Syria crisis: Refugees dream of returning home

Fergal Keane looks at how people are trying to live in a Syrian refugee village in Lebanon

The wind funnelled through the valley, bringing with it a deadening cold that swept into the windowless huts.

The family was huddled together near the paraffin stove. In the corner a child was coughing.

"Snow is coming," said Ammar, the 14-year-old man of the house.

His father is in Syria and, as far as he knew, is still alive. "But I miss him so much. I cannot speak to him and that hurts me greatly," Ammar said.

Six months ago the boy crossed into Lebanon with his mother, three young sisters and a baby brother. They came by night to evade the snipers and landmines.

The family - who asked to remain anonymous - fled from Homs after their home was destroyed by government shelling.

'Unbreakable promise'

I met them in Arsal, a bleak Lebanese village on the border with Syria where they live crowded into a single room constructed from breeze blocks. It serves as kitchen, bathroom and sleeping quarters.

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Ammar's mother, Umm Ammar, told me that her husband had stayed in Syria to care for his elderly parents.

"He could not leave them on their own. Who would care for them if he left?" she said.

The family of Umm Ammar are among more than half a million refugees who have fled across Syria's borders since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime began almost 20 months ago.

In that time I have listened to the stories of the exiles in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Greece.

All have lost their homes and livelihoods and witnessed traumatic events. Yet all insist they will return to Syria. It sits in their imagination like an unbreakable promise.

"I believe it will be soon," Umm Ammar said, "and my children will see their father again."

But with the war grinding into its second winter, she knows to temper her hope.

Start Quote

My baby sister started crying. My father told my mother: 'You either kill her or we all die.'”

End Quote Thumaya Syrian refugee
'I miss flowers'

In Lebanon, most refugees live in rented rooms or cram into the breeze-block huts built by the local municipality.

The Lebanese state is determined not to allow large refugee camps. The country has been host to nearly 500,000 Palestinian refugees for decades and fears that the destabilising effect of Syria's conflict is being carried into Lebanon.

Across the valley we met a group of children - aged three to 12 - huddled around an open fire at another refugee shelter.

The older ones tended the fire, while the youngest gathered twigs, paper, scraps of cardboard to pile on the blaze.

Syrian refugees in Arsal, Lebanon Nearly all Syrian refugees insists they will eventually return home

A girl called Thumaya told me she had crossed the mountains with her parents and five siblings - including a four-month-old sister - several months ago.

Her father had been wounded in Homs, and they had no choice but to flee to get him medical treatment. Crossing the mountains, they had to hide from an army patrol.

"My baby sister started crying. My father told my mother: 'You either kill her or we all die.' My mother put her hand on the baby's mouth until she couldn't breathe. She was going to die until my uncle came and pulled my mother's hand away."

I asked a boy standing at the fire what he missed most about Syria. "I miss the flowers," he said.

I was taken aback, expecting him to have spoken about his friends or the possessions he had lost.

"Would you like to see the flowers?" he asked. When I nodded, he ran to one of the huts, returning a few minutes later with a collection of photographs.

"That is me," he said, pointing to a well dressed, smiling boy standing next to a bed of red roses in a Syrian garden.

There was another photograph of a birthday table laden with cakes. That was a memento of a long ago birthday. The boy's home and garden were destroyed by shelling.

'Guilty'

Late in the evening, I went back to see Umm Ammar.

She had invited me to share the evening meal and stay with her family.

I felt guilty eating their food but to refuse would have offended her deeply.

"It is our tradition to welcome the guest," she said. Exile and poverty would not change that.

Here in the mountains, the dark comes swiftly and the temperature drops further.

As I write, Umm Ammar and her five children are asleep on their mattresses nearby.

The wind is battering at the flimsy wooden door and it is raining heavily. In the hut next door a baby is crying.

A few miles away on the other side of the mountains men are killing and being killed. as families attempt to flee to safety.

Tonight, as on every night, the uprooted of the war are on the move.

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