Backlash yields tense times for Syrian workers in Lebanon

These days Hassan Alumeddine only leaves his small rundown hotel to go to work. As a Syrian living in a Christian neighborhood of Beirut, he says rampant anti-Syrian sentiment has made him fearful for his life.

"I can't afford to go back home as I need to make money for my family. But we are all concerned at the situation. It's frightening," he says.

The plight of the estimated 1 million Syrian workers in Lebanon has gone largely unnoticed since the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, which sparked a surge in anti-Syrian sentiment. Most Lebanese blame Syria and its Lebanese allies for Mr. Hariri's murder. But it has been the Syrian workers in Lebanon who have born the brunt of the backlash, with enraged mobs beating and even killing some Syrians and tens of thousands of laborers fleeing the country.

Charging only three or four Lebanese pounds ($2 to $2.75) a night, the Hotel Gemaize, on the third floor of an old building in the Christian Maronite neighborhood of the same name, has long been popular with Syrian laborers. But in the past six weeks, the number of guests has dropped drastically.

"We can normally accommodate up to 30 people, some of them sharing rooms," says Ibrahim Tawil, the hotel manager. "But since the troubles began we only have five or six people staying with us."

The other two hotels on the lower floors are also mostly empty. In the evenings, the Syrian guests congregate around a television in the sitting room, smoking cigarettes and sipping glasses of hot tea. Blankets are piled on a sofa that serves as a bed at night. The walls of the shabby room carry a crucifix and a quotation from the Koran as well as pictures of Hariri and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud.

"Many people have gone back to Syria," says Mazen Hajjar, who for 25 years has sold Syrian-made clothing in Beirut. "Some of them left out of fear, others were upset at what they were hearing from the Lebanese and left."

The hotel lies only a few hundred yards from Martyrs' Square in central Beirut, the focal point of huge anti-Syrian demonstrations in recent weeks. Last month, when as many as 1 million protesters gathered in Martyrs' Square, the streets of Gemaize were jammed with flag-waving demonstrators, chanting anti-Syrian slogans.

Although the Syrians staying at the hotel say they have not encountered any violence, some Syrian workers have been attacked and killed. The Lebanese media have reported that as many as 30 Syrians have been murdered in recent weeks.

Although Christians are at the forefront of the opposition to Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, most of the violent attacks have occurred in Muslim areas, mainly the Sunni cities of Sidon in the south and Tripoli in the north. Dormitories and encampments housing Syrians have been burned down, cars set ablaze, and workers assaulted by mobs. In one instance, two Syrian workers were stabbed to death in the Shiite district of Ghobeiri in southern Beirut.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, dozens of leaflets warning Syrian workers to leave Lebanon within 10 days were scattered outside a dormitory for Syrian agricultural laborers in south Lebanon. The leaflets warned of "severe consequences" if the Syrians refuse to leave.

Since the 1950s, Syrians have flocked to this relatively prosperous Mediterranean nation to find employment in cleaning houses and streets, and in construction and agriculture. Although the Lebanese government places restrictions on foreign workers seeking employment in Lebanon, an exception is made for Syrians, who are allowed entry in unlimited numbers. Employers readily recruit Syrians because they earn about half the wages of Lebanese. Still, cash remittances earned by Syrian workers in Lebanon total as high as $4 billion a year.

The exodus of Syrian workers is likely to place further strain on the labor market, hitting Lebanese businesses hard, especially in the booming construction sector.

"I have lost 80 percent of my workforce," says Karim Bassil, an architect. "This is a big problem for me because the law prevents other workers coming to Lebanon to replace them."

Lebanese are increasingly filling the void, but they cost more - up to $19 a day, or around $9 more than Syrians make.

A new government could allow other foreign laborers into the country, like Asians, who thrive in Persian Gulf countries. But the close cultural and economic ties between Lebanon and Syria will probably ensure a steady stream of Syrian workers once the political situation calms down, people here say.

"Despite the political differences, we and the Lebanese are still brothers, and we will always be close," says Mr. Hajjar.

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