HAWSH AL-HARIMEH, Lebanon: Parked cars bearing Syrian license plates and people strolling and loudly talking on their mobile phones are a sign that one has entered the “Central,” as this area in the Western Bekaa has become known.
In this uncultivated field, mobile phones connected to the Syrian network can pick up the signal of Syriatel, one of the two GSM networks operating in Syria.
This is why the “Central” has become the destination for refugees and the displaced who want to check up on the families and friends they have left behind, while taking advantage of the much cheaper costs of making such calls.
One can’t miss the big smiles, sometimes the tears, or the shouts of “Is everyone okay?” and “May God help us” that refugees exchange with their families in different war-ravaged Syrian cities and villages.
Some of the more affluent arrivals choose to sit in the privacy of their cars, unbothered by the wind or cold, to make their calls.
“Two years ago, I came back from Syria and the cellphone I had just bought from there rang, meaning that I could get Syriatel coverage here,” said the Lebanese owner of the small strip of land, Khaled Ahmad, who appeared to know every single person who frequented the field.
“It was all by chance; people just started telling each other about the area, and now dozens of Syrian refugees drive up here Fridays and Sundays to speak with their loved ones back home.”
For Syrians who have fled to various parts of the Bekaa, the “Central” is a significantly cheaper way to communicate with people across the border. While one pays a bit less than $1 per minute to call Syria, it only costs about 10 cents on the Syrian network.
“I arrived from Daraya about two months ago and I come here every week to call my family,” said Ammar Shamma, who now resides in the nearby town of Bar Elias. “I only have to pay for the service taxi to get here, so it’s both cheap and convenient.”
The communications lifeline, how ever, is not trouble-free. According to Ahmad, two months ago a group of Syrian thugs residing in the area showed up and allegedly wanted to charge people money for using the strip of land.
“They ordered me to take LL2,000 per person,” Ahmad said. “I refused, because these are people who left behind their families in the same danger that they themselves had fled. I don’t want to make a profit by taking advantage of their misery.”
The “Central” has also become a spot where displaced Syrians get together and socialize. A refugee who recently arrived from the Damascus suburb of Jobar and who declined to give his name, has created a small business in the field.
While refugees meet and make a series of back-to-back phone calls, he and his nephew are there to sell them coffee, tea, plates of foul and credits for their Syrian cell phones.
“Some family members in Syria buy units and transfer them to me, and I in turn sell them to Syrian refugees,” he said. “It’s the only way I’ve found to make a living. I benefit people and they benefit me in return.”
The main concern of the frequenters of the “Central” is that the Syrian government will discover the network overlap, although Hawsh al-Harimeh is not the only strip of territory that picks up the Syrian network within Lebanon.
In areas of Wadi Khaled in north Lebanon, which has a huge community of refugees, one also can access the Syrian mobile network.
Likewise, according to refugees, certain hills close to the Masnaa border crossing sometimes have reception, but are less reliable.
“We just fear that they will find out about this and cut the network off,” said a middle-aged woman from the Damascus suburb of Moadamieh. “It’s the only way for us to talk to our families.”