UNHCR helps displaced Syrians rebuild their ruined homes

Shelter rehabilitation scheme has helped some 11,000 people to refurbish homes destroyed by war, with plan to more than double support this year

HOMS, Syria – When 80-year-old Mahmoud first returned to his home in the old city of Homs after years of displacement, he found a scene of total destruction. The entire neighbourhood lay in ruins and his house had been gutted by fire.

“It took me years to buy this house, and it was all destroyed in a matter of seconds,” he told officials from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. As one of the first families to return to their neighbourhood, they found themselves living alone in the shell of their former home with no doors, windows or furniture.

More than 11 million Syrians have been driven from their homes during almost six years of brutal conflict. Some 4.8 million have sought exile in neighbouring countries, while a further 6.3 million are displaced within the country.

Once home to around half a million people, Homs and surrounding areas have witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of the Syrian conflict. The battle for the ancient heart of the city raged for two years causing destruction on a massive scale, before pro-government forces retook the area from rebels in May 2014.

“It took me years to buy this house, and it was all destroyed in a matter of seconds,”

Despite the devastation, Mahmoud and his family of eight returned to Homs last year, and were determined to stay put following four difficult years of displacement in the town of Yabroud, some 80 kilometres north of the Syrian capital Damascus.

“I missed my house, my neighbourhood, my place,” he said, explaining the decision to return once the city was declared safe. But life amid the rubble was difficult for the large family, until they found help to rebuild their home from non-governmental organization (NGO) Child Care Society, backed by funding from UNHCR.

Under UNHCR’s Owner-Oriented Shelter Support scheme, workers installed doors and windows in the property and repaired the sanitation and electricity networks. Mahmoud and his family were among more than 10,000 people in Homs who received support to rehabilitate their home in 2016, with a further 789 and 475 individuals assisted in Aleppo and Rural Damascus respectively.

“The owner-oriented shelter response programme aims to strengthen the living environment for those returning to their homes,” explained Muhammed Jartila, UNHCR Shelter Officer in Damascus. “We are not adding luxury to these homes, but we are working to make them livable again so that displaced families can settle back in their homes.”

As more and more families seek to return home in areas where the fighting has subsided, demand for such rehabilitation assistance is increasing. In response, UNHCR in partnership with various NGOs aims to support up to 24,500 people through the programme in 2017, despite barriers including a lack of funding and qualified workers to carry out the repairs.

Another Homs resident to have benefited from the programme is 45-year-old Abu Mousab, who returned to his home in the Bab Sebaa district of the city with his three children in October last year after four years of displacement.

“When I visited my house for the first time I found it looted and destroyed, but I made the decision to return and live under my own roof again,” he said. During the years they were displaced, Abu Mousab had talked longingly of returning home with his wife, but she died of an incurable disease before their dream could be realised.

After the rehabilitation work on their house was completed, the family’s situation was much improved but still far from perfect. “Life will be difficult for us, especially as there are no schools close to our home, but it is better than living inside a shelter,” Abu Mousab explained.

While there is a long way to go before life returns to normal in the shattered city, enabling people to return to their homes is a vital first step.

“I feel more stable now being back in my own neighbourhood. Our neighbours have also started to return, I feel safe, and I hope to find a job soon,” Abu Mousab said. “For now I will stay in my house and take care of my children, and hope that nothing will force us to leave our home again.”