It had been four years since I last visited Homs.
I arrived with mixed feelings about being in my hometown; the familiarity of the place was overcome by the new faces and features of the city. The small grocery store at the corner near my grandparents’ house had closed down. Checkpoints were erected at every turn. Faces were lined with a combination of worry and hope that I never thought possible.
As our car pulled up to the hotel, I could not help but think of my house, less than 50 meters away, where a family displaced from the besieged neighborhood of Al-Waar now lives. I thought about my piano, my small swing on the balcony, my books. Every mundane detail that had once made up our life in Homs now seemed so important in that small hotel room.
I spent the following day excitedly preparing to visit the old city of Homs, but nothing can really prepare you. Destroyed buildings stand as witnesses to the 2012 siege. More than 1000 civilians – mostly women and children – were trapped alongside armed groups for almost two years, with little or no access to education, healthcare, food, water or electricity.
I remembered what my father had told me about the day people were allowed back to their homes in early 2014. Hundreds of families flocked into old Homs to check on their houses and shops that day; many found nothing but rubble burying few framed photos and personal belongings. I thought about that little girl who was able to find her favorite teddy bear in the remains of her room, but now its left eye was a bullet. An old man who retrieved a framed black and white photo from his wedding day held it close to his chest .
It was a cold morning as I walked through the streets and alleys of the old city. The color gray seemed to be taking over except for few colorful graffiti, bringing the destruction to life. My favorite was done over a school’s wall: the artist had turned every bullet hole into a bright yellow sun. So much resilience; where else in the world would a bullet create a sun?
I built up the courage to pass by the deserted building that was once my school. Through a hole in the wall, I could see the yard and the little kiosk from where I used to buy my morning Man’ousheh and strawberry juice box. A burnt orange school bus stood as reminder of the dreams it once held.
I walked a few more meters to my father’s empty restaurant, an ancient house-turned- eatery which he was so passionate about. The guard told me that despite the fact that there wasn’t even a roof, people often bring their own food and sit amidst the rubble.
Everyone I saw that day was busy. Two men playing backgammon in front of a destroyed shop. A young man on his bicycle, carrying loaves of bread. A man fixing the door of his newly refurbished barber shop while greeting another, lifting the shutter of his small grocery story. A young couple with a “Just Married” sign hanging on their front door. A group of boys and girls holding hands and running out of school. They all represented life returning to the area, and what they all had in common were friendly faces smiling at me, without even knowing me. This is what I missed most about Homs.
Hanna, a 75 year old man and his lifetime neighbor Ibrahim, gathered the few pieces of furniture left in their homes and created what they called “The gathering of love” on a sidewalk near their building. Here, Hanna shared his story.
“I came back to Al-Hamidiya a year ago and found my shop and house completely looted and destroyed. I’ve fixed the house since and moved back with my wife of 50 years. It’s not easy moving back to a place which does not resemble itself, but I want my grandchildren to know the meaning of being spoiled at their grandparents’ house.”
Like Hanna and his wife, it is estimated that around 1500 families have moved back into the formerly besieged area. As more continue to return, the need for services becomes more pressing.
One compelling need is education; many of the children who have returned have missed at least two years of schooling due to displacement. This was the case of Shahd, the 10 year old I met at a UNICEF-supported center for classes and psychosocial support in the old city. Having missed two years of education, Shahd is now in 3rd grade.
Every day after school, Shahd and her brother Oudai, who missed 3 years of schooling, go to the center to catch up on their learning. They also participate in gender and age-sensitive sports and recreational activities designed to help children better cope with their reality.
“When I came back to school I felt how much I had missed it. I will never complain again about homework or teachers,” Shahd told me. I was so moved when she asked me what I did at UNICEF because that’s what she wants to do when she grows up. “I want to write about children and share their stories!”
It was at the same centre that I met 11 year old Maizar and his four siblings. The family moved last year from the besieged neighbourhood of Al-Waar to the old city where the children caught up on their education after a two-year suspension. While the four siblings attended school, classes and activities at the centre, Maizar used to stand on the corner and sell biscuits and chocolates to passers-by. Three months ago, with the help of UNICEF partners, Maizar was registered in school and at the centre. He hasn’t missed a day since.
“I hated standing outside and watching other children going into the centre to play and learn, while I had to work,”he said.
Not far from the children’s centre is one for adolescents. Providing life-skills and vocational training, the newly established UNICEF-supported centre welcomes more than 400 youth . I loved hearing about youth-led initiatives, such as cleaning Homs’ streets and covering walls with the hopeful graffiti I had seen earlier.
I left the Old City of Homs with a sense of responsibility towards the people who moved back. As the world shifts its attention to the thousands of families fleeing the country, I feel obligated to write about the few who have returned. The words of Ghadeer, a 29 year old volunteer with a UNICEF partner who has moved back into old Homs with her family after years of displacement, will always stay with me.
“We are lucky to be alive and it’s our duty to bring life back into our city.”
Yasmine Saker is a Communication and Reporting Consultant working with UNICEF Syria.