Lebanese Refugees Finding Safety in Syria

Syria has been blamed in the past for interfering in Lebanese affairs and promoting militant Islamic influence there. Now many people from Lebanon have fled into Syria, looking for safety as Israel and Hezbollah militants battle for control. Syria is struggling to cope with the influx of Lebanese refugees.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. We just hear Richard Holbrooke argue that Syria is key to ending the war in Lebanon because of Syria's support of Hezbollah. Meanwhile, the war is causing thousands of Lebanese to flee to Syria.

NPR's Deb Amos reports from Syria's capital, Damascus.

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DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

In the small shops in old Damascus, along the cobblestone streets in the historic market, Hassan Nasrallah is on sale. There's a wide variety of posters of Hezbollah's leader: the smiling Nasrallah, the somber one with bombs exploding behind him, the younger Nasrallah, and the one with more salt than pepper in his beard. And there are keychains, t-shirts, the Hezbollah flag. That is a big seller.

Almost every other car in the Syrian capital has some Hezbollah symbol plastered on the back window. The only symbol-free zones in Damascus are the Christian churches in the city. Syria has a long history of religious coexistence and that has made the Christian minority here wary of militant Islamist ideologies.

But Namar Hadad(ph) says even if he doesn't wave the flag, he backs the Shiite Muslim group, because, he says, Hezbollah is defending Arabs as well as Muslims.

Mr. NAMAR HADAD (Resident, Syria): It's not the matter of flags in the hands. Honest people want to hold this flag, not in his hand, in his mind and in his heart.

AMOS: Father Edward Tommar(ph), the priest for this parish, says that's not what he's hearing in more private conversations. It is difficult for Christians or anyone else here to speak publicly against Hezbollah with Syrian government support for it so strong.

So how many here are supporters?

Father EDWARD TOMMMAR (Syrian Priest): Not all of them. I suppose, not all of them. They cannot take a position against the position of the government. They are afraid.

AMOS: The war next door has touched almost aspect of life here, including this movie set in the hills outside of Damascus.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

AMOS: Sari Souff(ph), a Syrian American from Los Angeles, has a role in this historic drama. But she says the daily war news is more compelling.

Ms. SARI SOUFF (Actress): It's on every channel, it's in every conversation. All this war going on next door, you know, all the refugees coming into Syria and all that. It's very stressful, like, you know?

AMOS: Her closest friend is Perla Shalala, a Lebanese television star. The Syrian actors consider Hassan Nasrallah a hero. Perla Shalala is not so sure.

Ms. PERLA SHALALA (Actress): He's hero, it depends for who. He maybe is a hero. Maybe he's doing something. Yeah, he's helping. He's fighting, but at the same time, Lebanon is destroyed.

AMOS: After a month of war, many in Syria are also recalculating. Syria has long been a refuge for the region's troubles. And now more than 100,000 Lebanese have arrived. Syrian authorities have started to move them out of schools, homes and mosques and into larger camps, says Jean-Jacques Fr├ęsard, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus.

Mr. JEAN-JACQUES FRESARD (International Committee of the Red Cross): But now recently it seems that the Syrian authorities are preparing for longer term asylum. They even spoke very recently about winter coming. So it seems that at least the Syrian authorities believe that more may come and they may stay longer than we all thought.

AMOS: How long is anyone's guess, but the upheaval in the region is on every television screen. Unclear is what happens here when the fighting stops there. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

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