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For Syrian Refugees, There Is No Going Home

That leaves many governments invested in vague hopes that such a settlement, however rickety or superficial, will somehow stop the metastasis of the Syrian crisis and ease fears of Islamic State terrorism — often conflated with concerns about ordinary Syrian refugees — that have fueled the rise of right-wing politicians.


Syrian refugees live in makeshift tent settlements in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

And it gives many countries a strong stake in declaring Syria safe for return, even without resolving the political issues that started the conflict, including human rights abuses by the Syrian government.

Mr. Assad, Syrian officials and their allies in Lebanon are reading that mood. The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has called for the return of migrants, and Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, has called on global powers to facilitate it.

But in a tent settlement in the village of Souairi, Syrians made clear that neither a fig-leaf deal nor an outright government victory would send many of them home.

Every family interviewed had at least one member who had disappeared after being arrested or forcibly drafted by the government. The refugees said they cared less about whether Mr. Assad stayed or went than about reforms of the security system. Without an end to torture, disappearances and arbitrary arrests, they said, they would remain wary of going back.

Virtually all said that they dreamed of going back, but that it was increasingly a dream for the next generation.

“If the Lebanese president would offer me the choice of staying in prison forever here and going back to Syria now, I would choose prison,” said Khaled Khodor, 23, who spent four days in a Lebanese jail for sneaking across the border.

“They didn’t torture me or beat me,” he explained. “It was fine. In Syria, if you’re taken, you’re gone forever.”

Mr. Khodor is wanted by the Syrian authorities because he defected from the Syrian Army in 2012. He had two reasons, he said: his own horror at taking part in shelling the rebellious neighborhood of Baba Amr in the city of Homs and threats from rebels in his hometown.

Mr. Assad has promised amnesty to soldiers who defected. But Mr. Khodor said a cousin of his who believed the offer had been detained in Syria five months ago and had not been heard from since.

The only way he would go back, he said, is if there were international guarantees of his safety. Asked how that would work, he smiled and said: “I don’t know. That’s why I lost hope.”

This camp near the Syrian border is more pleasant than many, without the open sewers or trash heaps that blight many others. About 40 families rent patches of land from Mahmoud Hussein al-Tahan, who said the money was about the same as what he used to make growing eggplants and tomatoes.

Work is scarce, and most families are in debt to Mr. Tahan. A relief worker familiar with the camp said that only a small fraction of the children there were in school, and that parents said Mr. Tahan had made some of them work in his fields.

Mr. Khodor’s tent, which he shares with eight relatives, including his wife and three children, had a television, a stove and a concrete floor. Back home, his house has been destroyed.

“But I don’t care about the house,” he said, adding that if he trusted that his family would be secure, “we could live in a tent like this in Syria.”


At a settlement in Lebanon. Refugees said that without an end to torture, disappearances and arbitrary arrests, they would remain wary of going back to Syria.

Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

Instead, new refugees are still arriving.

Mustafa Selim, 19, fled Syria with his mother and siblings just last fall. Battles had erupted near their house, and one brother had been arrested and forcibly drafted as he was traveling to his university. They do not know if he is still alive.

“The regime is lying when they say it’s safe and secure,” he said. “To survive in Syria, you have to be a soldier. It’s impossible to live as a civilian. And if you go to the army, it’s kill or be killed.”

Some refugees are managing to build new lives. Naumi Qassim, 38, rents a truck and drives from camp to camp selling vegetables and yogurt to those who cannot reach markets. He makes enough money to rent a room within walking distance of a school.

Still, his son, at 9, cannot read, he said. He said he believed that overwhelmed Lebanese schools shunted the worst teachers to the evening shift of classes packed with Syrians.

Mr. Tahan, a gregarious man who sought to portray himself as the refugees’ benefactor, dismissed the idea that they are harming the country’s economy and straining social services. He said the government pushed that view to get more money from the United Nations.

Refugees, he said, benefit the Lebanese, from the generator operators providing them with electricity, to the owners of shops where they spend their United Nations food vouchers, to landowners who benefit from their cheap labor. It is an argument often heard from international organizations, which say the burden of hosting the refugees is largely offset by the economic stimulus they provide, not to mention $1.9 billion in international aid in 2016 alone, the United Nations says.

Mr. Tahan said he expected the Syrians to stay for years, based on his experience in Lebanon’s civil war.


A refugee at his temporary home in Anjar. Some refugees are digging in, pouring concrete floors, installing underground sewerage and electric wires and starting businesses.

Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

“We had hundreds of Geneva conferences before the war ended, and years later, things are still not good,” he said.

In the camp, the new Geneva round inspired little hope. The refugees said neither the government nor the opposition negotiators represented them.

Mr. Qassim, the vegetable seller, summed it up: “The opposition wants Assad to go. The regime wants to keep him. All their lives, they will never agree.”

Still, he hopes to return. “For us, it’s too late, but we want our children to have a future in Syria,” he said. “There is no future here.”

Mr. Khodor was more pessimistic. After so much killing, revenge will go on for generations, he said. “Syria is finished.”

At that, a neighbor who had just stopped in loudly objected. “Why? We want to go back!”

“This lady will take you back,” Mr. Khodor joked, pointing at me.

“But on the condition that no one will hurt me?” he asked.

Mr. Khodor laughed. “We need a miracle,” he said. “We need to make Syria vanish, and then make a new Syria.”

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