Aleppo refugees in Lebanon mull their return

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

A crumpled shopfront in Aleppo's Sheikh Saeed district spills into the street. Despite the damage and a tenuous truce, many displaced residents long to return to their homes and businesses in the city. [Photo courtesy of Yamana Khatib]

A crumpled shopfront in Aleppo's Sheikh Saeed district spills into the street. Despite the damage and a tenuous truce, many displaced residents long to return to their homes and businesses in the city. [Photo courtesy of Yamana Khatib]

With a fragile ceasefire now in effect, some Syrian refugees in Lebanon are contemplating a return to their homes and lives in Aleppo, while others say it will be years before they are able to go back.

Khouloud Yassin, a Syrian refugee who lives in the Bekaa Valley camp of Kfar Zabad, said her family of five is seriously considering returning to Aleppo.

They are just waiting until reconstruction work begins in their destroyed neighbourhood and water and electricity are restored, she told Al-Mashareq.

"We have been living in a tent for the past four years, and since day one, we have been anticipating our return to our home in the eastern districts of Aleppo" where her husband worked in the agricultural sector, she said.

Ever since the family heard that a truce had been declared in Syria , and saw television footage of the gradual return of life to Aleppo, they have been considering heading back there.

"We discuss this matter daily and communicate with our relatives and neighbours there to learn about the current situation in our area near the Hanano housing complex and the condition of our house," Yassin said.

Her Aleppo neighbours, however, who moved to another area as the buildings in their district are at risk of collapse following the bombings, have warned that her family will need to secure temporary housing if they decide to return, she said.

"We are considering asking our relatives to secure a temporary residence for us so we can return at the earliest opportunity, especially as reconstruction has begun in Aleppo," she said.

"We are seeing that security has been restored," she said, adding that her family's years of displacement in Lebanon have felt like eons. "A truce is in effect, and we want to live in peace."

"It is true that some of the living necessities are not available at the present time in Aleppo, but at least we will be returning to our country and the city in which we have lived all our lives," she said.

East Aleppo comes back to life

In recent days since the truce, hundreds of Syrians have been making their way back to eastern Aleppo to start the slow work of rebuilding.

Men were seen throwing rubble into the courtyard of a historic inn as merchants gathered below to oversee the resurrection of their war-battered shops in the city's famed souks, AFP reported.

The shopkeepers have returned for the first time to clear the debris left behind by years of fighting.

"I was so happy to see my shop still standing amid the trash despite a little damage," says Antoun Baqqal, 66, one of the traders in the Khayr Beyk Khan.

On Thursday (January 26th), hundreds of men, women and children took a train through the city as services resumed for the first time in four years.

It was the train's first such trip since opposition fighters overran east Aleppo in the summer of 2012, effectively dividing the northern city into a regime-held west and an opposition-controlled east.

A driver in a leather jacket ferried the full carriages from Jibreen station on the city's eastern outskirts to Aleppo's main Baghdad railway station.

Because of Syria's conflict, services remain suspended between Aleppo and other main cities.

Najib Faris, head of the public railway company, announced there would be four trips a day between the Jibreen and Baghdad stations for up to 600 passengers for each trip.

'The time to return is near'

Jamal al-Jasser, a refugee from Bab al-Nasr in old Aleppo who now lives in Lebanon's western Bekaa Valley, told Al-Mashareq he is thinking about sending his wife and three children back to Aleppo when the situation becomes clearer.

He said he would continue to work in Lebanon to earn and send money to them.

"We are tired of being displaced and moving from house to house when the rents are raised on us, not to mention the difficult living conditions we face," he said.

"I am seriously considering the return of my family to Aleppo as a first step after I secure a house for them in an Aleppo neighbourhood, because our house is severely damaged, I have been told, and is inhabitable."

"My wife can manage the affairs of the family, as she is a native of Aleppo and is very familiar with it, and we have relatives who remained there and will provide her with support while I stay in Lebanon and work," al-Jasser said.

Some of his acquaintances are telling him to wait before acting on his decision, he said, "but the time to return is near, I think, especially as the reconstruction is about to start".

'The war is not over'

Not all Syrian refugees in Lebanon share the same optimism, however.

"Even the thought of a return is impossible in the foreseeable future," said Rouya Bayazid, a refugee from Aleppo who now lives in Mount Lebanon.

"My husband and I discussed the matter, and our decision was firm, no return in the foreseeable future," she told Al-Mashareq. "We were displaced four years ago to Dik el-Mehdi, where my husband works at a water plant."

In Syria, she said, her husband had owned his own barbershop.

"The building we lived in is in danger of collapse," she said, which is what has prevented them from going back.

Despite the current truce, the situation in Aleppo remains uncertain, she said.

"Today we ask, what after the truce? Will there be assurance of safe living? Would our daily living requirements be met?" Bayazid said. "The war is not over in Syria, nor in Aleppo."

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