Middle East


Syria: Refugees, Diplomatic Overtures and Open Arms

Around 2,000 Iraqi refugees demonstrated in Syria's Sitt Zeinab area, south of the capital Damascus, against a December 2008 security agreement between the Iraqi and U.S. governments. (Photo: Louai Beshara / AFP-Getty Images)

It certainly hasn't happened to me since, and I have trouble imagining it has happened to too many others. The scene was a bustling, dusty road in Damascus in the summer of 1993, where I found myself trying to retrace my steps to a friend's house.

After a quiet afternoon of sightseeing I was earnestly trolling for a cab. Other vehicles sped past, leaving petrol fumes in their wake. But for more than half an hour, no taxi was to be seen. My spirits, however, were buoyed by a small group of children playing with dice and giggling at me from nearby.

It was then that a young man materialized, like an apparition. He was mustachioed, with a dark complexion and, like me, in his twenties. He wore a bright ochre-colored shirt and white pants. By then, night had begun to fall. He also smiled reassuringly. "American?" he asked. I nodded seconds before one of Syria's trademark yellow, 1950's-era taxis, seemingly out of nowhere — yet as if on cue — pulled astride.

The man leaned into the driver's window after I got in, smiled again — and pressed a fistful of Syrian pounds into the cabbie's hand. It wasn't until minutes after we sped off into the slightly smog-shrouded, yet serene lights ahead that I fully realized what just happened. My driver turned and asked haltingly, yet unflinchingly: "Where you go Mister? Is you an American man?"

I swiveled in my seat for a final glimpse of the man, but he was nowhere to be seen — gone just as suddenly as he appeared.

These days, Syria, along with Jordan, has more outsiders — that is, more refugees — per capita than any other country in the world since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. There are no official statistics — and some estimates exceed one million — but the toll on Syria's 18 million people is high.

The situation is grave, for the Iraqis, too, of course, as Syria "lacks the resources to adequately provide for the refugees," Amanya Michael Ebye, the Middle East Regional Director for the International Rescue Committee said last fall. And conditions "are rapidly deteriorating."

"Iraqi families are struggling with depleted savings," he added, "and they have limited access to basic services and employment."

Sadly, in many cases. refugees have even compelled their children into prostitution in order to survive. And although some Iraqi children have been allowed to attend school, only some 50,000 were reportedly enrolled as of last year.

These are inescapable realities. Nevertheless, I can only hope that at least some of the overwhelming hospitality Syrians bestowed me has helped the Iraqis among them who have fled the carnage next door. I also hope the Syrian people's interest in the world beyond their borders will be increasingly acknowledged by a regime that has kept them so isolated for so long.

Indeed, the fate of the region and, to a degree, the world beyond, depends on it.

Sixteen years ago, Syria was a low-tech police state — perhaps not unlike post-sanctions Iraq. Back then, the country was hermetically, and systematically sealed off from the outside world, with a tourist industry that was, at best, embryonic. Under a sternly secular, Sunni Alawite government, Syrians also lived under the prying vigilance of more than a dozen intelligence agencies which — in addition to spying on everyone else — kept a close eye on the military and each other, too.

And while his son Bashar succeeded him after he died of brain cancer in 2000, I have difficulty envisioning memories of President Hafez al-Assad and his iron-fisted, 30-year reign remain anything but alive and well. Adulating, over-the-top images — portraits, murals and statues — rendered him all but ubiquitous during my visit.

It also made the experience all the safer — and all the more remarkable.

I caught my first impressions awaiting a ferry from Egypt to the Jordanian port of Aquba following a painfully sleepless night lumbering across the sandswept Sinai peninsula in a ramshackle bus. Tourist visa in hand, I found myself in the stifling heat of an abandoned warehouse outside the dock. Though shaded, the air was compress-hot, thickened by cigarette smoke and permeated with the fatalistic, millennial patience for which Middle Easterners are world-famous. 

I was wedged between a bearded man in a thatched, beige hat strumming a small mandolin guitar, and two other middle-aged Syrians. They had just traversed the desert from Libya to the west, where they had spent the previous three years as construction workers — as far as I could gather from my stumbling Arabic.

We chatted amicably — they as much a novelty to me as I to them — as the hours passed.

Toward midday, a mammoth Egyptian policeman with a shaven head single-handedly cleared everyone out, hurtling abuse and smacking the hapless travelers on the back and buttocks with a black truncheon. It was a odd combination of a bureaucratic, heavy handed violence and coupled with relentless disdain that seemed eerily emblematic of the autocratic governments of the Middle East.

As an outside observer, I found it fascinating.

Equally riveting were the expressions of resignation I saw on the faces of those all around me: from people who were at once weary and tired — yet barely able to conceal their intense, smoldering resentment.

After landfall, we lined up with dozens of squatting men and women in sweltering arrival hall up to a single customs desk. "You can go ahead," said the person ahead of me in English before I even sat down. "It's okay."  The man, possibly a Jordanian, he nodded with a knowing smile to one of my newfound Syrian friends, who escorted me purposefully.

