Thousands of Syrian Workers Leave Lebanon

Syrian taxi driver Mohammed Toja has been ferrying passengers between Beirut (search) and Damascus (search) for 12 years. But he is reconsidering working here amid the soaring anti-Syrian sentiment that's followed last month's assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister.

Two days after a massive bomb killed Rafik Hariri (search) and 17 others in Beirut, Toja's Dodge — its bright yellow color marking it as a Syrian taxi — was damaged when people on an overpass dropped a motorcycle battery onto it.

And during a recent breakfast, angry young men warned him to leave the neighborhood or his car would be attacked again.

"If things continue this way, I probably will stop coming to Lebanon," said the 38-year-old, standing with fellow Syrian drivers near Charles Helou Station, Beirut's main stop for taxis driving between Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Toja is like hundreds of thousands of Syrian workers — mainly farmers and construction workers — lured to Lebanon by the promise of higher pay. But their numbers have noticeably dwindled since some have become targets after Hariri's death, which many Lebanese blame on Syria and their own country's pro-Damascus authorities.

Despite official Syrian and Lebanese denials, anti-Syrian sentiment has reached fever pitch throughout this country. Massive anti-Syrian protests brought down Lebanon's pro-Damsacus government and calls are intensifying for the withdrawal of Syria's 15,000 troops based here.

A day after Hariri's Feb. 14 assassination, dozens of supporters clashed with Syrian workers in his southern hometown of Sidon, lightly injuring five Syrians. In the northern town of Minye, 23 tents housing dozens of Syrian laborers were burned, although the cause was unclear.

Many Syrian workers quit, packed up and headed home. In western Beirut's Cola and Barbir neighborhoods, where hundreds of Syrian workers once waited to be hired for temporary work, only about a dozen appeared recently.

One, Jasem Khalaf, a skinny man wearing paint-stained clothes, acknowledged some Syrian workers have become worried but said he's had no problems here.

"I have no plans to leave Lebanon even though we are hearing that some Syrian workers are scared," said Khalaf, who makes about $15 a day in Beirut compared with $20 a month selling milk as a shepherd in his hometown of Hama, Syria.

Fearful of anti-Syrian recriminations, Lebanese opposition leaders urged protesters not to attack Syrian workers following demonstrations that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami's pro-Damascus Cabinet.

Syrian intellectuals and human rights activists issued a statement saying they opposed their country's military presence here but added that "we are extremely pained and angry to see and hear that some Lebanese are ... attacking miserable Syrian workers."

Many Syrian workers don't have work permits, making their exact numbers unknown. But estimates range from about 500,000 in low seasons to more than 1 million during harvest and summer, when tourists stream into Lebanon.

It is impossible to know how much money Syrian laborers transfer home annually, financial analysts say, since most earnings are in cash and not through bank transactions.

"It is for sure in hundreds of millions of dollars," said economist Louis Hobeika.

Many Lebanese complain Syrians are increasing unemployment among Lebanese by working for less money.

Mahmoud Diya, a Lebanese clothing shop owner in Beirut's Mazraa neighborhood, said Syrian vendors sell similar products outside his shop without overheads, like rent or electricity.

"My clients complain to me that Syrians sell the same clothes for cheaper prices," said Diya angrily.

Hariri's killing reduced the number of Lebanese and Syrians traveling between both countries, decreasing business for taxi drivers.

At Charles Helou Station, traffic controller Mohammed Kasr said the number of taxis traveling daily between Beirut and Syrian cities plummeted from an average of 140 carrying five people to 30 cars with two passengers.

Despite such concerns, shoeshine Mustafa Sikhni says he must stay to provide a good life for his two wives, daughter and son.

"Work here is for sure better than there," Sikhni, said while brushing a client's shoe. "There is work here and there, but the money is more in Lebanon."