AYYAT, Lebanon -- A family of nine crouched on a sunbaked plain here in the Bekaa Valley, the wind whipping the plastic awning that was their only shelter. The children's faces were smudged with dirt, the baby girl's pale pink patent-leather shoes caked with mud.
But the mother, Nasra Youssef Akkash, could not stop smiling. She and her children had finally reached Lebanon seven months after fleeing their bombed-out house in Aleppo, in northern Syria. Their zigzagging journey wound through Islamist-ruled rebel areas and towns wracked by fighting, finally taking them through the outskirts of Damascus, where people were seized with new fears of impending American missile strikes. All along the way there was never enough food or decent shelter.
On Thursday, she told visitors that and her family had slept peacefully for the first time in months after crossing the border on Wednesday, finally free from the sounds of shelling – frightened only briefly by a barrage of wedding fireworks that sent them diving to the ground for cover. Even without blankets, they had barely noticed the chilly nighttime wind.
"You look here and see a body, you look there and see another one," she said, describing the landscapes where she had sought shelter with her children, ranging in age from Moussa, 30, to Narmeen, 1. "This house is flattened, that house is destroyed."
After holding out for two and a half years of war, the Syrians entering Lebanon these days – part of a flood of two million refugees across the region – bring news of war and economic hardship across the country. As they flee Islamist extremist rule in the northern city of Raqqa, government and rebel shelling around Damascus, food shortages and criminal gangs, they say they see the threat of an American attack as just one more in a dizzying array of dangers.
"Obama will strike for the people," said Abdelkader, a municipal employee from Raqqa who supports the government. "The regime also is fighting for the people, and the opposition is fighting for the people. And the people are damned."
He welcomed into a cramped box-shaped shelter more than a dozen members of his family who bribed their way across the border on Thursday.
Ms. Akkash's journey began when she watched, from a few hundred yards away, as a projectile exploded her house – fired from a government warplane or a rebel mortar, she never knew.
She fled with the few bundles she could salvage, and the clothes on her children's backs, including the Smurfs and Sesame Street T-shirts, now faded, that her young boys still wear. Her husband had died earlier of a heart attack, so she relied on her grown sons for help and protection.
First the family traveled to Tal Abyad, in the northern province of Raqqa. As Islamist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda gained ascendancy and infighting spread between rebel groups and between Arabs and Kurds, the family backtracked, heading south toward Damascus, slipping from village to village.
Humanitarian aid was spotty, Ms. Akkash said, with aid groups unable to access many of the areas they passed through. The family, like the estimated millions of internally displaced people within Syria, relied on sporadic handouts from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent or local relief groups.
"The Crescent gives you a box – some rice, some sponges," she said, throwing up her hands. "All I wanted was something to cover my children's heads."
They reached Nabak, west of Damascus near the Lebanese border, where fighting overflowed sporadically and displaced families clustered during clashes in Homs and Qusayr to the north.
They spent the past several weeks in Deir Attiya, west of Damascus, in a crowded makeshift shelter in an unfinished construction site. Clashes between government and rebel fighters filled the nights with the thuds and crashes of shelling. And in recent days, people talked nonstop about new anxieties and questions over an impending American attack.
"There is a lot of fear, an unusual amount of fear," Ms. Akkash said as she breast-fed her baby. "Fear that these strikes will include everything and everyone."
"What will happen if they come?" she asked.
"World War III," said Hussam Isber, 44, who had just arrived from the same area with his wife and four children.
Originally from Homs, they fled that city as it was engulfed by war, but could not get away from the fighting. His place of refuge, Nabak, was gradually drained of civilian inhabitants as the original residents fled, and he eventually joined them.
Asked whether he left out of fear of chemical weapons, or the American attack, he laughed.
"The regular weapons are enough," he said.
Both his and Ms. Akkash's families fled across the mountainous border, and were settling in with the help of Sawa, a Lebanese aid organization that works with Unicef to provide water and dig latrines in makeshift refugee camps lining the Bekaa Valley.
Down the road in the town of Youneen, Abdelkader's family, from Raqqa, said they had managed to bribe officials on both sides of the border. Some family members had to make a risky trip to Aleppo to win special permission to leave.
The Syrian government has forbidden essential public-sector workers from leaving without authorization, and the Lebanese government has tightened entry rules for Syrians, leaving many trapped.
The family supported the government – one was a Baath Party member, and one had a tattoo of Mr. Assad's brother Bassel on his chest – and declined to give their family names for fear of reprisals from rebels.
Their problems began early this year when Islamic rebel groups swept into Raqqa, they said. One relative, a soldier, was kidnapped and released after they paid $1,000, they said. Abdelkader was briefly imprisoned, accused of being a pro-government militiaman. Ahmed, a teacher, said his school was ransacked. Ola, 17, said rebels took over her house; after long negotiations she was able to get back some of her possessions, including a refrigerator that was returned with bloodstains inside.
But it was economic hardship that finally drove them out, they said. Salaries had been paid only sporadically since the rebel takeover, they said. They piled into a van and drove for a day and a night to the border. Along the way, they had to pass many checkpoints manned by both sides.
"And then there is the third side," Ahmed said. "The criminals. They will take everything from you."
To cap it off, at a rebel checkpoint, one gunman, who they believed was from Saudi Arabia or Yemen, ordered Ola, who wears a loosely draped head scarf, to cover her face. When she refused, he looked away.
"She should look like a mummy," Ahmed joked.
The family is Sunni Muslim like most of the rebels, but they object to the extremists ascendant in their hometown, and accused President Obama of supporting them.
If America strikes Syria, Abdelkader said, "All the region will be burned."
Ahmed added, "Of course, the people will be burned first."
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.