When Abdul Kader first returned to the ruins of his home in Homs’ Khalidiya neighbourhood after five years of displacement, the scale of the destruction left him numb. “At first I didn’t react at all. I was in shock. I went in for five or ten minutes, then left. I just couldn’t stand it,” he said.
After a couple of weeks, the softly spoken former Arabic teacher found the strength to return. Working alone in the rubble of his house and the flattened neighbourhood beyond, he slowly began to clear the debris and fill the gaping holes in the walls left by years of shelling.
Abdul Kader is among more than 11 million Syrians who have been driven from their homes by more than six years of brutal conflict. More than five million people have fled to neighbouring countries since the start of the crisis in 2011, with a further 6.3 million displaced inside Syria.
In total, Abdul Kader and his family were displaced five times, moving from one neighbourhood to another inside Homs as the fighting closed in around them. The experience left them afraid and exhausted, but was particularly hard on the children, who had to leave their school and friends behind.
“Every time we moved, I fell further behind in school. So many days were wasted,” Abdul Kader’s 12-year-old son Saleh explains. Like his father, Saleh was pained to see what remained of his former school.
“Regardless of the circumstances, there is no place like home."
“This is the school where I spent my days, my life,” he said, looking up at walls scarred by bullet holes, with rows of brightly painted classrooms visible through bombed-out windows. “It used to be so beautiful, and to see it like this…” he added, his voice trailing off.
Despite the destruction, Abdul Kader was determined to return and take his family back home. With financial assistance from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, the family has been able to renovate much of what remained of their home, replacing doors and windows and repairing the water and electricity networks.
Under UNHCR’s Owner-Oriented Shelter Support scheme, more than 9,405 people in Homs received support to rehabilitate their homes last year, with plans to support up to 15,300 people through the programme in 2017.
Though currently one of only five families that have returned to the devastated Khalidiya neighbourhood, Abdul Kader and his family are determined to finish rebuilding both their home and their lives.
For Saleh, after years of displacement and conflict he is raising his sights to the heavens, where one day he hopes to travel himself. “I want to continue studying and become an astronaut,” he explained. “What’s happening now will not stop me. I want to focus on my education and not give up.”
Abdul Kader is content with trying to reclaim his old life, and feels he has made a difficult but important first step. “Regardless of the circumstances, there is no place like home. The feeling of coming back is great. I feel like a bird that has returned to its nest after being away for so long.”