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Dispatches From Damascus: Escape From Syria

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Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the country as a direct result of the violence that has engulfed the country since the outbreak of the civil war. Meanwhile, many of those that have so far escaped the violence are suffering the economic consequences of the crisis and are thus trying desperately to find a way to escape the country.

In addition to those who have been forced to close as a result of the ongoing violence, many businesses have dramatically curtailed their operations in the face of economic sanctions and the falling value of the Syrian currency, and many others have closed down altogether. This has left large numbers of people unemployed, idle and restless -- all of them eagerly awaiting the resolution of the conflict and a return to ordinary life.

Many young people have become dependent on the capacity of their parents to support them, while many others have been forced to depend on their own savings. I have also heard of a number of slightly more fortunate people that were laid off by their companies and then offered their old job back on significantly reduced wages. Given the situation, and the remote likelihood of them finding another source of income, they had no choice but to accept the offer.

Not surprisingly, conversations with Syrians frequently turn to whatever plans they happen to be hatching to escape the country and find work abroad, or to start working as soon as the situation permits it.

Several people have jokingly asked me whether I have any sisters or other female relatives or friends that might be willing to marry them in order to help them migrate to the west. Similarly, others have offered themselves as full-time carers for any old or infirm relatives that I might happen to have back home.

One friend, a lawyer who once had a busy private practice, has now gone several months without any work and is left fretting about his financial situation as he eats into his savings. He has spent time researching the possibility of migrating to various countries in Europe in one capacity or another. He has recently been in contact with a people-smuggling group that is able to transport him, in exchange for an exorbitant sum of money, to a European country in which he can claim asylum.

Another person I know reached the final year of his university degree before the summer and expected to finish his course in the current academic year. As a result of the crisis, however, the private university located on the outskirts of the city that he attended declined to reopen after the summer holiday. Instead of studying, he now divides his time between watching pirated DVDs on his laptop and trying to find a way to complete his studies outside of Syria.

Given Syria's current international standing, several countries in the Middle East and Europe simply refuse to accept Syrian students, while the cost of living and studying in many other countries is prohibitively expensive for most Syrians -- especially now. Russia -- one of the Syrian regime's staunchest allies in the current crisis -- welcomes Syrian students and offers them reasonably priced tuition, relatively low living expenses and even provides some courses in English.

Meanwhile, over the last week or so the sound of fighter jets flying over the city and attacking opposition positions has become more frequent than ever before. On Friday night there was a heavy storm over the city and the sounds of thunder blended with those of the fighting in a distant suburb that could be heard well into the night.

Several of the most important streets in the modern part of the city centre have now been blocked off and closed to vehicle traffic. The road blocks are guarded by soldiers or armed security men who stand beside the grey cement traffic barriers and supervise the slightly surreal spectacle of people calmly walking to work down the middle of major streets that were once regularly choked with traffic.

As I travelled home on the bus the other day, a number of government soldiers were being transported through the centre of the city in an odd-looking makeshift convoy led by a grey civilian pickup truck. A loaded machine gun had been mounted on the roof of the cabin and it was being manned by one of the soldiers standing in the bed of the truck.

Following them was a yellow panel van with three young soldiers sitting in the back, their legs hanging out of the open back door. Behind this vehicle was a large green flatbed army truck, which had also been equipped with a machine gun on the roof of its cabin, and carried more soldiers in its bed.

The soldiers were all carrying their weapons and wearing their body armour, and some of them were wearing their helmets. Several of them were smoking and most of them seemed to be calmly watching the passing cars as their convoy mingled casually with the heavy mid-day traffic of the capital as it ferried them to their imminent encounter with opposition forces.

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