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Although Syria is beginning to open itself to foreign visitors, it remains a strictly controlled society. There is one exception. Students are flocking to Syria to pursue Arabic language studies, including many from America, despite the tense relations between the two governments. As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Damascus, many students say they find Syria a different place from what they'd imagined.

PETER KENYON: Since 9/11, Arabic speakers have been in high demand in the U.S. and elsewhere. For a long time, the primary overseas destination for students of Arabic was Egypt, and remains true today, but Damascus is seeing a growing influx of students signing up for language studies at both religious and secular schools.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking in foreign language)

KENYON: Damascus University is a mix of concrete classrooms and tree-lined green spaces where young men and women gather in small groups or study alone. At the Higher Language Institute, in addition to Arabic, you can hear English, German, Italian and Japanese being spoken by some of the many foreign students who come here to study both spoken and written Arabic.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking in foreign language)

KENYON: For the American and European students here, a couple of key factors drove the decision to come to Syria, a state condemned by Western politicians as a sponsor of terrorism.

First, the low tuition and cheap housing available in Damascus offer a much better deal than the American universities in Egypt or Lebanon. In addition, the Syrian dialect is considered by some to be closer to classical Arabic.

British student Anis Turner had no problems convincing her parents about the move. In fact, she says it was her father, CBS News cameraman Nick Turner, who encouraged her to consider it. After seven months here, the city's deep history and friendly inhabitants have won her over.

Ms. ANIS TURNER (British Student of Arabic, Damascus, Syria): I love it. It's a beautiful, beautiful city. Some people, maybe from the West, when they come here they think it's a bit chaotic, but Syria for me is the safest country I've ever been in. I feel safer in Damascus than I do feel in London.

(Soundbite of music)

KENYON: Sipping tea at one of the venerable old restaurants in Damascus' Old City, American students Kara Francis and Ashley Milco share the positive view of Syrian hospitality, beauty and culture.

The 25-year-old Francis was studying Arabic in Washington, D.C., when she realized if she wanted to become fluent, she'd better come to the region and study intensively. She's been pleased to find a complete lack of anti-Americanism so far.

Ms. KARA FRANCIS (American Student of Arabic, Damascus, Syria): No, to the contrary. Every time I tell a Syrian that I'm American, they just get really excited and happy, and you know, they say that they don't like Bush, and I tell them I don't either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRANCIS: And then we go - I mean, Syrians can't really talk about their own politics very much. So the topic of conversation moves away from politics to things like family and schooling.

KENYON: Twenty-three-year-old Ashley Milco has also found common ground with young Syrians, but at the same time, she's getting a first-hand view of the problems here, and that's an important part of the experience.

Ms. ASHLEY MILCO (American Student of Arabic, Damascus, Syria): I'm definitely glad I came, not only for my Arabic studies but for gaining a more realistic, on-the-ground perspective of not only Syria but its relation to its neighbors and its position in Middle Eastern politics.

I've been really happy with how open people are. Not as many girls here wear head scarves as I thought, but at the same time, I think it's a city that's somewhere in the middle of the developing world and the developed.

KENYON: So if Syria was hoping that these language programs would amount to a charm offensive among impressionable young students, Kara Francis says the reality is quite a bit more complicated, especially for a young Western woman.

Ms. FRANCIS: I think it's easy to idealize this place before you come, and it's easy to walk around as a tourist, especially, and think that it's great, it's lovely, the old city is charming, the people are so friendly and welcoming.

But if you spend a little bit longer here you see the bad things about this place. You see the poverty, you see how Syrian men treat you as a foreign woman. That's difficult.

KENYON: All three of these young women said although they've never felt threatened, the aggressive attentions of Syrian men were difficult to adjust to. Even more of a shock was how Syrian women are treated and the lack of opportunities they face.

But in the end, these students say that may be the most valuable lesson of all: not to simply be dazzled by the beauty of Damascus but to come away with a fuller, more nuanced picture of a society that was largely opaque to them before.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Damascus.

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