ARSAL, Lebanon — The mayor was tired. Asleep-at-3, awake-at-6 tired. Tired the way you cannot help but be after years of the Islamic State squatting in your town, killing your citizens and forcing the army to quarantine you from the rest of the country.
Tired of Syrian refugees from just across the border growing so numerous that they eclipse your actual constituents — and of your constituents growing so sick of the refugees that they mutter about taking the town back by force.
All this fell to the mayor of Arsal, Lebanon: checkpoints to negotiate, refugees to manage, townspeople to appease. And now even his wife complained that he was neglecting her.
“At night, I go back home and I listen to people’s problems again,” said the mayor, Bassil Hujeiri. “It’s not like my shift ends and I get to close the door.”
And yet the mayor has recently had cause to believe that the arc of his town’s ordeal was at last bending toward a little less misery — if only for the Arsalis. The refugees, for their part, were still living a nightmare.
Seven years of war in Syria has displaced more than half the country’s population, leaving millions of refugees shipwrecked between the wasteland of home and the void of exile. Among the many Lebanese and Jordanian towns that received them was Arsal, where rented rooms and tent cities overflowed at one point with 120,000 Syrians — quadruple its Lebanese population.
But with the Syrian government closing in on victory, President Bashar al-Assad declaring the country safe for Syrians again and their reluctant Lebanese hosts pressing them to leave, the Syrian refugees are now beginning to set out on the fraught road home.
Over the past month, convoys carrying nearly 2,000 Syrians have crossed the border, returning families to the homes they had abandoned years ago — though few knew whether those homes had survived the bombs and shells.
But many may be stuck in Lebanon. Thousands of Syrians in Arsal have applied to return, only to be rejected by Mr. Assad’s government. Many more say they believe that if Mr. Assad remains in power, the outcome tacitly accepted by the global powers haggling over Syria’s future, they have only arrest, torture, death or forced conscription to return to.
“Here, I’m a refugee,” said a former Syrian soldier who asked to be identified by his nom de guerre, Abu Fares. “In Syria, I’m a traitor.”
Few of the refugees leaving Arsal knew for certain that they would be safe at home. All had decided that home was nevertheless preferable to a tent with no future.
“My life there would be better than it is now,” Mohsin Ishac, a former taxi driver from Fleita, a village just across the border, said before he left with the first convoy. “I have a tent here. I’ll put a tent there if I have to.”
Lebanon has taken in so many Syrians — more than a million — that they now make up a quarter of the country’s population. But the welcome has not always been gracious.
Lebanese authorities never gave full rights to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who have lived in Lebanon since the 1940s and ’60s, even as the refugee camps have become permanent cities. Apparently learning from that experience, the government has prohibited the establishment of refugee camps and made the Syrians’ lives difficult, in ways large and small, in the hope that they would return as soon as possible.
Most Syrians in Lebanon cannot move freely around the country. They are banned from some public parks and certain jobs. The small minority of Syrian children who attend school are largely separated from Lebanese children.
Town cemeteries often refuse to bury Syrian bodies. Many landlords reject Syrian tenants. History — Syrian troops occupied Lebanon from 1976 to 2005 — is not improving guest-host relations. Nor are Lebanese sensitivities about the country’s fragile sectarian balance, which Lebanese leaders fear would be upended by the settlement of the mainly Sunni refugees.
“We don’t have any safety guarantees from Assad, but it’s better there than here,” said Mohamed Abdul Aziz, a father of six from the same village as Mr. Ishac. “We have a choice between the bad and the worst.”
Much like populists across Europe and the United States fulminating against immigrants, Lebanese politicians blame Syrians for dragging down wages, dialing up crime and overtaxing infrastructure. Across the country, Syrian refugees have been evicted, deported, beaten and even killed by Lebanese.
Unsurprising, then, to hear Lebanese leaders pressing for their return.
Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful pro-Assad movement, recently opened several offices across the country for refugees to register for return. When the United Nations High Commission on Refugees warned this spring that refugees should not be pressed into returning, Lebanon’s foreign minister threatened to freeze the agency’s local residency permits unless it got out of the way.
The mayor could only watch this international game of hot potato from his small second-floor office while the town grumbled.
His cellphone rang once, twice, three and four times on the table in front of him. His eyes blinked heavily over dark pouches. Asked his age, he gave a wan smile. “One hundred and fifty,” he said. (He was 44.)
“I hope they’ll go back and everything will be like it was before,” he said, “and they can live like they used to.”
But hopes are rarely rewarded when it comes to Syria’s 13 million displaced people.
Last year, according to the International Organization for Migration, more than 700,000 internally displaced people returned to their hometowns from other parts of Syria. But fresh fighting drove nearly twice that number from their homes. Half the returnees reported having trouble finding clean water and food.
The Syrian government has decreed that citizens must produce documents to reclaim their homes, assuming they are still standing. But most lack the paperwork, leading some analysts to speculate that the government is moving toward mass property seizures. Many families dread being forced to yield their military-age men to Mr. Assad’s drained army.
As long as safety remains elusive elsewhere, thousands of refugees will remain beached in Mr. Hujeiri’s district.
A dusty Sunni Muslim town in northern Lebanon clinging to the mountains along the border, Arsal ground out a meager living before the war on cherry orchards, rock quarries and cross-border smuggling. The sewage system barely functioned. Roads were bad, schools and hospitals few.
With the fighting in Syria, jihadists from the Islamic State and the Nusra Front spilled across the border, burrowed into the mountains outside town and stayed.
In 2015, in one of their only military actions in Lebanon, the militants killed Lebanese soldiers, policemen and townspeople and took dozens of hostages. Death threats forced the mayor to switch cars several times a day to evade assassins. Not until last August were they finally evicted by force.
Yet the Lebanese Army checkpoints intended to maintain security around Arsal are now severing the townspeople from trade, travel and, in some cases, their own land.
The mayor’s cellphone bellowed again. It was a Lebanese farmer who had woken him early that morning, complaining that he had been detained on the way to his fields.
Mr. Hujeiri clutched his cell to his left ear and clamped a landline to his right, soothing the farmer on one phone, pleading with the army on the other.
As he stepped out of his office, a group of Lebanese business owners pounced. They wanted to know what he planned to do about the Syrian shopkeepers who they said were undercutting their prices and driving them out of business.
The Syrians, they fretted, pay no taxes or electricity bills: They got everything free. (The poorest refugees receive about $ 27 per person in monthly food and rental assistance.)
“Me, I had 5 million Lebanese pounds in revenue last month. The Syrian guy made 15 million,” said one man.
“What if we took 50 guys and showed up at a Syrian store?” said a second, threatening a confrontation. “Then they’d have to close down.”
“We have a lot of plans in the works,” the mayor interjected. “It just takes time.” He was stalling, hoping to head off violence.
“They do have a point,” he said later, “but people in pain sometimes exaggerate. The Syrians are human beings, too. They want to live. They have kids. But I can’t defend the Syrians in front of them.”
The Syrians and the Arsalis can agree on this: It is time to go. Many Syrians have little work. They are tired of living in tents, even if they are furnished with brocade cushions, rugs and TVs.
“If we heard it was safe,” said Abu Fares, the defector, “even if we had to sleep under a tree, we’d go back.”
As the American reporters who had listened to his story rose to leave, Abu Fares looked at the small gift they had offered with a smile.
“After five years, you brought me chocolates,” he said. “I need money, I need visas!” Then a groundless hope softened his voice. He looked for a moment like a gambler betting his last dollar.
“I go,” he asked in English, “to America?”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.
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