'I Hope To God We Will Be Safe': Refugees In Lebanon Start Returning To Syria

Jul 1, 2018
Originally published on July 3, 2018 4:34 am

Hala hugged her 10-month-old baby close as she sat in the front seat of the pickup truck piled with the family's few possessions — thin mattresses, blankets, a small suitcase — as she waited to cross into Syria.

She had dressed neatly for the journey, in a carefully pinned maroon headscarf and black abaya gown. She tried to think of the positives: Her family would no longer be strangers in a foreign land; her children would set foot in their home country for the first time.

But as her convoy began to move toward the Syrian border, her nerve wavered.

"Do you think anything will happen to us on the road?" she asked, wide-eyed with fear and seeking comfort, even from a stranger. "I hope to God that we will be safe."

Hala, 35, who felt her situation was too unsafe to give her last name, was one of 472 Syrian refugees who registered to cross from Lebanon to Syria on Thursday, despite the ongoing civil war there.

They were some of the first refugees to return to Syria under a program overseen by the Lebanese government, which it says is voluntary. Lebanon's powerful Directorate of General Security intelligence agency checks with the Syrian regime that those signing up to return are not on its long list of "wanted" opponents, and won't be arrested if they go back.

This group of refugees comes from camps around the Lebanese border town of Arsal. Approximately 3,000 people answered a recent call put out on Facebook to people from this area by the General Security agency, according to a local negotiating committee that represents Syrians who want to go back. Only a small number have been cleared by the Syrian government to return so far.

More than seven years in, the civil war in Syria has decimated the country. Hundreds of thousands have died in the conflict that began as an insurgency against President Bashar Assad. Almost half the population has been displaced.

More than a million Syrians fled to Lebanon, swelling its population by almost a quarter and putting significant strain on the country's already weak infrastructure.

As the Syrian government, backed by its allies Russia and Iran, wins back more control over swaths of central Syria, officials in Lebanon have stepped up calls for refugees to return to areas where the fighting has calmed.

"Our economy is very bad because of those refugees, and we have other problems — but the most important one is the refugee problem," Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon's General Security agency, said in an interview with NPR this week. "We are at the service of the refugees, but we have reached the limit of our capability."

Ibrahim, who leads the effort to encourage the refugees' return, said his agency is trying to help Syrians who want to go home.

"We want these returns to be voluntary. We don't oblige anyone to go back to Syria under any circumstance."

But this program is at the heart of a spat between the United Nations refugee agency and the Lebanese government, with the latter frustrated that the U.N. is not doing more to encourage refugee returns.

Rula Amin, the spokesperson for U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in the Middle East and North Africa, told NPR that the refugee agency was not involved with Thursday's returns to Syria. The U.N. has stringent guidelines on conditions that must be met before it can guarantee a "dignified" and "sustainable" return for refugees, she said. Those guidelines have not yet been met.

"That's why we say that at this point in Syria, because of the complex situation on the ground both politically and from a security perspective, we are not encouraging — nor are we organizing — the return of Syrian refugees from the countries of asylum around Syria, including Lebanon," she said. "But we do respect people's choices if they choose to go back."

The issue of returns has also sparked intense debate within the refugee community in Lebanon. In the border town of Arsal, home to an estimated 50,000-plus Syrians, some refugees said they believed it was time to try to rebuild their lives in their own country. But many feel it's too soon.

Men of fighting age fear they will be drafted into the Syrian military and placed on one of the country's many active front lines. Others express concern about the influence of warlords and militias. Many said they do not trust the Syrian regime, which has imprisoned and tortured tens of thousands of its opponents.

Youmna, a 40-year-old mother of three, has a brother accused of working with the opposition. He disappeared into the regime's network of notoriously brutal jails. She fears the Assad regime may not stay true to assurances it has made to the Lebanese government that those who return won't be arrested, or worse.

"I don't believe the Syrian government," she said, speaking inside her tent, its plastic sides covered in a heavy blue velvet blanket. "We don't know what our future is here if we stay here, but we are too afraid to go back."

On Thursday, those who'd been told by Lebanese authorities that they could safely return gathered at dawn on a dusty patch outside Arsal to wait for the Lebanese army's permission to cross. They arrived on tractors, in cars and minibuses, all crammed full of possessions they'd accumulated during the years spent as refugees living in camps nearby. One family strapped in a coop full of chickens alongside the kitchen pots and pans. Another brought their pet canary in a cage.

Emotions ran high as they waited to leave. While some refugees looked excited, others mourned imminent separation from loved ones. Seventy-three-year-old Fatima Rifai huddled, weeping, with her nine adult children and grandchildren.

