With no end in sight for the ongoing conflict in Syria, refugees who have taken shelter in Turkey say they will definitely return after a short visit to their homeland to mark the occasion of Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice), also known as Qurban Bayram.
Mohamed Hajj Steifi, who had not returned to Syria in one year, last week made the trip across the Turkish border to celebrate Eid al-Adha. He is one of over 40,000 Syrian refugees living in Turkey who have taken advantage of a rare chance to return to their war-torn homeland for the holiday.
"I haven't seen my family for more than a year," Steifi said, sitting in the garden of his home in Binnish, a town in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. Seated around him, his parents and brother chatted with relatives visiting to celebrate Eid al-Adha, one of the biggest festivals of the Islamic calendar.
From time to time, they were interrupted by phone calls from the family's daughters, who live in the Gulf region.
Almost 3 million Syrians have taken refuge in Turkey since the conflict in their country began in 2011, marked by anti-government protests. The border crossings between the two countries are mostly closed, granting access only to aid convoys. Thus, the chance for Syrians to return for eid is a rare opportunity.
Those taking advantage of the opened border crossings had to register on a website dedicated to the process, and must return to Turkey by Oct. 15.
Turkey is a staunch advocate for the establishment of a safe zone inside Syria for those who have been internally displaced, which would ostensibly prevent attacks by the Assad regime and the Daesh terrorist group, among others.
Some headed to towns like al-Bab and Jarablus in Aleppo province, which were formerly the targets of a Turkish-led operation launched in mid-2016 against Daesh. Others crossed into Idlib province, now largely controlled by a group formerly affiliated with al-Qaida.
While Steifi was delighted to be home, he said he would soon return to the Turkish town of Reyhanlı, where he works for an internet company. "I'm definitely going to stay where I have a livelihood, which is in Turkey," Steifi said. "If the job situation improves and the state returns to normal rule, I would certainly prefer to return to my country."
The unending violence of Syria's civil war, which has killed over 330,000 people, has dropped off in recent months amid the tentative and partial implementation of local ceasefires.
However, Steifi says the relative calm hasn't tempted him to move back home just yet. "Calm is not enough," he said. "If institutions, universities and order are not restored, and life doesn't return back to normal, we'll be living in chaos."
The International Organization for Migration said last month that more than 600,000 displaced Syrians had returned to their homes this year.
Most of those who returned were internally displaced, while 16 percent were refugees returning from exile in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
While some returnees said they were motivated to return due to improved security and economic conditions, the IOM warned that many were struggling to gain access to clean water and health services in a country ravaged by over six years of fighting.
Yaman al-Khatib, 27, a journalist, moved with his wife and child to the Turkish province of Antakya last year after leaving an opposition-held part of Aleppo before it was captured by regime forces. He travels into Syria clandestinely for his job, but has no plans to move his family back there, for now. "After we left Aleppo, there is no safe place for us to live," he said. "Syria, in general, is a war zone, so Turkey is the safest place I've found for my family." But he also dreams of returning.
"The flood of Syrian families from Turkey to Syria is proof that everyone's dream is to return home," he said. "But, the lack of security, along with the lack of basic necessities like water and electricity, make it impossible." Rahaf, 19, was overjoyed to be visiting family in Binnish to mark the occasion of eid. She also plans to return to Reyhanlı at the end of eid. "I would definitely consider going back to Syria if security returned to normal and the situation went back to how it was before the war," she said. "There's nothing better than a person's country, it will always be better than any other country."