Internet connects Golan Druse with their family in Syria

Whenever a relative in Syria gets on-line, everyone at home immediately knows by the buzz.

majdal shams 88 (photo credit: )
majdal shams 88
(photo credit: )
On Mother's Day last month, Ghazieh Safadi waited impatiently for a buzzing sound from the family computer in her home in the Druse town of Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights. The speakers were on full blast so she could hear from any room in the house the moment her daughter Ranya, 40 kilometers across the border in Syria, contacted her family via the Internet. The 48-year-old mother of five spoke longingly of her daughter. "You can't imagine how much I miss her, just to share breakfast in the morning like we used to," Ghazieh said as she sipped tea on the kitchen floor next to a wood-burning stove.
JPOST.COM HIT LIST's most popular articles this past week
Redheaded Ranya, 30, the darling daughter of the Safadi family, lives less than an hour's drive away, but is inaccessible in Syria. So do two of her sons. Despite the proximity and the feelings of longing, Ranya meets her family in person only once a year in Jordan. But thanks to high-speed Internet, they see each other and talk everyday. Most of the 20,000 Golan Druse have computers and are hooked up to the Internet. Majdal Shams is a small town of some 9,000 perched on the side of Mt. Hermon. Its small commercial area centers around a traffic circle which has a couple of restaurants, a few hair salons, a jewelry shop, a stationery shop, a butcher and one Internet caf . Yet within a one-kilometer radius, it also boasts six computer supply and repair shops. Bashar, a young computer technician who runs one of those shops, has no lack of customers despite the heavy competition. "Almost every family has Internet at home. Business is good," said Bashar, whose screen saver sports a picture of two lions, symbolizing the late Syrian leader Hafez Assad and his son, President Bashar Assad. (Assad means lion in Arabic.) The major change that caused Golan Druse to buy computers and hook up was the high-speed Internet. People suddenly had the opportunity to have Internet 24 hours a day, rather than never knowing exactly when someone in Syria got on-line. In Syria, Internet did not go public until late 2000. "Everybody bought computers and hooked up," Bashar noted. Divided families were able to speak freely. The new access made the computer a central part of people's lives. In Majdal Shams, computers often sit on a table in the living room. Farhan Safadi sat on the chair next to the family PC as he and his wife hosted guests. His son, Anan, suddenly got on-line and the two chatted. Two of his sons, Nader, 27, and Anan, 26, are studying medicine in Syria. Whenever a relative in Syria gets on-line, everyone at home immediately knows by the buzz and someone rushes to the chair near the computer to see who it is. A Webcam sits atop the computer so that the family in Syria can see with whom the are talking. Syria, one of last Arab countries to allow Internet to the public, now provides high-speed Internet at home, but at a steep price. Until recently, it cost $80 a month; in January it was reduced to $45. In Israel ADSL costs about $10 a month. Syria, has about 500,000 Internet subscribers and dozens of Internet cafes. In September, the first privately-owned Internet service provider began business, effectively offering Syrians an Internet connection without going through the government. Nevertheless, some sites are filtered or blocked, according to Human Rights Watch. Many Druse families on the Golan have family in Syria - some because of cross-border marriages. From the early 1990s Israel has permitted Druse students to transit the Kuneitra border crossing to study in Syria. About 500 students continue to go every year and come back for summer vacations. Ranya and her brother, Shadi, 32, went in 1995. It was there Ranya met her husband while both were students at Damascus University. They married in 1998 and now live comfortably in a villa with their two children, said Ghazieh. At the time, Ghazieh did not see any problem with her daughter living across the border. "There were peace talks between Syria and Israel," she explained. But those talks failed. Now Ghazieh cannot travel to Syria, and Ranya is not allowed to enter Israel. They meet once a year in Amman. As a result, Ghazieh has never visited her daughter's home a short drive away, seeing it only on her computer screen through the lens of a Webcam. Internet chats have replaced chats over coffee. For Ghazieh, the Internet connection is not enough. Today she is sorry she ever agreed to Ranya marrying across the border. "Now I always advise other girls and their mothers against it," she said softly. "It's too painful."