Threat of U.S. Attack Sends Syrians Fleeing to Border

PHOTO: Syrian refugee children stand outside their tent at a temporary refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Faour near the border with Syria, Lebanon, Aug. 28, 2013. PlayBilal Hussein/AP Photo
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On Thursday, an enormous bus bearing the license plates of Syria's Idlib province rumbled across Lebanon's Masnaa border crossing. It was one of the thousands of vehicles to cross since Wednesday, transporting Syrians fleeing in fear of a looming U.S. military strike.

Poor families from the countryside took with them stuffed jars of olives, wool blankets and whatever else they could carry—preparing for a long winter and unknown future ahead.

"Our dad was kidnapped five months ago and we don't know who took him. The situation is only getting worse and we finally decided we couldn't stay any longer," said 17-year-old Sawsan, the youngest of four sisters traveling with their mother to Lebanon for the first time.

"We left Saraqeb (city) at 8 a.m. yesterday. It took us 24 hours to travel because the route is very unsafe and there are a lot of checkpoints to go through," Sawsan said. In times of peace, that journey would have taken no more than five hours.

Many wealthy Damascenes, who continue to live with a semblance of normality in the government-held capital, brushed off the trip as a temporary sojourn.

"It's a vacation. I'll go shopping in Beirut for a week and then we'll go back," said Darine Shaheen, 23, who works as a makeup artist in the capital.

"There's nothing wrong in Damascus," said her mother, Souade. She admitted, however, that residents were afraid over the potential strike. "We'll stay here for 10 days and see what happens."

The women, well-dressed and wearing stylish sunglasses, said they had no problems entering Lebanon and were waved across the border.

Abed, a taxi driver from Damascus, gave a different perspective on his coffee break.

"Getting across all depends on how you look," he said. According to Abed, the Lebanese border officials are taking a hard line on identification cards, rejecting those that are worn out.

"I saw border officers break old IDs and push back the crowds with hoses," he said. "They're treating people like s**t."

In the summer of 2012, only 25,000 Syrians were registered as refugees with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon. Today that number has skyrocketed to over 700,000 people registered or awaiting registration. (It could top one million when taking into consideration those who have not registered out of fear or lack of identification). In the past week alone, over 11,000 people registered.

Down the road from the crossing, the go-to rest stop was bustling with fresh arrivals, its waiters struggling to seat all of the guests. Ahmed Hassan, 27, said he and his fellow staff had been up all night manning the convenience store and café.

"Normally we close at 10 p.m., but yesterday we stayed open all night until the morning," he said. "We haven't seen this many people come across since the Syrian minister of defense was killed in the bombing last summer."

An immaculately coiffed elderly woman, Jamila Awais, said she would leave for Jordan in the coming days, and then apply for a U.S. visa to join her brother in Arizona.

"We're all are afraid of the U.S. strike. That it will be like Iraq," said Awais.

Dima Khadour, 32, said she and her Palestinian husband decided to take an early vacation for their second wedding anniversary. "We'll see if something happens, but we plan to go back," said Dima.

"We have our work back in Syria. We're all doctors. We have to go back," said Dima's sister-in-law Bisan Tameem.

But not everyone was inbound.

A 16-year-old named Ahmed from Syria's northern Hasakeh province, said he was heading home to see his family after a month and a half working in Lebanon. The young man has been going back and forth for construction jobs since age 14.

"Winter is coming and there will be less work…Anyway, our fate is written by God," he said of his decision to return to Syria amid talk of an imminent attack. "If my mom and sisters and everyone gets killed, then what good is it for me to be alive?"

Beside him sat Sultan, 23, who had traveled from Damascus to Beirut to apply for university to study contemporary history. But Sultan was on his way home; he found out tuition would cost $1,500—well beyond his means.

He was disappointed about university but more so about the situation in his country. "There is blood on the streets. Syria is dead," he said. "But I'll never leave my country."

Speaking in a thoughtful and melancholy tone, he mused: "Death doesn't have to be the end. It's something that happens and it's not in your control."