As the bus carrying Rahab Um Bakr wound its way through the streets of Damascus this past Sunday, the 36-year-old looked out the window at a city scarred by years of war.
It was the first time Um Bakr had seen the Syrian capital since she and her family of six fled their home in the suburb of Moadamiyet a-Sham for Lebanon more than five years ago.
There, in Lebanon’s northeastern Bekaa valley, the family rented a home and Um Bakr’s husband found a job in a local pastry shop. “We were getting by,” the former nurse tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier. She used a pseudonym, fearing government reprisals.
But conditions for the family worsened with time, as more than one million Syrians arrived in Lebanon and animosity toward the country’s guests grew. “We were treated like garbage,” she says. “ There’s nothing worse than feeling that you’re not wanted.”
Syrian refugees board buses on the Lebanon-Syria border on Sunday. Photo by Hassan Jarrah/AFP.
So when relatives back home told Um Bakr that the situation in her formerly besieged hometown had improved after the government reclaimed control in 2016, the family began to consider a return.
“We hadn’t planned to return to Syria until Bashar fell,” says Um Bakr, but conditions in Lebanon, particularly after her husband died of a heart attack two months ago, were too difficult to remain.
So this past Sunday, the five remaining members of Um Bakr’s family joined dozens of other Moadamiyeh natives in the third organized convoy of Syrians to voluntarily return home from Lebanon since the beginning of the year.
In Moadamiyeh, reunited with friends and relatives after years apart, Um Bakr found a bittersweet homecoming. Her house still stands, but it is empty, looted of all its contents, down to the electrical wires.
And after years of war and life in exile, being back home in a government-held town is a “difficult feeling,” she says. “It’s as though nothing ever happened.”
Q: When and why did you first leave Syria for Lebanon?
My family left Moadamiyet a-Sham in December 2012 after the security forces summoned me more than once for interrogation on the charge that I was treating the terrorists.
Within our customs and traditions in Syria, if a woman is requested by the security [forces], it’s a great shame. My husband was afraid that I would be charged [with a crime], which would destroy my whole family.
We dropped everything and were smuggled into Lebanon because my name was being circulated by the regime.
Q: What was life like as a Syrian refugee in Lebanon?
During the first two years of displacement in Lebanon, the situation was acceptable and we were getting by. We registered with the UN, rented a home in the town of a-Swuayre in the western Bekaa region where my husband’s relatives lived, and he found a job at a moajanat [pastries] shop.
But in recent years, the situation grew more and more frightening, to the point where if a Lebanese person heard us speaking the Syrian [dialect], we were treated like garbage. We began to speak with a Lebanese accent and changed the way we dressed, just so that we wouldn’t hear harsh words. There’s nothing worse than feeling that you’re not wanted.
The Lebanese government made things difficult for us by requesting residency permits and licenses. My husband was fired from his job, and my children didn’t want to go to school anymore. They’ve been out of school for a year.
Then, my husband got sick with high blood pressure, and we had no money to pay for his treatment. They were dark days.
Q: Why did you decide to return to Syria?
When the regime returned to Moadamiyet a-Sham [in October 2016], I spoke with my siblings and relatives. I asked them about the situation there, and they watched their words when they answered, afraid their phones were being monitored. They advised us to return, told us that Moadamiyeh was safe after being liberated from the terrorists, and that things were returning to the way they were before. They said: ‘Forget what happened in 2012. That’s in the past now.’
Of course, we were following the news, watching what was taking place [in Syria]. We saw all the towns surrendering and being handed over to the regime. With our terrible situation [in Lebanon], we began to think seriously about returning.
We hadn’t planned to return to Syria until Bashar fell. Unfortunately, that is [merely] a dream.
Five months ago, my husband and I registered a voluntary return request with the Lebanese General Security. We wrote down the names of everyone in the family and our telephone number, and they said: ‘We’ll inform you if your name is accepted for return, because those who wish to go back must first reconcile with the Syrian regime. Lebanese officials need to submit the names for approval from the [Syrian] National Security Office.’
When Law 10 came out, we understood that if we didn’t go back, we would lose our home and my husband’s old shop.
Three months after we requested the return, my husband died of a heart attack. After that, I contacted the reconciliation [committee] in Moadamiyet a-Sham. I told them what happened before I left Syria, they did a security check and guaranteed that I wouldn’t be arrested since I hadn’t stained my hands with Syrian blood. They also guaranteed that I could return to my job at the hospital.
With all my responsibilities as a widow, my kids out of school and bills piling up, it was a relief when I heard my return was approved—regardless of the potential consequences ahead.
Q: Could you describe your journey back to Syria from Lebanon?
We left Lebanon on Sunday afternoon in two buses. Around 50 people, mostly women and children, returned. The women left their husbands in Lebanon so they could check the situation in Moadamiyeh first.
We set off, then spent two-and-a-half hours waiting in the al-Masnaa region. The Lebanese General Security, Moadamiyet a-Sham Reconciliation Committee and a car from the Syrian security forces were present.
After the Syrian buses arrived, we boarded them and found two members of the Syrian security on each bus. When we first entered Syria, the regime gave the children polio vaccinations and welcomed us back.
Q: What did you see and how did you feel when you entered Syria?
I saw a broken Damascus, with the marks of war still present in the streets the buses passed through.
As a woman returning to the embrace of her homeland, her house, her land and her people, what other feelings are there besides pure joy? But there’s a gaping hole in my heart because I lost my husband, the father of my children and my support. If only he were with me, the joy would be complete.
I felt all that we lost in these past years of suffering and humiliation, only to return to the regime. It’s as though nothing ever happened, and all we want is the regime’s acceptance. This is a difficult feeling, but there’s no other solution.
Q: What was your homecoming like? Were you able to return to your old house?
The residents of Moadamiyet a-Sham all came out to welcome us and threw rice [in celebration]. When I saw my family after six years, my mother couldn’t believe she was seeing us all again. We were laughing and crying at the same time. I wish that my husband had been with us on that day.
My house was looted. Everything was taken: furniture, doors, windows, even the electrical wires. We’ve returned to square one, but thank God the house is still standing.
I’m staying at my parents’ home. People are greeting me and welcoming me back. I want to fix my own home—even if it’s only one room—so that my children and I can live there.
Q: Do you have any fears, returning to Syria after years in Lebanon?
I’m really worried that the regime will renege on its promises and arrest me. I worry about my children’s future. If, God forbid, something happens to me, they have nobody. Their situation could become worse than it was in Lebanon.