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Damascus hotel a home for Syrians displaced by war

Saturday - 8/31/2013, 6:34am  ET

In this Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013, photo, a Syrian youth who fled his home because of Syria’s civil war prepares tea in the kitchen of the Kertaj Hotel in Damascus, Syria. Thousands of Syrians have taken refuge in the capital from fighting around their hometowns. Around a dozen families living for months in the Kertaj Hotel and say it has become like a home to them. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

LEE KEATH
Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- The engraved plaque at the entranceway on a dark backstreet of downtown Damascus reads in English, "You welcome to Kertaj Hotel, with Arabic hospitality."

It has proven very hospitable for more than a dozen families from among the hundreds of thousands of Syrians uprooted from their homes in war-torn parts of the country. The families have lived for months in the Kertaj, some for almost a year, crammed with their children in the rooms.

Once total strangers hailing from far-flung parts of the countryside around Damascus, they have created a sort of communal family in the hotel's cramped quarters. They all live on the third floor, and the wives cook together in the kitchen of the restaurant on the top floor, to which the owner has given them free rein. Their kids play together, dashing around the hallways and up and down the narrow staircase. The husbands -- those who still have jobs -- come back in the evening and play backgammon together in the restaurant, where the TV is.

In a gesture of support, the owner has cut room rates in half for them, to around $5 a day.

"This is the amazing thing, the camaraderie we have here," said Abu Rami, who moved in 11 months ago with his wife and five children. As he passed through the lobby, he greeted the receptionist, and one of his neighbors' little girls playing the stairs called out to him: "Uncle, tell my mama I'm down here."

"In this hotel," Abu Rami added, "it's like we're living in an old-time 'hara.'"

"Hara" simply means an alley in Arabic, but it evokes far more than that. It harkens back to Medieval Arab cities, made up of tight mazes of tiny alleyways. In each alley, the neighbors knew each other for generations, and their lives were intermingled. Every night, they would close the gate at the alley entrance to keep out thieves. Few people still live that way, but the "hara" still raises feelings of warmth, intimacy and safety.

The atmosphere has been recreated in the four stories of the Kertaj.

"These people are closer than family to me now. I don't even see my siblings anymore, but these people I see every day," said a government employee who fled fighting around his home outside Damascus in September. His 10 brothers and sisters are dispersed around various parts of the capital or fled abroad.

"Our wives are all now best friends and spend all their time together," he said. "You know how women are, they're social creatures. They need each other."

Part of the restaurant has been sectioned off for the women if they want privacy -- though often they are mingled with the men in the main part.

He and other residents spoke on condition they remain anonymous or be identified only by their nicknames and that some details of their experiences not be cited, fearing reprisals against themselves, relatives or neighbors.

Nearly 5 million people around this country of 23 million have been driven from their homes as regime forces and rebels battle in the 2 ½-year civil war. Around 2 million of those have fled abroad. The rest are scattered inside Syria, taking refuge wherever seems safe. Hundreds of thousands are in Damascus, though the exact number is not known. Those who can afford it rent apartments. Others stay in government shelters in schools or other facilities. Some of the poorest camp out in highway medians of the capital.

The Kertaj is one of a number of cheap hotels full of displaced families around Damascus' Marjeh Square. In the late 19th century, Marjeh, just outside the old medieval quarters, was a main square of the newly rising modern capital, surrounded by Ottoman administration buildings. A pillar in the square commemorates the Ottomans' opening of the Middle East's first telegraph line, from Damascus to Medina. The heart of the city has since moved on to sparkling new neighborhoods, and Marjeh has declined into a faded glory, lined with cheap electronics shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants.

The hotel is cramped, but it's clean and neat. Plastic flowers decorate corners of the lobby, and a chintzy chandelier illuminates the deep purple wallpaper, wood paneling and mirrors. In the lobby and restaurant, the deceased father of the owner -- posing in a dignified suit -- looks down from black-velvet portraits on the wall.

The 15 families' basic stories are the same: They abandoned homes, carrying what they could, to escape daily shelling, gunbattles and sniping in rebel-held areas. But each has their personal trauma. Some have had spouses or siblings arrested or kidnapped, others have survived shelling on their homes.

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