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Exiled in Beirut: Upper-Class Syrian Youth Examine Lost Illusions

Cafes in downtown Beirut
Cafes in downtown Beirut
Hélène Sallon

BEIRUT — Meeting for a drink, Lina, Ali and Johnny at first blush seem like normal young people enjoying a pleasant social gathering. But there is also heartbreak behind what has brought them so far from their homes in Damascus. Friends since childhood, these upper middle-class Syrians gather at one of their usual cafés lining rue Hamra in Beirut’s center. Among the hundreds of wealthy Syrian families taking temporary residence in the hotels and apartments in this commercial district, they await the end of the conflict in their home country.

Their luxury vehicles, which stand out because of their foreign license plates, have taken this shopping district by surprise. Lina was the last to arrive, coming with her family at the end of August. “When there were the first threats of strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, we panicked and gathered our affairs very quickly,” she says. “We left in the daytime. We were afraid of the consequences after such a strike, the jihadists. We’ve been staying here for a month, anticipating what will come after Sept. 9,” recalls the 26-year-old, stylishly dressed woman, referencing the date when the U.S. Congress began debating a possible intervention in Syria.

Ali and Johnny have already been here in Beirut for a year. Johnny decided to leave after his father was killed by a gunman who ambushed him on his way home from work. Ali soon followed. “The state of affairs was too threatening to work,” Ali says. “It had become dangerous. We were constantly receiving threatening phone calls.” They had witnessed many of their friends being kidnapped by the chabbiha, the pro-Assad militia that profits greatly from the war. “They kidnap the wealthy for their money,” Lina says. “Two of our friends were freed after three months of hell for 20 million Syrian pounds (120,000 euros).”

Johnny’s mother finally decided to come to Lebanon last week. Ali tries in vain to convince his parents to come. “They refuse to leave their house, the family business, their lives,” he laments. “But they endure threats every day, just because they aren’t taking part in the conflict.”

“The Lebanese are taking advantage”

For these young Syrians coming from a privileged background, their exile to Beirut has been eye-opening. Educated in the best schools in Syria and abroad, for the first time they’ve had to make due without their expensive lifestyles. “We have lost so much,” Ali complains. “Everything is expensive here. The rent is $1,500 (1,150 euros) a month for two units. The Lebanese are taking advantage of our situation while we try and survive on our budgets.”

In Lebanon, the influx of Syrian refugees, rich and poor, has been regarded with suspicion. Their presence causes the rent to climb and the salaries to decline, not to mention increased competition among businesses. In Beirut, they have re-created a Syrian bubble. “We have very few Lebanese friends,” Ali says. “The civil war has made them harsher and materialistic. They see us simply as occupiers.”

Their dream is to return to Syria, but it is unlikely that they have retained the same vision of the country they had left behind. “Lina isn’t aware, but we were part of the protests in Damascus,” says Ali, amused by the shocked reaction of his friend, who supports the regime. “I supported the popular uprising, but after the conflict became armed, I stopped,” adds Lina. “I am not supporting everything that the rebel groups do,” Ali responds. “I don’t blame the regime for this war but for the 14 years when they dictated the country and prevented its development.”

“In that case, we are all against the regime,” says Lina. “But in these last 10 years, the country developed, and we were making headway. Bashar al-Assad gave us solutions.”

“It was really very little, nothing changed,” Johnny counters, which raises Lina’s ire. “We could have waited until the 2014 elections,” she says. “In this I supported Bashar’s presence and bringing about free elections.”

Johnny suggests organizing an election under the protection of the United Nations, to which Ali responds, “That wouldn’t work. Bashar and his mafia think they own Syria. The best solution would be a military coup.”

As the hour went on, the three friends debated multiple scenarios. “We discuss, we shout at one another, but we stay friends,” Ali says. “Our relationship with Lina has not changed. We have plenty of friends who are pro-regime. Of course, if I were to say this in Damascus I would be killed.”

Intervention would be “useless”

The threat of military intervention evokes similar fears.“I supported an intervention, but it’s been about two years since this would have actually done any good,” Ali says. “At this moment, and intervention would be useless, the army is immune.You have strengthened the regime. Syrians die. What difference does it make if they die by bullets or chemicals?It’s just a matter of image.”

Johnny says that “the only ones who suffer” are the Syrians. “They lose all of their money when they flee the country and find themselves in the same situation.”

Lina points out that it would be more dangerous in Syria if the regime fell because there are more than 2,000 jihadist groups. “The goal of an intervention would be to divide the Middle East. This is no longer our war,” she says. Ali agrees. “An international conflict is playing out in our country, and we are just pawns. We blame the West and especially France, who is an old ally of Syria. They aren’t doing a thing for the Syrian people or their safety. They already made all of their promises to one side. This creates resentment.”

Then Johnny pipes up, and no one argues. “The solution won’t come from abroad, we don’t want your help anymore.”

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