"We are preparing to say goodbye," she said.

She and her husband were returning to their hometown of Yabroud, set in the hills near the Syrian capital Damascus, to investigate the situation for the rest of the family.

"Pray for us," she said. "I don't know if our house is still standing. If we find our house, we will live there."

Editor's note, July 3, 2018: In an earlier version of the audio, the wrong clip of a woman speaking Arabic was heard. The correct Arabic clip has been inserted.

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There are millions of Syrian refugees who have fled their war-torn country. But last week, a few hundred returned with a nudge from the government of Lebanon. Many boarding the buses were elderly people who hope they can safely test if other relatives should follow as the war continues. NPR's Ruth Sherlock met them as they prepared to cross the border.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: "We're going back to Syria, to all of Syria," the old woman yells. Her skirt billows as her husband revs the engine of their tractor, and they head for the border.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: She's one of a few hundred Syrian refugees who, last week, crossed from Lebanon to their home country under a Lebanese government program that it says is designed to help those who want to return.


SHERLOCK: The refugees gather at dawn on a dusty patch of ground on the Lebanon side of the border and wait amid the crush of cars and trucks piled with their possessions until the Lebanese army lets them cross into Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Children play on top of mattresses that are strapped on the backs of the pickups. Beside one truck, grandmother Fatima Refai, who's about to depart, says goodbye to the two generations she is leaving behind.

FATIMA REFAI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "Separation is the hardest thing," she says. With her nine sons and daughters staying behind in Lebanon, she and her husband are an advance party. They're going back to a country still at war to see if their home in a mountain town near Damascus is safe enough for the rest of the family to follow.

REFAI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Refai says she wants to go home but doesn't know if her house is even still standing. We hear stories like this from many of those who wait to cross. Grandmothers and grandfathers are going into Syria because they're less likely to be on the Syrian government's long list of wanted people.

ABDULKADER: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Refai's adult son Abdulkader says he can't go back because he's accused of opposing the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

ABDULKADER: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He says it's so hard to see his mother go and turns away from us as he starts to cry.

So sorry.

These returns - just a few hundred people - a part of Lebanon's efforts to encourage Syrians to go home. Lebanon's security chief, Abbas Ibrahim, says they run the refugees' names by the Syrian government for assurances that they won't face arrest when they return.

ABBAS IBRAHIM: I'm here to facilitate their return. We don't want anyone to go back to Syria and be arrested because the others will not be encouraged to go on later on. So we wanted everyone to go back home, not to the prison.

SHERLOCK: Lebanon is desperate to reduce the number of Syrian refugees it's hosting, now more than 1 million people. And Lebanese authorities say the U.N.'s refugee agency, the UNHCR, should do more to encourage refugees to return. But UNHCR spokesperson Rula Amin says they can't do that until it's safe to go back.

RULA AMIN: Because of the complex situation on the ground, both politically and from a security perspective, we are not encouraging - nor are we organizing - the return of Syrian refugees from the countries of asylum around Syria, including Lebanon.

SHERLOCK: So these small returns don't mean that it's secure for all the millions of refugees to go home to a country that's still at war and under a repressive regime.


SHERLOCK: Even in the few refugee camps where Lebanon is trying this program, only a minority of the refugees have so far chosen to go back. Many think it's just too soon.


SHERLOCK: In one camp, we walk into the home of refugee Youmna, who's too afraid to give her last name. The tent has plastic sides that are hidden by a heavy, blue, velvet blanket. I ask her young daughter what she remembers about Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Is that a no?

Her youngest child knows only the stories her mother tells her of their cherry orchard back home.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Her 13-year-old son remembers only moments.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Through interpreter) I used to go to school by taxi and by cabs. And we used to also go to swimming pools and have fun.

SHERLOCK: Here, life is hard. But even so, says Youmna, she won't go back to Syria yet.

YOUMNA: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Why not?

YOUMNA: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: She points to the son who's with us and says she's got other boys who are afraid to return.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER, BYLINE: He has all brothers that are at the age of that they should go to the military. This is why they are scared.

SHERLOCK: She says they could be sent to the front line in Syria's still-active war. Like so many of Lebanon's Syrian refugees, she chooses to stay and wait here and hope for the war in her country to end. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, on the Lebanon-Syria border.

[EDITOR'S NOTE ON JUL. 3:In an earlier audio version of this report, the wrong clip of a woman speaking Arabic was heard. The correct Arabic clip has been inserted.]

(SOUNDBITE OF RENAUD GARCIA-FONS'S "SILK MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.