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Poor families from the countryside brought 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. “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.”
In times of peace, that journey would have taken no more than five hours.
Many wealthy Damascenes, who have until recently lived 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 23-year-old makeup artist Darine Shaheen.
“There’s nothing wrong in Damascus,” added her mother, Souade. She admitted, however, that residents were afraid of the possibility of a strike. “We’ll stay [in Lebanon] for 10 days and see what happens.”
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The women were well-dressed, wearing stylish sunglasses. They had no problem entering Lebanon and were waved across the border.
Abed, a taxi driver from Damascus, offered a different perspective.
“Getting across all depends on how you look,” he said. According to Abed, Lebanese border officials are taking strict precautions with documentation, sometimes rejecting old or bent Syrian identification cards.
“I saw border officers break worn-out IDs and push back the crowds with hoses,” he said. “People are being treated like dirt.”
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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 climbed to over 700,000; it could top 1 million when taking into consideration those who have not registered out of fear or lack of identification.
In the past week, over 11,000 Syrians registered.
Down the road from Masnaa crossing, a rest stop bustled with new arrivals, and waiters struggled to seat the influx. Ahmed Hassan, 27, said he and his fellow staff had been up all night manning the convenience store and café.
“We haven’t seen this many people come across,” he said, “since the Syrian minister of defense was killed in the bombing last summer.”
An immaculate older 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,” she said. “That it will be like Iraq.”
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,” she said.
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“We have our work back in Syria. We’re all doctors. We have to go back,” added her sister-in-law, Bisan Tameem.
But not everyone was inbound. Sixteen-year-old Ahmed, from Syria’s northern Hasakeh province, said he was heading back home to see his family after a month and a half working in Lebanon. He has been going back and forth from Syria to Lebanon for construction jobs since he was 14.
“Winter is coming and there will be less work. Anyway, our fate is written by God,” he said of the decision to return to Syria despite talk of 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, who had traveled from Damascus to Beirut to apply for university to study contemporary history. But the 23-year-old was on his way home after learning that initial tuition would be $1,500, which is well beyond his means.
He was disappointed about university, but more so about the situation at home. “There is blood on the streets. Syria is dead,” he said. “But I’ll never leave my country. Death doesn’t have to be the end. It’s something that happens and it’s not in your control.”