Up front, a fiery argument was underway between another Jordanian man and a middle aged woman in a traditional Muslim headscarf holding an infant. The man seemed at his wits' end. I couldn't tell exactly what he was saying, but it seemed clear he had been in line for some time – and wasn't about to give up his place to the woman, irrespective of the fact that she was traveling with a child.

As we approached, the Jordanian man turned and stared with blunt exasperation. "What now?" he demanded, before looking skyward, as if begging for forgiveness.

"America," my friend intoned softly.

The Jordanian's grinding frustration melted away. "Where from in America?" he asked, suddenly awestruck. (That the monstrous al-Qaida emissary Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — who gave his life killing Americans in Iraq — was a product of Jordanian society, too, seems incredible.)

Hours passed, as the suffocating bureaucracyof Jordanian customs officials in Aquba turned day into night. There were more surprises on the horizon, however.

That night, we boarded a bus to Damascus, one I would then take on to Aleppo to the north (Both of Syria's two major cities are UNESCO World Heritage Sites). I closed my eyes to rest when another man grabbed my things, unceremoniously tossed them on the floor and replaced them with his own belongings, before luxuriating on the seats across from me.

But not for long. In a heartbeat, my Syrian friends, who had been smoking outside, stormed onto the bus, practically apoplectic, and shouting with rage. They dragged the helpless man from his seat by his arms and pulled him to the back of the bus. It didn't come to blows — but it was close call.

Needless to say, my bags were placed back on my seat shortly thereafter.

My two companions brought me to Aleppo, one of the region's most storied cities (a place whose faded, yet uniquely historical buildings at one time inspired scholarly work by young Egyptian man named Mohammed Atta). After a few days, one of my friends returned to Libya, but left me in the care of a neighbor, a journalist for a state-owned newspaper.  His family next door, meanwhile, continued whipping up delicious skewered lamb and chicken kebabs, shwarma, garlicky falafel, hummus and other dishes for me. They even took me out to movies, shopping and the opera. All of which were unforgettable.

And free.

Strolling amid the ancient streets and bazaars of Aleppo — now home to many former "dead-ender" elements of Saddam Hussein's Baath regime who represent some of the hidden hands behind Iraq's Sunni insurgency — made quite an impression.

In fact, I had difficulty walking for more than a block at a time. Merchants of any and all wares pulled me into their shops, without the slightest hesitation — or interest in selling me anything. Instead, all I got were ceaseless offers of tea, cigarettes and food — and hours of conversation. I had no translator at first, but a local teenager was eager to chip in. Where was I from in America? What is America like? Do you like Syria? Where are you staying? What is your favorite place in Syria? 

But there was one phrase that, far and away, greeted me most often. It was hard to get over. It was best crystallized, at one point, by a man clad in camouflage guarding a small caravan of tanks, parked along a commercial street, covered by a massive gray tarp. "Welcome in Syria!" he announced loudly, with a smart, yet warm salute.

In the background loomed something else ready-made for a fight: a giant Saracen fortress — yet another historical monument recognized by the U.N.

In Aleppo and to the south in Damascus, I had the peculiar, yet distinct feeling that I had somehow stepped back in time. It was, in its own way, intoxicating. Televisions and fax machines were few and far between; computers all but invisible. Adding to the surreal effect were the sputtering Russian Ladas and the quaintly awkward, decidedly boat-like Studebaker taxis that roamed the streets.

On two separate occasions, taxi drivers also robustly refused my money. The fact that I was the only Westerner they had ever met may have prompted their graciousness. Over the course of two weeks, moreover, I met only two other foreigners — an American and an Argentinean — and saw a mere handful of others, namely a group of Russian women using Syria's then-absurdly cheap exchange rate to purchase clothes to resell back home.

I may have spent some $100 over the 15 days I was there — for everything. 

Time has changed Syria, of course. Modernization, namely, has been high on the national agenda for years since. "This is no Levantine backwater," proclaimed a Lonely Planet travel guide. "Syria is a modern, efficient and very proud nation with an administration that is becoming more liberal and outward looking by the day."

"It needs — and deserves — travelers to bear witness to this fact."

But, by all accounts, Syria's push into the future by no means signals the end of its Arab Socialist-style government — and its heavy hand. Bashar al-Assad's government appears as unlikely to dismantle its intelligence apparatus as it does to change its immediate policies in the region — for now, at least.

For this reason, two high-level diplomats traveled to Damascus this past weekend to work toward resolving tensions between Israel and Syria, the conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians and the nuclear ambitions of Iran — a close Syrian ally. Still, "we have no way to predict what the future of our relations with Syria might be," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently.

This caution is well-warranted. For decades, Syria has been a state sponsor of international terrorism, and a supporter of the Lebanese Hezbollah which, in 2006, engaged Israel in a war which claimed hundreds of lives. In addition, Syria has been a key conduit for money, arms and religious militants fueling the war in Iraq — militants dedicated to killing Americans.

On the other hand, it is also possible that Syrians have stopped opening their homes and hearts to the foreigners among them — regardless of where they come from.

But I doubt it.

Joseph Kirschke is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who covers international affairs and is a visiting fellow at the Fund for Peace, a research and educational nonprofit organization.