An Uncertain Homecoming: New Report Calls Attention to Views and Priorities of Syrian Refugees in Jordan


For Syrian refugees around the world, the end of the war in their country would mean contemplating a return to a fragile homeland where hopes for a peaceful and productive life are uncertain. The experiences and concerns of displaced Syrians living in neighboring countries are the subject of an ICTJ qualitative research project undertaken so far in two phases: (1) views of refugees in Lebanon; and (2) views of refugees living in Jordan.

The new ICTJ report, An Uncertain Homecoming: Views of Syrian Refugees in Jordan on Return, Justice, and Coexistence, concludes the project’s second phase and presents findings from a study based on interviews with 121 Syrian refugees living in Jordan. It documents the views, expectations, and priorities of these men, women, and children on the prospects of returning home and on future coexistence and justice in Syria. The interviewees come from different regions of Syria, including Daraa, Damascus, Homs, and Swayda, and represent a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Because of where the interviews were conducted and where in Syria most refugees in Jordan come from, the majority of interviewees are Sunni Muslims, although a significant number are from religious and ethnic minority groups. While some concerns were shared by refugees across groups, others were shaped by people’s identity and place of origin.

A mural in al-Za’atari camp near Mafraq, Jordan, depicts the clock tower square in Homs, Syria. It is painted without any people, apparently to signify the mass exodus from the once bustling city since the conflict broke out. (Cilina Nasser)

"I prefer to return to Syria, but how? Where to? And who will pay for it? I cannot return. My home was burned; my second home was destroyed; my husband is dead; how am I going to live?" — A 31-year-old widow from Deir Ba’albeh and mother of 7-year-old twin boys.

Many of the refugees interviewed, including young people who were children when they left Syria, experienced or witnessed gruesome atrocities. These and other refugees expressed concerns about their safety and security back in Syria, fearing detention, torture, abduction, indiscriminate shelling, and other violence or retribution if they returned.

"Safety is when there is no shelling of our homes; when your children can go to school and you know that they will come home; safety is not worrying that my children will be hit by a bullet or a bomb." — A 31-year old widow from Bosra and mother of one daughter.

There are also widespread socioeconomic concerns about return among refugees in Jordan. In particular, they worry about employment and housing, in part because of damage done to their homes and their communities’ basic infrastructures and in part because of the difficulty in establishing property ownership.

"[It is] impossible for someone like me, who fled my home during an army raid and left all my belongings and documents behind, to prove that our home belongs to my dead husband." — A 41-year-old widow from Homs.

A child shows his drawing of what Syria means to him. He and his family live in a refugee camp in Madaba, Jordan. He is enrolled in an informal schooling program established by a Syrian refugee. (Zeina Jallad Charpentier)

One of the clearest findings of this study is the complexity of the challenges that Syrians will face in rebuilding social relationships after the conflict. Refugees interviewed highlighted sectarian divisions based on distrust, intolerance, and even hatred of other groups. Part of this complexity is that many of these challenges will be specific to the areas and communities in Syria from which refugees came and to which they are likely to return.

"If the Shi’a return to their homes . . . I will have no relationship with them. I cannot live like we did before. I cannot make eye contact with them anymore. They hurt me too much." — An elderly Sunni man from Bosra.

"People are fed up with the war, and they just want peace . . . even those who lost a family member. Everyone lost in this war. So at the end, people will choose coexistence." — A man from Swayda.

The report’s findings make clear that the decision for refugees to voluntarily return to Syria and peacefully coexist with members of other religious sects and minority groups depends not only on whether a high-level agreement can be brokered among the government and opposition parties. It is also strongly tied to their sense of security and their willingness, or lack thereof, to live side-by-side with members of other communities perceived as hostile.

"Trust is nonexistent. I don’t trust the regime and all those involved in the conflict. All actors have dirty hands and ugly agendas. None care about the people of Syria." — A Circassian refugee.

Some refugees in al-Za’atari camp have set up their own small businesses to provide for their families. (Cilina Nasser)

For human rights violations committed during the war, many refugees said they hoped to see justice but were also deeply skeptical that it would ever be achieved. Some spoke about specific forms of justice such as the need for the truth about what had happened to those who had been forcibly disappeared or detained and the need to reform state security institutions.

"To start somewhere with justice, [my family] wants to know if my brother is dead or alive. If he is alive, then he should be set free, and if he is dead, then let us know. In any case, justice cannot prevail unless the regime falls." — A man from Bosr al-Harir whose brother had been forcibly disappeared.

For the time being, while refugees remain in Jordan, they face a series of challenges including restrictive state policies, social and economic exclusion, and tensions with members of host communities. Despite this vulnerability, however, refugees have exhibited resilience and agency—for example, by entering the labor market for the first time or starting education programs for children in camps.

"All of it is new to me. I feel stronger inside and outside the house. I honestly do not wish to go back to my old lifestyle." — A woman from Damascus who had never before worked outside the home but now has a job in Jordan.

The full report and its recommendations are available here.

PHOTO: These documents belong to a refugee family in Irbid, Jordan, in which the father is a Palestinian refugee and the mother is a Jordanian, both from Syria. They have faced tremendous bureaucratic and legal hurdles as a result. (Zeina Jallad Charpentier)