BEIRUT, Lebanon - Ghazi Zoughi of Damascus, Syria, has always faced uncertainty as a day laborer in Beirut. A self-employed mover of furniture, appliances and anything else he can strap to his back, Zoughi spends his days waiting on a street corner to be hired, fretting whether he'll earn enough money to send to his family back home.
But if the work was not guaranteed, he says, he could always count on feeling welcome in Lebanon, a country whose people he considered so close to his Syrian nation they were like family.
Now that certainty is gone.
Ever since the assassination last month of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in a car bombing that many Lebanese believe had Syrian involvement, rising anti-Syria feelings have driven thousands of Syrian workers, afraid of reprisals, back across the border.
Attacks on Syrians
On Monday, in Hariri's hometown, Sidon, a group of assailants stormed an apartment where four Syrian employees of a local agricultural equipment company were asleep, beating them with wooden boards and sharp metal objects while shouting insults and demanding that they leave the city.
In eastern Lebanon, gunmen opened fire at a truckload of Syrian workers before beating them up and stealing their money.
In northern Lebanon, attackers burned dozens of tents belonging to Syrian workers.
"We don't feel there is any security for us," says Zoughi, a slight man with a rough beard, waiting on a recent afternoon with other day laborers on a sunny Beirut street corner.
The day after Hariri's death, Zoughi joined the exodus of Syrians to Damascus, fearing for his safety. After two weeks at home, however, he decided to return because he needed work.
Although he has not encountered any trouble, he doesn't blame any of his countrymen for choosing to stay home for the time being. "They are scared," he says.
For Syria, Lebanon has been a safety valve, a place where the ambitious, the well-connected or the nearly destitute could find more opportunity than in Syria's own long-dormant economy.
Lebanon, and especially Beirut, was where people could get ahead faster or more easily than at home. And those expatriates sent a large part of their earnings back to Syria.
No one knows how many Syrians work in Lebanon. Syrians do not need permits and can cross the border easily. The estimates, however, range from the hundreds of thousands to 1 million or more during tourist and harvest seasons.
Syrian workers occupy the lowest rungs of Lebanese work life.
They are employed as apple pickers, cleaners, vegetable sellers, factory workers and construction workers.
They earn as little as $10 per day, far less than what would be demanded by Lebanese workers, and perform some of the lowliest jobs.
Says Zoughi, "We do the work that the Lebanese would never accept doing."
Syrian workers often live in overcrowded apartments, squirreling away their savings to take home every month or two. Zoughi shares a two-room apartment with four other Syrians and saves $100 to $400 each month.
"Although it is difficult to quantify the economic benefits Syria derives from its occupation of Lebanon," a report recently issued in Washington by the Congressional Research Service concluded, "most experts note that the Lebanese economy is vital to Syria's own financial health.
"The Lebanese economy absorbs thousands of migrant Syrian workers, who would otherwise have difficulty finding work back home."
Kamal Hamdan, an independent economist in Beirut, said Syrians have been entering Lebanon to work for decades, meeting a fundamental need in the Lebanese economy.
"The relationship between Syrian workers and the Lebanese is like a love that is shared between two persons," he says.
"There is not only supply from Syria. There is also demand from the Lebanese bourgeoisie. It's a two-way relationship."
Now that trust appears to be broken.
Hamdan estimates that 50 percent of all Syrian workers have gone home, abandoning their jobs on construction sites, farms and factory floors.
The workers' absence is perhaps most noticeable in downtown Beirut. In the Bekaa Valley near Syria's border, wages have increased as much as 20 percent in the agriculture industry because of a shortage of Syrian workers. Hamdan said.
Syrian day laborers who normally fetch about $8 to $10 a day are now asking for and getting as much as $12 a day.
Lebanese opposition leaders who have organized anti-Syrian rallies in downtown Beirut have struggled to quell the attacks against ordinary Syrians, making it clear that they are fighting the Syrian government, not Syrian workers.
Syrian human rights activists recently 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."
Such anger has not been isolated to the opposition movement.