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Young Syrians face uncertain future in new Mideast

By CNN's Hala Gorani

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Hala interviews two young men in Homs, Syria.
ON TV
About the show:  Inside the Middle East
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ON TV
For more on Hala Gorani's travels in Syria, watch Inside the Middle East on CNNI TV. The show airs at the following times:

June 3; July 1
London 1500
Cairo 1700

June 4; July 2
Buenos Aires 1530
London 1930
Cairo 2130

June 5; July 3
London 1630
Cairo 1830
Hong Kong 2230

DAMASCUS, Syria (CNN) -- I land in Beirut around 4 p.m. after a pretty exhausting set of flights from Atlanta. I am immediately met by my producer and driver and whisked to a double-parked van outside the airport.

"Grab the suitcase! Jump in!" We have no time to waste: We need to get to the Syrian border and onto Damascus in time for dinner and an interview with a young Syrian businessman. A four-hour drive.

I have traveled to Syria many times before but never to work. I've reported and anchored from Libya and Iran, where it is notoriously difficult to operate freely, with government minders following -- quite literally -- your every move.

When we arrive in Syria, I am fully expecting the same kind of work environment but I'm astonished to find that there is no ministry of information employee shadowing us.

With practically the entire world keeping tabs on Syria as it withdraws its last troops from Lebanon, is the government here trying to appear more "laissez-faire" with international journalists?

We had featured a story by Ben Wedeman on the new generation of Arab leaders a few months ago on the monthly show Inside the Middle East, including a profile of the new Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad. So we thought that, with the political and social landscape shifting all around them, it is time to do a story on the new generation of people in Syria.

What were the Syrians of tomorrow thinking as neighboring Iraqis went to the polls in January, while large parts of Iraq are still consumed by a vibrant insurgency? What about accusations that Syria was behind the assassination of Rafiq Hariri? And Damascus swiftly bowing to international pressure to withdraw all its troops from Lebanon?

These are historic times in the Middle East, and the young people I will speak to are lucky enough to witness the dramatic changes in their region from prime "front-row" seats.

It's important to remember that nothing significant has changed in a country like Syria for over three decades. Unlike Eastern Europe or Latin America, where revolutions (violent or velvet) have created a new, more Western-friendly environment, the Levant still sometimes appears frozen in time, an after-thought of the Baathist coups of the late '60s and early '70s.

We start our journey on the campus of Damascus University. Even though we have no government minders, we frankly don't really need any. The mere presence of a TV camera means that people watch what they say very carefully and remain reluctant to share their true opinions about politics or anything they think might need changing in the country.

I meet a 21-year-old English literature student, Roaa Ali, who insists that her biggest concern in life is that the outside world misrepresents Syria and calls all Syrians "names."

She tells me she feels it is her "responsibility" to change people's perception of who Syrians really are: That they can be educated and mutli-lingual. That they don't need the outside world to tell them how to manage their own affairs.

But just as I was ready to leave the university, a 24-year-old dentistry student Noor Adeen tells me he thinks there shouldn't be a "royal system of government" in the Middle East.

He goes on to say that political change should happen in all countries, including Syria. A bold statement, considering public criticism of the government's policies is rarely tolerated.

We spend the evening at a restaurant called Leila's in old Damascus. After decades of erecting rather unattractive Western-style mega towers, some Syrians have started converting traditional Arabian courtyard homes into charming restaurants and hotels.

That's where we meet Imad Alfadel, an ambitious 26-year-old businessman whose family operates a big manufacturing conglomerate. He invested some of his family's fortune into Leila's, hoping to tap into Syrians' newfound taste in traditional and historic settings.

"If things don't move in the right way economically," Alfadel says, "then again we're going to be an isolated country, sitting in the middle of this world that's moving forward while we're standing still."

In many ways, Alfadel's call for economic reform is significant: It is, after all, a call on the current government to give private enterprise more breathing room. For the last 35 years, the Syrian economy has been virtually paralyzed by state control and international isolation.

Bashar Al Assad, the son of former rule Hafez Al Assad, is apparently trying to slowly change some of the country's stifling rules. For instance, the government has allowed a private bank to operate in Syria for the first time in 40 years.

And for some, economic change can't come soon enough: According to the International Labour Organization, up to 73 percent of young Syrians are unemployed. Driving into Aleppo, the country second largest city, joblessness is quite literally on display. There are rows and rows of unemployed day laborers selling their services on the side of the street for as little as $3 a day.

Some tell me that after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, there have been attacks against Syrian workers in Lebanon, so they decided to come back home, where they are finding very little work. Dozens of young men in their teens and twenties gather round our camera, eager to share their frustration, telling us that on an average week, they rarely find more than two days' work.

Aleppo is an interesting place because of its larger Christian population. That's where I chat with Rana Hatem, a 22-year-old pharmacology student. She also works part-time in a drugs company earning about $200 a month.

Hatem tells me that she feels much more open to the outside world than her parents were at her age.

"When we see TV, when we go to the Internet," she tells me, "and see how people live. That makes us ask for more, ask for better."

The question is how long until young Syrians ask for more and better a little less quietly.

  • Viewers in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and North America can watch Hala's report from Syria on Inside the Middle East at 1800 ET (2200 GMT) on May 6, 1330 ET (1730 GMT) on May 7 and 1130 ET (1530 GMT) on May 8.

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