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Syrian Refugees in Lebanon Find Lifeline To Loved Ones At Cell Phone Oasis

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AMMIQ, LEBANON -- Abdul Jawad Abdul Wahed walked more than a mile, his wife and youngest child in tow, to get to this spot on the side of the road where he could make a phone call.

A Syrian from the Qaboun district of Damascus, one of the most embattled parts of the city, Abdul Wahed fled to Lebanon about a year ago, after shelling destroyed his home. For 31 days, he was imprisoned in a notorious Air Force Intelligence prison, tortured and interrogated on charges that he'd supplied weapons to the rebels.

After he was released, his feet were so swollen from beatings that they wouldn't fit into any of his shoes. He was kicked in the groin so much, he said, that he now needs an operation, if he can find a hospital to provide one.

But it was a more mundane task that brought Abdul Wahed to this small orchard off a bare stretch of highway along Lebanon's western Bekaa Valley: He wanted to talk to his brothers back in Qaboun. Here, in an auspicious quirk of geography, Syrians like Abdul Wahed have discovered a lifeline: decent service on a cell phone network from Syria, several miles and a mountain range away.

No one can quite explain why cell phone oases like this one pop up at random intervals along the western edge of the valley, but the locals know all the hot spots -- near the Ksara vineyard in Zahle, in a field not far from the town of el Marj, beside a natural spring in Jdita. Knowledge of them, Syrians say, has spread purely by word of mouth. In the early 2000s, Syrian soldiers occupying Lebanon took note of where they could make calls. Migrant workers, who are a regular presence in the Bekaa's verdant farms, kept them in use. Now they serve as a crucial link home for many of the estimated 700,000 Syrian refugees who have fled the war into neighboring Lebanon.

"You sometimes feel like you are back in Syria," said Fadi, a Damascus-raised musician, of the scene at the cell-phone spots as he prepared to call his mother on a white LG smartphone.

Fadi said he makes the trek to these spots -- he prefers the grove in Jdita, because it's closer to his apartment -- on a weekly basis. It can be dangerous, too, he warned. The gathering of so many unguarded Syrians has made the areas magnets for thieves, and not too long ago Fadi said he was mugged in the middle of a phone call. Now and then, he added, a Lebanese local might grow annoyed at the noise outside his home and take a few potshots at the callers with his rifle.

Still, he and others said, it's worth it. With a minute of local calls on a Lebanese mobile network costing as much as 36 cents, the significantly cheaper rates of Syrian networks like MTN or Syriatel (less than 7 cents per minute), mean refugees and migrant workers can stay connected to friends and family back home for a fraction of the price. Few of them have reliable access to email or other forms of communication.

On Sunday, young men sat on motorbikes under a tree and talked to cousins and friends in the northern town of Raqqa, which has been under the control of anti-regime forces for almost a year. Nearby, young children played in the dirt while their parents connected with siblings and neighbors in Damascus. Along the side of the road, an entrepreneurial man set up a van where he sold coffee and snacks along with Syrian cell-phone credit, which can be traded by text message.

Much of the chatter was casual, the everyday gossip of life. But many callers were also buzzing about the recent news of an American plan to deliver missile strikes to Syria, which had just been temporarily called off by President Barack Obama. Few voiced much optimism that the attacks would benefit them in their already dire state.

"People think that no strike will happen any more," said Mohammed Ahmed, 19, who was making calls to Raqqa with a red Nokia. He was wearing a black Adidas tracksuit despite the blazing heat. "They think it's just talk. For us, it's not really a good thing. We're afraid it will just make the regime stronger after they survive."

Ahmed came to Lebanon a year ago with his parents. Now, because he has been called for Army service, he must stay in Lebanon until the war ends. "I can't even think about going back now," he said. "Once you enter the army, you forget yourself. You never know when you'll get out. And it's terrible -- it's wrong to kill your fellow Muslims. I cannot do that."

"Some people are happy about it, and some people are not," said Abdul Wahed of the American missile plan as he hung up his battered silver Nokia and handed it to his wife. "My brothers are terrified. The situation at home is terrible. There's no money, and especially over the past week the military has been reinforcing their positions next to where they live."

Outside the orchard, Mahmoud Oqle, a 37-year-old seasonal worker, trapped in Lebanon when the war started, sat on a ragged car seat and smoked a cigarette with a friend. He had just finished talking to his family back in Daraa, the southern town where Syria's uprising first began.

"No matter what happens, I feel it is we the people who will pay the price," Oqle said, of the possibility of American strikes. "If the Americans attack, the people will pay, and if the Syrian regime stays in power, the people will pay for that too."

He told a joke that he said was circling among Syrian refugees in the Bekaa: A fighter with the Free Syrian Army goes to heaven, and while he is in line to enter the gates he notices a soldier from Assad's Army waiting in front of him.

"What are you doing here?" he asks the soldier. "If you're not in hell, then who is?"

The soldier turns around and smiles. "The Syrian people," he replies. "They are the ones in hell."

Oqle took a drag from his cigarette, and then went back to making his calls.

Moe Ali Nayel contributed reporting.

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