Eight-year-old Abdulhay has a memory of his father. They are in his yellow taxi, driving through their old neighbourhood in Syria. From the passenger seat, he looks over and smiles at his father. His father turns and smiles back.
It’s a brief memory, but Abdulhay holds onto it like a treasure. It’s the only one he’s got.
“My father was shot, and my uncle, my cousin and my neighbour, and our house is destroyed,” said Abdulhay, who now lives in an informal refugee settlement here in northern Lebanon. “I am scared to go back because war means shooting.”
Today Abdulhay and his family met with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, who is completing a five-day visit to Syria and Lebanon to learn more about the enduring and acute needs of those who have been displaced by the conflict. Eight years on, refugees here are increasingly contemplating whether and when to return, but many have fears that are holding them back.
“Return is a decision by the people,” Grandi told journalists this afternoon at a press conference in Beirut. “Those who return, who make that decision, must be supported – not only to return, but also to restart their lives.”
Abdulhay and his family come from Eastern Ghouta, an enclave near Damascus where tens of thousands were trapped for years. “We had money, but there was nothing to buy at the shops,” his mother, Rana, 37, recalled. “Sometimes we had to eat the grass on the ground. We used to dig holes in the ground to get water.”
One day her husband slipped out to get food from a nearby community. Along the way, a sniper shot him dead, leaving Rana to raise their five children on her own.
They managed to escape to Damascus in 2014. By then, Abdulhay and his siblings were malnourished and had missed months of schooling. But life in the capital, and then in Homs, was a struggle too.
After several months they fled to Lebanon, eventually making their way to this informal settlement near Tripoli, in the north of the country. They are one of 28 families, mostly from Homs Governorate, living here in tented shelters – wooden frames with plastic tarps for walls and wood stoves for heat.
Today, under blue skies, Abdulhay played football with other children in the dusty compound. But winter here can often be harsh. UNHCR has worked to improve shelter conditions and installed proper latrines to improve sanitation. It also provides winter cash assistance to most of the families here, as well as legal and psychosocial support.
The prospect of returning to Syria is one that weighs heavy on the family. “This is the closest thing to our hearts,” Rana told the High Commissioner. “But I’m worried about my children. If we go to Syria, my son [17-year-old Jassem] is going to be conscripted into the military.”
In nearby Zouq Bhannine, Grandi visited another family who have wrestled with thoughts of going back. “Every one of us wishes to return today, even before tomorrow comes,” said Wafaa, 45, who is living in an unfinished building with five children, three daughters-in-law and two grandchildren. “But we need peace and security.”
Wafaa noted that her daughter and sister recently went back to Talbiseh, the town in Homs Governorate which the family fled in 2014. She calls them often, but the connection is weak.
“I can hear the pain [of separation] in her voice. We just cry on the phone without saying a word.”
“I can feel from my daughter’s voice that the situation is difficult there too,” she said. “I can hear the pain [of separation] in her voice. We just cry on the phone without saying a word.”
Wafaa’s husband vanished on his way to Lebanon in 2013, where he had hoped to rejoin two of their sons. He and the other people in the car were never heard from again. Wafaa was then displaced inside Syria for 18 months before fleeing to Lebanon with the rest of their children.
“When I came here I achieved what I wanted in terms of bringing all of my children together,” she said. She hopes that going back would not jeopardize the family’s safety or unity.
Whether, and when, to return is a question facing millions of Syrian refugees in the region. Safety and security is a crucial factor, but not the only one. For many people, the answer also hinges on concerns about housing; legal issues, such as missing documents and property deeds; availability of livelihoods; and access to health care and schools.
Meanwhile, young Abdulhay has something else on his mind. He sees other children with their fathers and misses his own, a man he barely remembers.
“He always asks about his father’s yellow taxi, and whether he can have it when he grows up,” Rana said. “I tell him, ‘It’s yours, Abdulhay. It’s there waiting for you.’ ”