Life as a refugee was never easy for Zahida, 35, who has been raising five children on her own ever since her husband went missing a few years into the war in Syria. In Lebanon, she said, jobs were scarce and rents were high. But coming home has brought new struggles.
“The destruction was indescribable, and at first I didn’t recognize my town,” she said. Her two-storey home was reduced to rubble, and though relatives took them in, the windows and doors in their borrowed rooms were missing. “There was no water, no electricity,” she added. “We felt that we were in the stone age. But little by little, we made things better.”
“There was no water, no electricity. We felt that we were in the stone age."
Zahida shared her family’s story on Wednesday with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, who visited Syria this week to assess the massive humanitarian needs people are facing here.
“This decision to come back is a difficult one, and we must respect that not all refugees and not all [internally] displaced people will make that decision quickly,” Grandi said. “But for those who make that decision and voluntarily come back here, we must provide them with help – at least for their basic needs and their initial reintegration in their community.”
Here in Souran, a dozen miles north of Hama in western Syria, the High Commissioner spent time with several families who have voluntarily returned after being displaced, often multiple times, for months or years. He also met with a newly formed women’s group, visited a primary school that reopened in October and toured a bakery that opened in January – all with support from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partners.
Before the conflict, Souran was home to some 47,000 people, many of them farmers, merchants and labourers. When armed groups overran the town in August 2016, it emptied overnight. Some residents sought refuge in Turkey or Lebanon; the rest fled to nearby Hama city or other parts of Syria.
Abdelkarim is among those who went to Hama, where, he told Grandi, frequent rent hikes forced his family to move from place to place for more than a year. Upon returning to Souran, he found his house filled with wreckage and stripped of anything of value. “There were no doors, no faucets,” he said. “Even the nails were taken out.”
With rats and insects keeping the family up at night, Abdelkarim set to work rehabilitating the house. He erected new interior walls and, with support from UNHCR, installed doors and windows that provide greater security.
Altogether, some 33,000 people have returned to Souran, mainly those who had fled to nearby areas in Syria. At least a third of the town’s former residents are still living elsewhere.
"For those who voluntarily come back here, we must provide help."
In 2018, an estimated 1.4 million Syrians who were displaced inside their own country have returned home, often trading one set of staggering hardships for another. Even so, they are a minority. After eight years of violence and destruction, millions remain internally displaced, with another 5.6 million refugees still living in neighbouring countries and over 1 million Syrians dispersed to other parts of the world.
Zahida told Grandi she came home to Souran because life in exile was taking a heavy toll on her children. At age 14, her son dropped out of school to help support the family by working in a barbershop. But the money he earned was not enough to cover the school fees for his sisters, who were falling behind in their education.
Their house here stood on a prime corner lot, but today lies in ruin. A concrete staircase dangles from the wreckage like a pendulum, tethered by a few strands of rebar. “When I saw it, it was one of the saddest moments in my life,” she said.
Now Zahida’s oldest daughter attends catch-up classes at the new community centre, and the three younger ones are enrolled at Al-Shuhada primary school, which reopened in November with UNHCR support. It is one of five schools serving the community; 15 others remain closed, mainly due to structural damage. Because so many children have missed months or years of schooling, the crowded classrooms serve students whose ages differ by two or three years.
Grandi also paid a visit to Souran’s only bakery, which opened in January with support from UNHCR. Previously the town had to get its bread from a supplier nearly a dozen miles away, but the new one here created 45 jobs and lowered the price of bread by 75 per cent. The bakery has since hired a second shift and goes through 10 tonnes of flour per day, helping to feed more than 12,000 people.
"We wanted to recover our dignity. Outside of our country, it’s not the same.”
The High Commissioner met with a local women’s group that has helped some of those returning to Souran regain a sense of community and belonging. “We wanted to come back to our homes, to our land,” one woman told the High Commissioner. “And we wanted to recover our dignity. Outside of our country, it’s not the same.”
“We are starting from scratch,” she added. “We hope we have enough strength to rebuild our lives, but we will need help from others.”
UNHCR’s policy is to help those who are displaced, both inside Syria and abroad, and to help ensure that Syrians who are voluntarily returning home and settling back into their communities receive the humanitarian support they urgently need.