'I Hope To God We Will Be Safe': Refugees In Lebanon Start Returning To Syria The Lebanese government is encouraging departures, but the U.N. objects. "We are at the service of the refugees," says a Lebanese security official, "but we have reached the limit of our capability."
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'I Hope To God We Will Be Safe': Refugees In Lebanon Start Returning To Syria

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'I Hope To God We Will Be Safe': Refugees In Lebanon Start Returning To Syria

'I Hope To God We Will Be Safe': Refugees In Lebanon Start Returning To Syria

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There are millions of Syrian refugees who have fled their war-torn country. But last week, a few hundred returned with a nudge from the government of Lebanon. Many boarding the buses were elderly people who hope they can safely test if other relatives should follow as the war continues. NPR's Ruth Sherlock met them as they prepared to cross the border.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: "We're going back to Syria, to all of Syria," the old woman yells. Her skirt billows as her husband revs the engine of their tractor, and they head for the border.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: She's one of a few hundred Syrian refugees who, last week, crossed from Lebanon to their home country under a Lebanese government program that it says is designed to help those who want to return.

(CROSSTALK)

SHERLOCK: The refugees gather at dawn on a dusty patch of ground on the Lebanon side of the border and wait amid the crush of cars and trucks piled with their possessions until the Lebanese army lets them cross into Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Children play on top of mattresses that are strapped on the backs of the pickups. Beside one truck, grandmother Fatima Refai, who's about to depart, says goodbye to the two generations she is leaving behind.

FATIMA REFAI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "Separation is the hardest thing," she says. With her nine sons and daughters staying behind in Lebanon, she and her husband are an advance party. They're going back to a country still at war to see if their home in a mountain town near Damascus is safe enough for the rest of the family to follow.

REFAI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Refai says she wants to go home but doesn't know if her house is even still standing. We hear stories like this from many of those who wait to cross. Grandmothers and grandfathers are going into Syria because they're less likely to be on the Syrian government's long list of wanted people.

ABDULKADER: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Refai's adult son Abdulkader says he can't go back because he's accused of opposing the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

ABDULKADER: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He says it's so hard to see his mother go and turns away from us as he starts to cry.

So sorry.

These returns - just a few hundred people - a part of Lebanon's efforts to encourage Syrians to go home. Lebanon's security chief, Abbas Ibrahim, says they run the refugees' names by the Syrian government for assurances that they won't face arrest when they return.

ABBAS IBRAHIM: I'm here to facilitate their return. We don't want anyone to go back to Syria and be arrested because the others will not be encouraged to go on later on. So we wanted everyone to go back home, not to the prison.

SHERLOCK: Lebanon is desperate to reduce the number of Syrian refugees it's hosting, now more than 1 million people. And Lebanese authorities say the U.N.'s refugee agency, the UNHCR, should do more to encourage refugees to return. But UNHCR spokesperson Rula Amin says they can't do that until it's safe to go back.

RULA AMIN: Because of the complex situation on the ground, both politically and from a security perspective, we are not encouraging - nor are we organizing - the return of Syrian refugees from the countries of asylum around Syria, including Lebanon.

SHERLOCK: So these small returns don't mean that it's secure for all the millions of refugees to go home to a country that's still at war and under a repressive regime.

(CROSSTALK)

SHERLOCK: Even in the few refugee camps where Lebanon is trying this program, only a minority of the refugees have so far chosen to go back. Many think it's just too soon.

(CROSSTALK)

SHERLOCK: In one camp, we walk into the home of refugee Youmna, who's too afraid to give her last name. The tent has plastic sides that are hidden by a heavy, blue, velvet blanket. I ask her young daughter what she remembers about Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Is that a no?

Her youngest child knows only the stories her mother tells her of their cherry orchard back home.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Her 13-year-old son remembers only moments.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Through interpreter) I used to go to school by taxi and by cabs. And we used to also go to swimming pools and have fun.

SHERLOCK: Here, life is hard. But even so, says Youmna, she won't go back to Syria yet.

YOUMNA: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Why not?

YOUMNA: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: She points to the son who's with us and says she's got other boys who are afraid to return.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER, BYLINE: He has all brothers that are at the age of that they should go to the military. This is why they are scared.

SHERLOCK: She says they could be sent to the front line in Syria's still-active war. Like so many of Lebanon's Syrian refugees, she chooses to stay and wait here and hope for the war in her country to end. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, on the Lebanon-Syria border.

[EDITOR'S NOTE ON JUL. 3:In an earlier audio version of this report, the wrong clip of a woman speaking Arabic was heard. The correct Arabic clip has been inserted.]

(SOUNDBITE OF RENAUD GARCIA-FONS'S "SILK MOON")

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