Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan – Though they both spend their days in the Zaatari refugee camp, share the same country of origin and even have the same first name, Ahmed and Ahmed could not be more different.
Ahmed, 33, who did not provide a last name, wears a smart jacket and sips cola in a cool cafe in the part of the camp reserved for visitors and aid staff, having secured a job with an international aid agency. Meanwhile, 55-year-old Ahmed Ali, a father of 14, spends his days in the blistering sun, running a ramshackle stall where he sells bikes, wheelbarrows and discarded, rusty bric-a-brac on an unpaved road in the desert camp.
Yet both men are in full agreement about one thing: Despite the war that has forced them to flee their country, it is not Europe or North America that they ever intend to call “home” – rather, that title will always be reserved for their native Syria.
“I love my country; I want to go back,” Ahmed Ali told Al Jazeera. “We used to have land, houses, farms and cars. We were happy, and we had enough food.”
Statistics from a recent programme by the Canadian government to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees surprised many: Out of the 7,000 Syrian refugees in Zaatari camp who qualified for the opportunity, one in four turned it down, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This contradicts the perception among some in the West that many refugees are moving abroad in order to find “a better life and to stay and settle there”, UNHCR’s Gavin White told Al Jazeera.
“That’s clearly not the case if you speak to Syrians themselves,” he said. “[What is] quite unique to Syrians than maybe to other refugee populations, is that they seem to be particularly attached to their country, more so than others. If you were to ask refugees themselves, what is your top priority, [they would say]: ‘We want to go home to Syria.’ This is 100 percent the case.”
It is the sense that if they were to leave and move so far away from Syria and the region, that it would be a permanent move. And so many were not ready to give up the idea that they would return to Syria.
The younger Ahmed says he was never offered the opportunity to resettle in Canada, but many of his relatives have fled to Europe and are now setting up new lives there. He is reluctant to follow their lead, noting that once it is safe to live in Syria again, “I would prefer to go back”.
Part of his reluctance stems from anti-refugee sentiments in Europe.
“I don’t think the Europeans are seeing the whole picture,” 33-year-old Ahmed said, when asked about the attacks against refugees in Germany earlier this year. “We think Germany also needs these young men.”
Ahmed Ali, meanwhile, says he fled Syria fearing for his life when heavy bombardments and shelling struck his home village on the outskirts of Damascus.
“The regime bombed areas and innocent people without discrimination. In my village, everyone lost their houses and property,” he said, noting he still fears being identified by the regime for his anti-government sentiments, as some of his children and relatives are still in the country.
Despite this, he says he longs to go back home and rebuild his life.
“I basically feel nostalgic,” he admitted, noting he and his wife missed their children and relatives back home.
Fear of being separated from family can be a strong enough deterrent for some not to consider resettlement abroad, especially in countries far from the Middle East, experts say.
“It is the sense that if they were to leave and move so far away from Syria and the region, that it would be a permanent move,” White said. “And so many were not ready to give up the idea that they would return to Syria.”
Omayma al-Kasem, who was among the refugees who turned down the offer of resettlement in Canada, told The Globe and Mail newspaper: “In Jordan we are already separated from my two sisters who are in Syria. If we went to Canada we would have to leave my brother, his wife and their baby. I don’t want to separate my family any further.”
In the Zaatari camp, many residents are from the Daraa governorate, fostering a sense of community. Abroad, many fear they would be torn away from this last remaining vestige of extended Syrian society.
Life here is not easy, though. The 80,000 Syrian refugees in Zaatari survive in cramped, thin-walled, prefab containers, with intermittent electricity supplies, limited and low-paying job opportunities, and inadequate education and healthcare.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of others are stranded near the Syria-Jordan border, desperate to be granted entrance as Jordan strives to limit the refugee influx amid an increasing economic strain. Many others have risked their lives attempting to reach Europe in overcrowded boats; in the first two months of 2016, more than 400 Syrians drowned during this passage.
Mohammed Badran, 22, who fled Syria in 2013 and now lives and attends university in Amsterdam, is among those who successfully reached Europe – but even he plans to return home as soon as the war ends.
“Integration doesn’t only mean to know how to live here, but also what you can learn from living here,” he told Al Jazeera, noting he plans to put his degree in international development to use back home.
Badran has already helped to set up a grassroots organisation called Syrian Volunteers in the Netherlands, which strives to help others integrate better while maintaining links among Syrians abroad.
“In Syria, people couldn’t understand their differences. They’re still torn,” he said. “We failed … because we turned immediately to violence. So that’s why I’m saying there’s an opportunity here to work on the Syrians to reunite them here, so that we can go and help rebuild the country.”
Back in the Zaatari refugee camp, Ahmed Ali can only agree.
“When the situation is quiet, I will go back barefoot,” he said. “Not only me, but everybody. When the fighting ends, we will all go back home. We will build again.”