Syria’s Refugees Begin Their Journey Home
Thanks to a newly opened border crossing with Jordan, migrants are heading back to their country. But their ordeal is far from over.
“Eighty-five meters,” the man in uniform said, pointing north along a small paved road leading away from us. “Syria is 85 meters that way.”
For almost anyone, the thought of walking less than the length of a football field and slipping into the epicenter of one of the world’s most tragic humanitarian crises would seem completely unimaginable. But for the few dozen Syrian families I met at Jordan’s Jaber Border Center on a sunny morning a few weeks ago, it was the chance they’ve been waiting for.
The families had made their way here from Jordan’s capital city, Amman, and from the Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps, where they’ve lived since the conflict in Syria sent them running for their lives. They are the lucky ones—survivors of a war that has killed over half a million people and, as of March 15, has raged for eight terrible years.
During those eight years, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), working with the U.S. and Jordanian governments, has helped keep hope alive for victims of this immeasurable tragedy. By providing shelter, medical care, food, cash assistance, and more, the U.N. and Amman have kept the Syrian refugees safe until the day they would be able to return home.
To an outsider, making the decision to return to Syria seems like an immensely difficult—maybe even impossible—choice. It’s a choice, however, that’s being left to the Syrians themselves, and some of them are ready to take their chances.
Just a few months ago, they wouldn’t have had the option, but in late 2018 Jordan announced that it was reopening a single border crossing with its war-torn neighbor to the north. After being shuttered since 2015, the reopening has allowed goods and people to once again flow between the two countries and, with them, the return of a small sense of normalcy to the once hectic port of entry.
Since the reopening, approximately 15,000 people, just a sliver of the 660,000 Syrian refugees registered by UNHCR in Jordan, have decided to take advantage of this overture and see what sort of life awaits them on the other side.
When I visited Jaber last month with the first U.S. delegation to tour the center since the border was reopened, I found a cautious optimism among the 100 or so people who had arrived to walk the final few steps left between them and a conflict that has forced roughly 5 million of their fellow countrymen to seek safety in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and beyond.
Inside the border center, a fleet of men politely lined up in front of a desk reserved just for them, clutching the UNHCR refugee paperwork that had come to define their lives. Outside, their families awaited their return in a trio of white buses.
The buses’ windows were filled with the faces of happy, smiling children, some speaking in small bits of English and others communicating via a translator. One boy, with red hair and a stripe of freckles across his cheeks, told me his name was Hamzeh and that he was 7 years old. Hamzeh fled Syria with his parents when he was just a toddler, maybe even younger.
As we chatted, Hamzeh’s seatmates left the bus and started exploring the open crossing. A young girl with long brown hair made her way down the steps, sporting a loose-fitting down jacket and lavender snow boots despite the bright, warm weather. “Hello, America!” she chirped as she walked around energetically, extending her hand to members of the delegation. “Hello, America!”
Behind us idled a small sedan loaded with what looked to be a full living room set. Furniture and blankets were stacked high enough to nearly double the car’s height.
Soon, the men came out from the border center and the U.S. delegation spoke with two of them. They expressed hope that life would finally go back to normal and repeatedly thanked the U.N. and Jordan for taking them in. As the soft-spoken men paused, reflecting on how close they were to completing a journey years in the making, an official offered them some extra words of confidence in Arabic.
With that, they all stepped back on the buses and the engines began to whir. A minute or two later, a UNHCR officer next to me looked at his phone. “Well… they’re in Syria,” he said, showing me the screen. “They just sent me this.”
It was a picture of the Syrian side of the border, a grainy shot of a government banner framing two small checkpoints. The image stuck with me even after he withdrew his phone. It was so close—just in front of us—but seemed a world away.
The life that awaits these former refugees and the returnees who will follow after them is far from certain. While the Syrian government is openly calling for its citizens to return, the roots of the conflict are far from resolved. And although the Islamic State has been defeated, it has certainly not been destroyed. For these reasons and more, the vast majority of Syrians who fled south will most likely remain in Jordan for the foreseeable future, unsure if the government’s proposals will lead to any meaningful reform and with very serious concerns about what, if any, economic opportunities are left for them in a country that’s been utterly shaken to its core.
For the first time in a long time, however, Hamzeh and his family marked the solemn anniversary of the start of the Syrian Civil War in their own country, a place to which they had never stopped wanting to return. It’s not an occasion that they will likely celebrate, but still, there is something to rejoice in. Right now, they are home. And it is possible that their eight-year nightmare is finally over.
Micah Spangler is the director of advocacy and humanitarian affairs at the United Nations Foundation.