5 years into civil war, Syrians dare to hope for rebuilding

Nearly five million Syrians have fled the five-year civil war, seeking shelter in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. But the vast majority remain close to their country, praying that the violence will cease.

The vast majority of citizens remain close to their country, praying the violence will cease

Conrad Sauve, president and CEO of the Canadian Red Cross, visits patients of a clinic supported by the Canadian Red Cross in Syria. (Canadian Red Cross)

First it was protests, just down the road from the family house. Bullets followed, as the Syrian government started shooting at the demonstrators. Clashes broke out next. And then came the bombs falling from the skies.

Protests against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began on March 15, 2011, after the Arab Spring roiled Tunisia, Egypt and Libya 2:52

This is how Mohammed al Mahamid spent his 80th year — living in the Syrian city where the civil war began, worried about his children and grandchildren and his wife Amneh al Mahdi.

"The security forces started to arrest the young people," Mahamid recalled. "They even took the old men to be tortured."

Mahamid and his wife decided to flee Daraa not long after the first demonstrations began. They packed some clothes and their passports, convinced the unrest would be over in a few days.

Instead, the violence intensified and spread, leaving the elderly couple stranded in Ramtha, Jordan, where they have now lived in a tiny two-room apartment for more than four and a half years.
Ahmad al Mahdi and his family, who fled Daraa province in Syria in 2013, at their home in Ramtha, Jordan. (Ellen Krosney/CBC)

The protests against the regime of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad began on March 15, 2011, after the Arab Spring roiled through Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Demonstrators gathered in Daraa, Homs, and other Syrian cities and chanted and raised their fists, demanding freedom. They were met with bullets and then bombs.

More than 300,000 people have been killed in Syria's war. Eleven million people, half of the country's population, have been forced from their homes.

Nearly five million of those have fled Syria, seeking shelter in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. Scores have decided to risk the treacherous seas of the Mediterranean to seek a better life outside Syria.

But the vast majority of Syrians have not.

They remain close to their country, praying that the violence will cease.
Conrad Sauve visits a Syrian clinic run by the Syrian Red Crescent Society, where the Canadian Red Cross donated four incubators. (Canadian Red Cross)

"I still hope that this will end, and that all of us — all Syrians — can return to our homes and start rebuilding," said Ahmad al Mahdi, a farmer who fled Daraa province nearly three years ago when the family's home was destroyed in a missile strike.

Mahdi's brother's family is among the 25,000 Syrians who have moved to Canada under the Trudeau government's resettlement program.

Instead of seeking a new home in Montreal or Moose Jaw, Mahdi wants Western countries such as Canada to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

"We ask all the nations of the world to help us end this war. We pray to God for this," Mahdi said, from the small apartment where his family lives in Ramtha.

A temporary and fragile truce is holding in Syria, now in its third week. There has been a marked decrease in fighting.

Only God knows when we will we go back. Our children are still in Syria. They are starving there. They tell us not to come home.—  Amneh al Mahdi

Russia's announcement that it will begin to scale down its military effort in Syria adds to a sense that for the first time in five years, international efforts to end the killing and fighting may actually pay off.

Still, ISIS and other Islamic militant groups operating in Syria make it clear that the country's long, bloody and costly conflict cannot be ended overnight.

Ahmad al Mahdi wonders where his family will live, where his grandchildren will go to school, if and when he can return to the once green fields where he grew wheat.

Then there are the millions of Syrians too poor or too scared to flee their country, stuck in towns and cities where electricity is scarce, hospitals have been bombed and food and water are delivered only when United Nations trucks can make it through a maze of checkpoints and bombed-out roads.

"Even if tomorrow morning, if everything stopped, the conflict stopped, the challenges after that are just huge," said Conrad Sauve, the president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Red Cross.

Sauve visited Syria last week, taking advantage of the temporary truce to see first-hand how the medical clinics the Red Cross pays for are healing Syrian children in a country where doctors and nurses are increasingly scarce.
Conrad Sauve, president of the Canadian Red Cross, plays soccer with Syrian children in Homs, one of the worst-hit cities in Syria's civil war. (Canadian Red Cross)

"These are terrible conditions, but what we're supporting enables people to have hope and to cope," Sauve told CBC News from Beirut, Lebanon after leaving Syria.

Still, Syria's children face a difficult future.

Education experts warn of a lost generation of Syrian youth — boys and girls who have lost one or both of their parents; young people who have been maimed by war; large numbers of children for whom school is a distant dream.

The aid organization World Vision says two million school-age children did not attend classes in 2015, due to the war.

UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children, estimates that 8.4 million Syrian children living in Syria or with families that have fled the country have been negatively affected by the conflict and are in need of food or education.

"Today is not an anniversary. It is not a special occasion to mark. Today is a tragedy," said David Morley, president of UNICEF Canada.

When you speak to Syrian refugees, most talk with great passion about the homes and relatives and friends they left behind.

But long pauses and even tears are the common response when asked about when they might return.

"Only God knows when we will we go back," said Amneh al Mahdi, who lives with her husband Mohammed in Ramtha. "Our children are still in Syria. They are starving there. They tell us not to come home."
Mohammed al Mahamid and his wife Amneh al Mahdi, who fled Syria in 2011, live in an apartment in Ramtha, Jordan. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

CBC News Middle East correspondent

Derek Stoffel is the Middle East correspondent for CBC News. He has covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war and covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.


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