Syrian refugees in eastern Lebanon want to return despite fears
ARSAL, Lebanon: Sitting in a tent inside a refugee camp in Lebanon’s eastern town of Arsal, Atef Abdel Kader has spent some time thinking about whether he should stay jobless in Lebanon or go back to Syria, where he faces compulsory military service.
In the end, Abdel Kader, 24, feels he has no choice.
“Syria is my country. I have thought about it — I’d better go back, finish my military service and then decide what I want to do for the future,” he said.
“Staying in Lebanon as a refugee will not help my future,” he said.
Abdel Kader fled the village of Jarajeer, 30 km from Arsal, during clashes between rebels and government forces four years ago.
Since then, he has been living in one of the informal camps scattered across Arsal, a north-eastern Lebanese town bordering Syria. His dilemma is common among Syrians who have fled their country since the 2011 uprising, the start of a bloody civil war that continues to rage today.
All Syrian men aged 18 and older have to serve two years in the army. According to the opposition, reserves have been called to the frontlines since the uprising, resulting in the death of many younger, inexperienced fighters.
The Lebanese government has been calling on Syrian refugees on its territory to go back, especially now that fighting has abated in many areas after Syrian troops made extensive gains against the rebels.
Lebanon, a country with a population of around 4 million, is home to more than one million Syrian refugees, including 37,000 registered with the United Nations in Arsal.
In recent weeks, around 1,000 refugees in Arsal have headed back to towns in the Qalamoun area, which borders Lebanon.
Arsal Mayor Bassil al Hujeiri has said a further 3,000 refugees have registered with the municipality to go back, and that their return is being closely coordinated with Lebanese security and Syrian authorities.
Abdel Kader is currently in Arsal with his father Shamer and his two younger brothers.
“My mother went back alone to check on our house and see how things could work if we all go back,” Abdel Kader said.
Many of the refugees who plan to leave Arsal know that they will have to start from scratch.
“We will start from below zero,” said Asaad Houriyeh, 51.
“We cannot stay all our lives away from our country. I am happy I will go back in the coming days to my home to rebuild what has been damaged and plant the agricultural fields which we own,” added Houriyeh, who is from the Qalamoun town of Fleita.
Yet not everyone at the camps across Arsal agrees with Houriyeh.
Abdel Mouti Hourani, whose two sons went missing in Syria in 2012, does not want to return to government-controlled areas without international protection.