Some 31,000 Syrians have returned to their war-torn country from abroad this year and many are struggling to survive in a country they call home.
BEIRUT — He never thought about seeking asylum in the U.S. or Europe. For Taym Abed al-Rahman, even the Turkish city of Kilis — the closest to the Syrian border — was too far from home.
Eyeing his hometown of Tel Rifat, in Aleppo's northern countryside, the 23-year-old activist returned to Syria only three months ago, leaving behind a life as a refugee in a Turkish camp near the Syrian border.
Abed al-Rahman is one of 31,000 Syrians who have returned to the war-ravaged country from abroad this year, to seek out family members or check on property. Hundreds more crossed into rebel-held areas of Syria from Turkey on foot, ahead of the Eid holiday in June. Ankara has given the refugees the right to return within 30 days, but many have chosen to remain in Syria despite the ongoing war.
Syria Deeply spoke to three Syrian repatriates living in rebel-held parts of Syria and found them desperate for money and resources, some making as little as $50 a month. They say they would not advise their families to return, but add that they don't regret coming back and resisting the Syrian government.
Longing for home
Abed al-Rahman fled Tel Rifat in August 2012, after the government launched a fierce airstrike and bombed rebel positions in the town. He settled in a refugee camp in Kilis, which has been hailed as one of the most organized and orderly settlements in the region.
There, he had access to around-the-clock electricity and water services. He boasts about never having to live in a tent — instead living inside a small three-room trailer along with 15 other people. He was given a debit card when he registered, and every month, he got roughly $50 for food and sundries. "Life was very good in comparison to other refugee camps," he says. "We were provided with all basic amenities."
Weary of tough working conditions in Turkey, however, Rahman says he started longing for home, especially after a Turkish tailor he had worked with for three months refused to pay him. "After that, I promised myself never to work in Turkey again and I decided to go back to Syria," he says. "At least there, I would be working for my own people."
He has been living in the northwestern town of Azaz for the past three months, providing aid and services to towns and villages in Aleppo province that have recently been liberated from the so-called Islamic State. Though he says he does not regret coming back, he concedes that repatriation is not what it is made out to be.
He says that he is terrified by the string of bombings that have targeted his town in recent months. Just last week, a car bombing shook his neighborhood and killed at least four people. "I was so close to the explosion. It was God that saved me," he says.
He is concerned that Kurdish forces based in nearby areas will launch an attack on Turkish-backed rebels in his town, following a series of clashes that have broken out between the two groups in a nearby village earlier this week.
He also notes that unemployment in the overpopulated town has skyrocketed, following the influx of displaced Syrians who have fled the nearby cities of Manbij and Aleppo. He adds that work is hard to come by and the cost of living in Azaz has become even more expensive than in Turkey. He has to pay more than $15 a week for water and more than $50 per month for electricity. "There is no way my family can come back to Syria," he says. "I have no way of supporting them."
Returning to a revolution
Abou al-Izz al-Dimashqi almost did not return to Syria. This 20-year-old media activist from Aleppo who had fled to Turkey with his family in January, says that it seemed like everything in his life was trying to prevent him from returning home.
His 8-month-old niece, whom he had helped raise after his brother was killed by a barrel bomb in Aleppo last December, had just started calling him baba ("dad"). His 60-year-old mother, gripped by grief over the loss of her eldest son, was in a chronic state of depression.
"How could I tell her I wanted to go back to Syria, back to my revolution?" he asks rhetorically. "How could I accept being the reason behind her sadness?"
I know I'm going to die here someday.
But news from home compelled him to leave Turkey: The Syrian government was pounding rebel positions in Hama's northern countryside and the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. It was also accused of carrying out a chemical weapons attack on Idlib — the only province in Syria under full opposition control. "When I heard about that, I knew I had to go back," al-Dimashqi says.
Overtaken by a sense of duty, he crossed into Syria from Turkey on foot last month. He could not return to his hometown of Aleppo, now under government control, so he settled instead in Kafr Karmin — a rebel-held village in Aleppo's western countryside.
Lately, he's been living in a 4-meter-wide (13-ft) tent with six other activists. He spends most of his time volunteering with local NGOs and organizations, which distribute aid to nearby refugee settlements. He does not have a salary but says he lives off of donations and aid he receives from the organizations he works with. On average, al-Dimashqi makes around $50 a month.
He also avoids talking to his mother more than once a week. "I know I'm going to die here someday, so I want her to get used to the distance," he says.
Though he says he is happy to be able to give back to his country, al-Dimashqi describes a precarious life marked by grave threats. He says he has not left his tent in four days, as recent rebel infighting in nearby Idlib has made the situation untenable. He speaks of kidnappings, killings and arrests. He is scared to go out and buy food. "This security situation doesn't allow for my family to come back," he says. "What would I do if my father is kidnapped on the streets, or worse?"
Matter of principle
At first, it would seem like Nizar al-Omar had won the golden ticket. In July 2016, the 25-year-old activist from Aleppo had obtained a German residency permit and was in the process of securing a scholarship — allowing him to pursue a master's degree in Arabic literature at the University of Berlin. Life in Germany, he says, was very good: The people were kind and helpful, his living conditions were stable and he was being given the chance to pursue his education. But then, the government's siege of Aleppo started.
His return to Syria, he says, was a matter of principle. He could not sit idly in the security of his home in Europe while the residents of Aleppo were being "massacred" by the Syrian government. As a result, he returned to the outskirts of Aleppo at the height of the government siege in October of last year. He fought with Syrian rebel groups outside the city until January, when he was bused to Idlib province along with other fighters.
These days, al-Omar is struggling to find work. He says the situation in Idlib is especially severe, since the province has become the only refuge for more than 900,000 Syrians displaced from other parts of the country.
When asked whether he ever regretted coming back, he answers with a resounding: No. "I don't think that way," he says. "Maybe at some point, when the war is over, I'll return to Germany — but for now I am needed here and this is where I'm going to stay."