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No place like home: Syrians refugees flock at opportunity to return for Eid

Eid al-Adha festivals in Syria [Getty]

Date of publication: 3 September, 2017

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"The flood of Syrian families from Turkey to Syria is proof that everyone's dream is to return home"

Syrian refugee Mohamed Hajj Steifi hasn't been home for a year, but this week he made the trip across the Turkish border to celebrate Eid al-Adha.

He is one of over 40,000 Syrian refugees living in Turkey who have taken advantage of a rare chance to return to their war-torn homeland for the holiday.

"I haven't seen my family for more than a year," Steifi said, while he was sitting in his home garden in Binnish, a town in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. Sitting around him were his parents and brother as chatted with relatives whilst celebrating the holy festival.

From time to time, they would be interrupted by phone calls from the family's daughters, who live in the Gulf Arab states.

Almost three million Syrians have taken refuge in Turkey since the conflict in their country began in 2011 when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad violently cracked down on peaceful protests. The border crossings between Turkey and Syria are mostly closed except to aid convoys, meaning the chance to return for Eid is a rare opportunity.

Those taking advantage of the window had to register on a special website and will be forced to return to Turkey by October 15.

"I'm definitely going to stay where I have a livelihood, which is in Turkey," Steifi said. Despite being delighted to be home, he said he would soon return to the Turkish town of Reyhanli, where he works for an internet company.

"If the work situation improves and the state comes back, I would certainly prefer to return to my country."

The grinding violence of Syria's civil war, which has killed over 330,000 people, has dropped off in recent months after the tentative and partial implementation of local ceasefires.

But Steifi says the relative calm hasn't tempted him to move back home just yet.

There's nothing better than a person's country, it will always be better than any other country

"Calm is not enough," he said. "If institutions, universities and order are not restored, and life doesn't go back to normal, we'll be living in chaos."

The International Organization for Migration said last month that more than 600,000 displaced Syrians had returned to their homes this year.

Most of those were internally displaced, but 16 percent were refugees returning from exile in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

While some returnees said they were motivated by improved security and economic conditions, the IOM warned that many were struggling to access clean water and health services in a country ravaged by over six years of fighting.

Yaman al-Khatib, a 27-year-old journalist, moved with his wife and child to the Turkish province of Antakya last year after leaving a rebel-held part of Aleppo city before it was captured by regime forces.

There's nowhere safe for us to live after we left Aleppo

He travels into Syria illicitly for his job, but has no plans to move his family back there for the time being.

There's no place like home

"There's nowhere safe for us to live after we left Aleppo," he said. "Syria in general is a war zone, so Turkey is the safest place I've found for my family."

But safety has not stopped him from dreaming to return.

"The flood of Syrian families from Turkey to Syria is proof that everyone's dream is to return home," he said.

"But the lack of security, along with the lack of basic necessities like water and electricity, make it impossible."

19-year-old Rahaf was overjoyed to be visiting family in Binnish to celebrate Eid. But she too planned to return to Reyhanli at the end of the festival.

Wearing a black tunic and new jeans bought to mark Eid, she said she fled to Turkey five years ago along with her mother and sister, and plans to start university there.

She said the family fears returning to Syria before the conflict ends.

"I would definitely think about going back to Syria if security returned and the situation went back to how it was before the war," she said.

"There's nothing better than a person's country, it will always be better than any other country."

The Syrian conflict began when the Baath regime, in power since 1963 and led by Assad, responded with military force to peaceful protests demanding democratic reforms during the Arab Spring wave of uprisings, triggering an armed rebellion fuelled by mass defections from the Syrian army.

According to independent monitors, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in the war, mostly by the regime and its powerful allies, and millions have been displaced both inside and outside of Syria. 

The brutal tactics pursued mainly by the regime, which have included the use of chemical weapons, sieges, mass executions and torture against civilians have led to war crimes investigations.

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