Syrians 'click' via a rolling Internet cafe

At the edge of this tiny western village, where newspapers aren't delivered, 15 Syrians are stuck for two hours on a parked bus. To their left are brown hills with rows of olive, apple, and date trees. On their right sit a few modest cement homes.

And directly in front of each villager is a sleek wooden desk, a flat screen computer, and an ergonomic mouse. Here by choice, these mothers, high school students, teachers, and farmers are the recent beneficiaries of a Syrian initiative to bring information technology to the country's remotest parts.

The Mobile Information Centre, or MIC, is a former long-haul passenger bus refitted with 18 computer stations and a server. It hops between remote villages offering basic computer training and Internet access for $3 per course. Today is Day 2 of the intermediate class, and the lesson is Excel.

The program is run by the Fund for Integrated Rural Development of Syria (Firdos), the country's first homegrown nongovernmental organization. First lady Asmaa Al Assad founded the group in July 2001. In addition to the bus in Marrane, a second unit is stationed 75 miles north of Aleppo.

When it comes to information and computer technology, Syria lags behind its neighbors - despite a surge in Internet subscriptions and a spike in Internet cafes here. But the MIC places this Arab country among nations on the cutting edge of bridging the gap between the e-haves and have-nots.

To experts, the MIC is not only a cost-effective way of covering rural ground, but it also reflects a shift in strategy over the past decade. In the early days of the IT revolution, according to Inas Sarraj of the Poverty Alleviation Association at the UN Development Program in Damascus, technological aid arrived in the form of computer gifts to governments, that failed to pass on the benefits.

Today, the emphasis is on bringing training and information directly to local communities. "We've definitely learned that we shouldn't just fund equipment. It could easily be sunk," Ms. Sarraj says.

Community leaders in Marrane, a farming village with a population of 700, say they've been overwhelmed by residents who want to hop on the MIC. They had to turn away at least seven people for the current course, and the next two courses have already filled up.

"We never imagined computers would come here," says Waheeb Elias, a farmer and Arabic language teacher enrolled in the intermediate class. Before the MIC, he says, the only option was to travel 25 miles to Homs, a trip that costs about $1.10 - more than most villagers can afford for numerous trips.

Reasons for taking the course range from curiosity - "at least now I know what people are talking about," one woman quipped - to more urgent needs. For example, many mothers sign up with the hope of helping their kids study for the baccalaureate, an intense examination that determines high school graduation. Others note increasing pressure to cite computer skills when applying for a job.

The course - offered at beginner and intermediate levels - lasts 18 days and includes training in Windows, Microsoft Office, Excel, e-mail, and the Internet. For those who want more, Firdos offers interest-free loans to purchase a computer.

Mr. Elias says he's eager to apply for a PC loan next year. Only one family in Marrane owns a computer. After Sept. 11, villagers recall gathering in this family's house to learn more about the war in Afghanistan. In fact, some experts argue that getting such information to villagers is more important than purely technological goals such as, say, automating the local supermarket.

Sami Khiyami - a founder of the Syrian Computer Society, a government group in Damascus with a mandate to spread the good word about information technology - takes this argument one step further. For Dr. Khiyami, the Internet, as a bearer of information, supersedes other forms of aid. "If [a poor Syrian village boy] is online," he says, "poor clothes, little food, and bad water will not hinder him from becoming successful."

Sometimes the payback from a little information is immediate. Joanna Mafhoud, a mother in a neighboring village, attended a Firdos computer course. Recently, she says, she bought a washing machine and couldn't make sense of the English instructions. She typed them into her computer and translated them into Arabic.

Some potential benefits are subtler. For example, Firdos information officer Anwar Abbas sees the computer as a means of fostering an environment that values information.

Nazha Elias, also a student in the MIC intermediate course, echoes this sentiment with a comment that might rarely be heard in many developed nations. "It's great to see kids playing games on the computer instead of playing all day in the street with their friends," she says. "It stimulates them in different ways."

Still, skeptics of information technology's proper place in the countryside remain. One is Bishr Saeed, a beneficiary of the Firdos loan program who lives in Beer Ajam, a small village west of Damascus. He says several people in his village applied for such loans or invested their own sparse funds into a personal computer with high hopes that it would be a gateway to opportunity. Instead, he says, these computers have been turned into high-tech game stations for kids.

The comeback to such skepticism, says Elias, is simple. People want computers and Internet access, he says, "because we want to be a part of this world."

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