Escaping Syria To Harvest Hashish In Lebanon : Parallels Syrian migrant workers have been going to Lebanon to work in illegal hashish fields for years. Those who leave areas controlled by ISIS are unsure now if they can ever go home.

Escaping Syria To Harvest Hashish In Lebanon

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In one farming community in Lebanon, there is a particular group of migrant workers. They come from Raqqa in Syria, the city that is the de facto capital of the Islamic State. Syrians have come to Lebanon for years to harvest hashish and take their money home. But now returning to Raqqa is all but impossible. NPR's Alison Meuse visited the hashish fields in Lebanon. She sent this story.

ALISON MEUSE, BYLINE: It's production time for hashish in Lebanon. I'm in a dimly lit shed on a winding village street in the Bekaa Valley. The smell of the cannabis derivative is pungent, and clouds of olive-green dust fill your nose. Um Mohammed is sifting hashish buds. She wears a scarf up to her eyes to keep the sneezes away. She only uses her nickname, Um Mohammed, because she fears what the puritanical group would do to her family back home if they knew she was working in hashish. Um Mohammed has been coming here as a seasonal worker for years. But this time, she doesn't know if she can ever go back. The road is closed. Lebanon and ISIS are clamping down on travel. Her husband and eldest son are still in Raqqa. It was easier to flee as a woman with just her youngest child.

UM MOHAMMED: (Through interpreter) In Raqqa, a woman just shows her eyes. They'll take your husband's ID. They'll whip you.

MEUSE: But that's not why she left. The family is hurting financially. In Lebanon, Um Mohammed makes $2 an hour, far below a living wage. She saves money living in a tent and sends her savings back through a network of truck drivers, who make the smuggling trek to ISIS-held areas in Syria. Hashish is illegal in Lebanon, so Um Mohammed's Lebanese employer only gives his middle name, Ali. But he says the authorities turn a blind eye to vast fields of the crop.

ALI: (Through interpreter) The government's too busy to care about weed. Lebanon has bigger problems.

MEUSE: Business is so good, Ali considers a request by Um Mohammed to help the rest of her family emigrate to Lebanon. She stays in touch with them through voice memos on a smartphone app. And she wants them out. Her son quit his ISIS elementary school because he thought it was brainwashing. She shows a photo of a relative killed by a Russian airstrike.

In this Lebanese village, in the off-season, people from Raqqa outnumber the locals. They've been coming since long before Syria's civil war. But the valley is largely Shiite Muslim, and the Syrians Sunni. Tensions have increased with the rise of ISIS, which considers Shiites apostates and just recently carried out a deadly suicide attack in a majority-Shiite area of Beirut. Um Mohammed says some Lebanese tauntingly call her ISIS.

MOHAMMED: (Through interpreter) I tell them, ISIS is more respectful than you.

MEUSE: But that's just a comeback. She'd rather have her family here, safe, even if it means giving up on home. Alison Meuse, NPR News, Bekaa Valley.

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