BBC Capital

Border battle: The worst commute ever?

(AFP/Getty Image)

(AFP/Getty Image)

If you think your commute is bad, just imagine crossing a war-torn border to get to work.

Armed checkpoints, long waits at crossings, the occasional sound of gunfire and streams of refugees leaving the country on foot is the reality for Syrian businessmen like Jihad Awad.

The 51 year old business owner relocated to Lebanon in early 2012 after Syria’s unrest began, but said he is determined to continue doing business in his homeland — even if it means enduring a difficult journey to check in on his operations and his dozen employees. Hoping to minimise disruption at the border, he leaves early each Monday morning from Beirut and drives to Damascus for a two-day stay.

Before unrest broke out in Syria just over three years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for people to cross the border at any time of day or night to do business. These days, with multilateral sanctions on much of the private sector, and with the security situation hindering all but the most essential of business, those who make the regular crossings have become a rarity.

“We’re one of the lucky ones,” said Awad, whose Damascus-based medical and pharmaceutical equipment company is operating at 30% capacity.

Many other businesses throughout the country have collapsed under bombardments or financial strain that have come as part of the Syrian Civil War, which began as a peaceful uprising in March 2011, and has claimed more than 230,000 lives and has virtually wiped out the private sector. The remaining businesses are largely struggling to stay afloat, business owners and news reports say.

Awad noted that some of his friends from Aleppo — Syria’s biggest city that has been largely destroyed by bombshells, and whose routes in and out are marked with kidnappings and carjackings — have no businesses or homes to return to.

“They’re stuck. They can’t go back,” he said.

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

For some businesspeople, the commute is part of a long term investment in hopes of future returns. Maroun Charabati, who runs a power supply and renewable energy company, said keeping his business going in Syria is a way to keep his foot in the door until peace comes.

“The potential market is very promising,” said Charabati, a Lebanese citizen who grew up during his own country’s civil war (1975-1990). His sporadic visits to Syria complement the regular trips of his employees. “Once the market opens, there will be lots of new construction. Everyone will be fighting for business.”

Closing his business, even during wartime, would be unthinkable, given the amount of time and money he has invested in the business he started in Beirut 20 years ago and expanded into Syria 12 years ago.

A commute, elongated

The main Damascus highway from Beirut, to the Masnaa border crossing on the Lebanese side to the Jdeideh crossing on the Syrian side, links the two business centres and is by far the safest and most used of the roads out of Syria. It is controlled by the Syrian government and, even travelling in the middle of the night with a Canadian passport takes three hours, nearly double the time it used to take at that time.  

While taxi drivers used to ferry people from Beirut to points in Syria , such as Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, and overland to Turkey and Jordan, drivers at the Charles Helou garage in Beirut, Lebanon’s main departure point to Syria, said business is down by 80% compared with before the war. Most of the businessmen they used to carry have left for work in Europe or the Gulf states, they said, and the few people who continue to return are labourers, usually making the journey to bring cash to their families in Syria.

Border checks between Lebanon and Syria are intensive. (Anwar Amro/Getty Images)

Border checks between Lebanon and Syria are intensive. (Anwar Amro/Getty Images)

Awad might be one of the few businessmen still making the unsettling journey to Syria..

“What you see at the border is shocking,” Awad said. Once he enters Syria, the checkpoints are a further reminder of the instability. Long lines and waits, intensive inspections of vehicles and car passengers and drivers peppered with never-ending questions are the norm.    Once in Damascus, it is clear to him that residents have become numb to the sound of shelling.

Choices for the future

“I can run my business from here. I go to Syria to show compassion for my employees and show my clients in Syria that I’m not far away,” said Award from a café in downtown Beriut.  “I want to show that I’m one of them.”

Similarly, Shadi Khoury, Middle East regional manager of an Italian firm that supplies machines for pharmaceuticals manufacturing, has had to do much of his business from Beirut.

For him, trips to Syria are more sporadic, ranging from twice a week to once a month. He is often delayed for hours at a time on the border or at a checkpoint.

“Of course this is my duty. If I didn’t keep going, people would be without medicine,” said Khoury, who went to the mostly- destroyed city of Homs — a risky proposition — about three months ago to check on a medical machine. .

Khoury, a Syrian, said it is hard to be comfortable in either country— Syria for its instability and Lebanon for what he perceives as xenophobia toward Syrians, he said.

For Awad, his presence in Lebanon and regular commutes to Syria are an important way to keep his business alive. It is down 80% because of the war.

“Once stability returns to Syria, everyone will be in need of medical supplies,” he said.

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