telephone numbers posted offering kindness to neighbors until the crisis is over.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

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