BEIRUT: Syrian toddler Luay happily explores his grandfather’s modest house near Damascus for the first time. After years as refugees in Lebanon, the three-year-old and his family have returned to their homeland. They are among several thousand Syrians who have made an emotional journey home from Lebanon, where they sought safety from the war that has ravaged their native country since 2011. Worn down by tough economic conditions in Lebanon and seeing regime victories back home as bringing stability, they have taken advantage of return trips coordinated by Lebanese and Syrian authorities.
Last month Luay’s father Rawad Kurdi, 30, his mother, and his baby sister Luliya decided to make the trip themselves. As the sun was rising, they lined up with dozens of other refugees to board buses that would whisk them out of Beirut. With them were more than a dozen suitcases and boxes — everything they could carry from their five years in Lebanon. During a nine-hour wait for the buses to move, Rawad was anxious to end his family’s long exile. “This return is definitive. I will never leave Syria again,” he told AFP.
In 2012, Rawad and his 35 relatives were forced to flee their hometown of Babila southeast of Damascus after fighting broke out between rebels and government forces.
They came to Lebanon. Three years later, some of the elderly family members including Rawad’s father Ahmad returned to Syria, and more have hit the road home since.
Rawad’s return to Babila meant Ahmad, now 70, could finally meet the two grandchildren born in Lebanon after he left. A content look on his face, Ahmad sits with one-year-old Luliya in his lap, as Luay scrambles over the couch in the dimly lit living room. “My home is not worth anything without my children and grandchildren. Now, both I and my home feel alive again,” said Ahmad, his hands stained black from picking eggplants on his nearby land. Although six of his children have already returned to Syria, another three are still living as refugees in Lebanon. One day, he hopes, they can all be reunited back home. “I’d much rather live with my children and grandchildren in war, than them being safe but far away,” he said. Since Syria’s conflict erupted, more than 5 million people have sought refuge in neighboring countries and another 6 million are internally displaced.
But back-to-back military victories this year have put more than two-thirds of Syria under regime control, including Babila and other areas around the capital in the spring.
These wins prompted host countries, like Lebanon, to encourage refugees to move back home. Just under 1 million Syrians are registered as refugees in Lebanon, although the number is likely higher.
This year, Beirut and Damascus began coordinating weekly convoys taking Syrians back home, only if their names are cleared by Syrian security services.
Around 6,000 refugees have gone back to Syria in these coordinated returns since April, according to an AFP tally. Others have remained in exile, fearing Syria’s compulsory military service or stuck in too much debt to leave Lebanon. Rawad said he is exempt from the army because he is overweight.
He wanted to leave in 2015 with his father, but said he was unable to cross the border because he could not afford paying fines he had accrued for overstaying his residency in Lebanon. This September, the Lebanese authorities waived these penalties for those taking part in the coordinated returns, and Rawad decided to bring his family home.
Back in Babila, he gazes at old photos hanging on the wall. “War has changed us so much, and then came emigration, also leaving its marks on our faces and in our eyes,” said the portly tailor in a gray T-shirt and sleeveless black jacket. The fabric workshops he owned in Babila have been looted, but he remains optimistic.
“For now, the future is uncertain — but however long it takes, goodness will only come from this land,” he said. The dream of returning home also kept Rawad from seeking asylum in Europe. “As beautiful, quiet and safe as those countries were, they could never be a substitute for the one where my family, my memories and my neighbors are,” he said. He spends his days with family or wandering the streets of Babila, eager to get to know its streets and homes again. During such a stroll, his phone rings. It is his brother Ayman, who still lives in Lebanon and is hesitating to return. “There is no reason to stay in Lebanon. The war is over,” Rawad reassured him.