Long-absent Syrian expats in emotional visit home from US

Fairouzah (Syria) (AFP) –


Victoria Mubarakah sits in the shade of a grapevine in her ancestral village in Syria, nostalgic and happy after a long trip from her home in the United States.

The 53-year-old used to visit her motherland every few years, but since 2011 the war put a stop to those trips.

"All these years, I longed to visit my country and see my relatives, but the feeling of fear controlled me," says Mubarakah, gathered with relatives in a tiled courtyard behind a traditional Syrian house.

"I didn't even dare think about it."

Fairouzah, a Christian village, remained relatively insulated from the violence raging in nearby Homs city and elsewhere, but reaching it was too dangerous.

"We followed the news and were scared of coming back to the country," says Mubarakah, whose last visit was in 2007.

That all changed in recent months, after Syrian troops reasserted control over many of the country's main highways and cities, including the capital.

Watching from California, Mubarakah decided to make the long-awaited trip.

With her eldest son Issa, his pregnant wife and young child, and her other son Mark, Mubarakah flew to Lebanon, then drove for hours across the land border into Syria.

"Thank God we've reached a period of safety in Syria. We encouraged each other and decided to come this summer," says Mubarakah, one of tens of thousands of people from modern-day Syria who have emigrated to the US in the last century.

- 'Like a wedding' -

A return to Fairouzah means warm family reunions, a somber visit to her husband's tomb, and plenty of food.

On a July morning, Mubarakah emerges from the kitchen carrying a platter of small plates: strained yoghurt, white cheese, olives, and stuffed peppers, alongside mountains of plump homegrown grapes.

Fairouzah is locally famous for its bountiful vineyards -- and for having a large representation in Syria's diaspora.

Around 3,000 people live in the village itself but thousands more have emigrated, most to the United States.

All along the idyllic village's streets are posters and banners welcoming its prodigal sons and daughters.

One, featuring a dove and the government's two-star flag, "welcomes our expatriates in beloved Syria."

And at the main entrance of the St. Elias Syriac Orthodox church is a plaque thanking emigrants from Fairouzah for funding the church's construction beginning in 1957.

There are six churches in Fairouzah alone, which hosts hundreds of Christian families who fled nearby Homs city.

The wave of visiting Syrian-Americans has rejuvenated the village, says parish priest Thomas Kassuha.

"It's like a wedding," he says.

Kassuha estimates around 300 families have returned to Fairouzah this summer and the number could double.

They felt safe after "the return of security and peace," he tells AFP from the cool, marble-floored church.

- 'People don't know' -

At the village swimming pool, 14-year-old Alicia Medea is reconnecting with cousins she has not seen in eight years.

"When I arrived, I couldn't remember them that well. It felt like I was meeting them for the first time," the blonde teenager says in Arabic with an American twang.

She arrived just days ago with her father and brother to spend nearly three weeks in their homeland.

"I knew the village was safe, but the rest of the country wasn't. I'd always think about visiting again, but I never knew when we'd be able to," she says.

"Compared to what we hear in America about the war here, it's been amazing to find the country safe."

Since Syria's uprising began, the US has called on President Bashar al-Assad to resign and has carried out retaliatory air strikes on his army's positions.

That tore at Micheline Maalouf, a 22-year-old visiting her native Fairouzah from Pennsylvania.

"I hated myself then. I didn't know why they did those air strikes," she says, puffing on a water pipe near the pool.

"People outside don't know how people live here," adds Maalouf.

While living in Syria in 2015, Maalouf married a Lebanese man she met on Facebook -- "a chance to escape," she says.

"The situation wasn't reassuring. It was all fear and nervous people," she recalls.

The scene today couldn't be more different. Against a backdrop of squealing poolside children, Maalouf takes a few selfies to post on Instagram.

"We used to stay at home starting at 7:00 pm every night -- but now we stay out until 3:00 am."