On the Way Home: Displaced Lebanese Return from Syria

Nine-year-old Malak watched with interest as her mother and grandmother bid a tearful goodbye to friends. For the past several weeks, they had sheltered at the Ramleh school, about 200 kilometres from the Syrian capital Damascus. Malak’s family is among some 180,000 Lebanese who fled to Syria in the wake of the conflict. About 110,000 of them are reported to have already returned home since the ceasefire was announced earlier this week. Many of those who remain in Syria lack the resources to make their way back.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have activated a joint fund to help the return of thousands of such people. The Rapid Response Transportation Fund covers the cost of transporting the displaced people to safe, key locations in Beirut and other key cities. It also enables vulnerable returnees to pay for food and local transport to their final destinations in towns and villages across Lebanon.

Malak's father, uncle and grandfather did not leave Lebanon in spite of the bombardment of areas close to where they lived. In fact, the entire family had stayed put during the first few days of the bombing of Beirut. "But when a bridge was blown up close to where we lived, we had no choice but to flee," said Malak’s grandmother Zahra Zaroor. She, her two daughters and four grandchildren managed to reach the safety of Syria. "We were glad to get away from death and destruction. It was terrible!"

I met Zahra after she'd settled down into the comfort of an IOM-sponsored bus. I was accompanying a group of people to the Al Arida border on the shores of the Mediterranean. It's a crossing point that has been frequently used by IOM convoys bringing foreign migrant workers out of war-torn Lebanon over the past few weeks.

A relaxed atmosphere set in, after IOM officials spoke to the group, reassuring them that they would be transported to their chosen destinations. Leaflets warning the returnees of the dangers of unexploded ordnance and mines were distributed to every one. “This is a vital form of assistance to the returnees. We need to caution them about hazards like these as they are likely to find themselves in vulnerable situations when they return,” said Rana Jaber, IOM Emergency Movement Coordinator in Syria, as she noted with satisfaction that both children and adults were taking a close look at the leaflets.

An IOM doctor was also on board the bus, offering instant medical attention to those who needed it. “We often find on such occasions that  people complain of hypertension, headaches and diarrhoea,” Dr Al Hussein Moshaaoeh explained, as he checked Zahra’s blood pressure. 

While Zahra said she dreaded what they might be confronted with back in Lebanon, she was definitely eager to go back. Her daughter Aida sat next to her. She was trying to comfort her mentally-handicapped child, cradling her in her arms. “Of course we are happy to have assistance to go back,” Aida told me. “But we are very upset about what happened to many people who remained behind in Lebanon.”

For 62-year-old Zahra, fleeing from the latest fighting revoked painful memories. Her family had fled to Lebanon from Palestinian territory when she was a little girl way back in 1948. Since then, she had lived in a refugee camp for Palestinians near the capital Beirut.

There were more Lebanese Palestinians among the group. Ahmad Ibrahim Ahmad had traveled to Syria to visit relatives here. They stayed on when they heard of the bombing back home. “I heard that the homes of three of my sisters were destroyed. I don’t know what’s become of our house.” His wife and two children listened solemnly to what Ahmad was saying. Ahmad had built up a successful furniture business before the conflict. At 40 years of age, he’s a second-generation Palestinian living in Lebanon.

We bid the group farewell at the Syria-Lebanon border but an IOM escort was to stay with them till they were dropped off at prearranged locations in and around Beirut. “Although we can’t all accompany them into Lebanon, we remain in contact over phone with our escort until every one has been safely returned,” Munzer  Al Nemr, IOM Syria’s Operations Assistant, explained.

For Malak’s family, the return journey home was clearly more comfortable and easier than their flight out of Lebanon. The nine-year-old herself said she was looking forward to going back to school.

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