x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The simple lament of refugees: 'We want to go home'

Many of us move so often that we lose count of how many homes we lived in. But for some, home is always one place.

Sometimes it is the scent, sometimes the colour, sometimes the combination of the two, or simply the "feel" of your home that brings about that inner peace and warmth.

It may be just a room with a frameless bed in one corner, a simple lamp, a window without curtains, a stack of books on the floor, piles of clothes overwhelming a wardrobe, a tiny fridge next to a cooker that has seen better days - but still it is someone's home, someone's castle.

There truly is no place like home. Even if you spend time in a real castle, eventually you will miss the place you call your own.

Some friends of mine have spent months working diligently with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. They tell me that some of the families with whom they are in touch have decided to pack up and go back.

I was given a chance to talk to one of the families, in Lebanon, over my friend's mobile phone. I wanted to ask, even though I knew the answer, why anyone would go back to a country riddled with death and danger, knowing that they may never actually escape the thugs and bombs to reach their home.

"Even if there is nothing left, just a pile of rubble, it will be our rubble and our home," said the father of five. The family has been displaced for more than a year and a half.

"We will set up a tent there if need be, better than a tent in a foreign country away from everything we love. I love my Syrian soil, and I feel all dried up and dead," he said.

The family vowed to walk back if transport can't be found. Like other Syrians interviewed, they said this is not merely nostalgia or homesickness. It is a matter of "dignity."

Another family I talked to is living in Al Zaatari camp in Jordan, but will be heading back in time for Ramadan. These people called Al Zaatari a "mafia" camp: stronger groups take more than their share of donations and supplies and live in better tents and caravans. Others are crammed together, hungry and without clean water.

"It is lawless inside the camp. I am always worried about my wife and daughters. It is safer for me to be in my village," said the head of the family. He reported regular cases of robbery, abuse and violence.

His wife agreed. She has been ill for over a year, with little medical care. It is difficult to leave the camp, unless you have a contact outside who can help you find housing and work. In this family the husband is an engineer; the wife was a teacher back home. In the camp they can't find even the most menial work.

"There is someone who goes around collecting trash inside the camp and then begs to be paid for it. He had a bakery back home. Isn't it better for him to go home and collect trash there? At least there it is his home and his neighbourhood."

The family had tried to move into one of the camps run by the UAE, which are said to be preferable, but weren't given access.

The wife said: "I will get better when I am home. I know I will. We just want to go home."

I have heard the same sentiment from other refugees, such as Iraqis living in Lebanon and Syria, who eventually decided to pack up and go back to Iraq and start from zero.

Whatever their nationality and circumstances, everyone wants their own home and the right to live with dignity and honour.

Palestinian refugees, as we know, have been waiting for decades to go home.

Many still cling to this goal. In Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, I remember visiting a tiny apartment that featured posters of Palestine and old family photos.

As we sat and shared a single tea bag among five people - the first dip being into my cup as I was the guest - the family made it plain that it did not accept the place it has lived in since the 1960s as "home".

"Our heart is not here, and so this is not our home," said a 20-year-old, one of the younger family members.

In our time many of us move so often that we lose count. But for some, home is always one place, even if it has become just a pile of rubble.


On Twitter: @arabianmau