Syrians who fled the city of Homs five years ago are slowly returning to rebuild their homes and lives.
Much of Syria’s third largest city has been destroyed, but Maha says she is just “so happy” to be back. With her husband and her sister, she recently returned to live in their apartment again.
After the government regained control of the city in March, Maha and her family were among the first to return to their neighbourhood to see what was left standing. Their home “was 70 per cent damaged, but not as bad as many of the other buildings”, Maha says.
Most of the damage was caused by a gas barrel that exploded during heavy fighting close to their home during the early stages of a civil war that has been raging since 2011. As they fled, Maha was shot in her leg by a sniper and her family carried her to the hospital that was nearest.
“Many surgeries followed,” she recalls. “My bone was totally fractured and they needed to insert metal to fix… Only after two years has the bone started growing together again. The doctors had to implant bone from my hips.” The iron pins are clearly visible when she walks, wearing a skirt.
Antoon Mansoor, 77, says it was a miracle that he and his wife Basima Abo Jamd, 63, weren’t injured when their house was destroyed by a mortar shell five years ago.
“I was standing right here,” he recalls, pointing at the spot where he stood when the explosive struck. “There was shrapnel flying all around, but I wasn’t hit.”
The couple fled to the countryside, outside of Homs, where they – without sufficient income – struggled to find accommodation to rent. They finally decided to call on their priest for help, at St George’s Church, across the street from their destroyed home.
“People of this age feel most comfortable at their own place,” the priest says. “First I was afraid we couldn’t [fix] their house. It was so damaged. But when I talked with Open Doors [an international charity], they agreed to help. I am so happy that we could finish the house before the winter comes. This house has been family property for over a hundred years.”
Five years after they were forced to leave everything behind, Antoon and Basimo are back in their home. The doors and windows are new and there is a smell of fresh paint in the rooms.
“I didn’t expect that we would be able to come back here. But two weeks ago we could, after about five years of being away. I am so happy!” Basimo says.
Antoon adds: “You know, I was depressed when I lived in the rented house far away from this place. Now I feel much better, much stronger. I can breathe again, I am happy.”
After six years of war an estimated 6.3 million people are internally displaced across Syria, while a further 5 million are refugees in neighbouring countries.
Syria produced the most asylum-seekers in 2016, ahead of Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a report on broader migration trends from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
According to a June report by three Christians charities, for many of Syria and Iraq’s Christians the emergence of IS in 2014 was only the “tipping point” for their displacement. As a result, the report concluded that for them to return home it would require more than just safety from IS, the army or other militant groups. The charities say an “accountability mechanism” is needed to deal with years of religious and ethnic persecution and discrimination.
One of the charities, Open Doors, has launched a petition, titled One Million Voices, calling on the UN Secretary General to ensure that as people start to return to their countries and homes, the rights of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East will be protected.
In August, World Watch Monitor reported the differences in outlooks between the Syrian and Iraqi Christians forced to flee their homes in recent years. According to human rights lawyer Ewelina Ochab, many Iraqi Christians feel they have no future in the region anymore, while Syrian Christians believe they still have a future at home under President Bashar Al-Assad.
(c) 2017 HRWF