I stopped by your house today, but you weren’t home. No one was home. Your parents weren’t there to join us for tea, and there was no sign of your brothers or sisters. Your neighbors were away too.
I would have knocked, but your front door is missing. Not just the door, but also the hinges and the frame that once secured it to the wall. The floors were strewn with rubble.
I hate to say it, but the place was a wreck.
You realize, of course, that I’m not talking about your family’s new home in central Canada, eight time zones away. I mean the two-story house where you grew up in Syria, the one you were forced to flee six and a half years ago, when you became a refugee.
I’m here in Homs, your hometown. I remember you telling me about this place when I first met you in Lebanon, camped out with a thousand other Syrians in some farmer’s field. The war was raging here, and you spoke of how, before you fled, your mother would beg you not to go to school. She was afraid you might get shot, or get your throat slit just like your uncle, your aunt, your cousin. You told me about the friends you missed, the rap music you used to make together, the poems you used to write. You were desperate to continue your education, and my colleagues and I felt your story needed to be told.
Now I’m here to interview people who are slowly returning from other parts of the country after struggling for years to stay out of harm’s way. Mostly they are coming home to ruins. The epic scale of the destruction reminds me of West Mosul, where I encountered a similar mood last summer: people weary of war, scarred by all they have endured, and eager to start anew.
One family I met today spoke of their struggle to find work and shelter the past few years. Returning to their apartment in the Al-Qusour district several months ago, they were crushed to see that everything they left behind had been looted, burnt or blown up. Debris filled the place from floor to ceiling.
Slowly they are putting the pieces back together. With help from my colleagues, Jihad and his sons have installed windows and doors to keep the family warmer and safer. A blacksmith and handyman by vocation, he’s itching to do more. “I’ll fix every one of these houses for you,” he said, gesturing with his calloused hands at the crumbling facades up and down his street. “Just give me the tools.”
Afterwards, he and his boys took me up to the roof to see their pigeons. Abdelmalek, who’s 12, unlocked the cages and soon their flock of 40 was circling overhead, sweeping over the broken cityscape with enviable ease.
After watching the birds return to their roost, I got a ride to your neighborhood and walked down your street. There wasn’t one parked car. It looks as if everyone has packed up and gone on holiday at the same time. But I know this has been no vacation for any of you.
After eight years of conflict, half your nation has left home. You have been displaced, often multiple times. Today, 5.6 million Syrians are still living as refugees in neighboring countries. Millions more remain displaced inside Syria. It’s a relatively small number who, like you, have gotten a second chance in another part of the world.
On your street, there were no stray cats or dogs. Not even any birds. The only sound was the distant whirr of a saw cutting through metal. Your neighborhood, Hani, is a ghost town.