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Syrian refugees cross back to homeland with hopes of better tomorrow

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After spending years as refugees in neighboring Lebanon, nearly 500 Syrians crossed back to Syria on Thursday, setting foot in their home country for the first time in years with hopes of a better tomorrow.

Pickup trucks loaded with belongings started showing up at the Zamrani crossing between Syria's western al-Qalamoun region and the Lebanese town of Arsal on Thursday, with faces of women, children and men looking in curiosity as they inched closer to a Syrian checkpoint.

These people have suffered a lot, because, for refugees, life is not always easy as many of them lived for over five years in tents in Arsal, Lebanon, which is adjacent to the western al-Qalamoun.

They have registered their names to be sent back to Syria as both governments of Syria and Lebanon were sending positive signals about the need for the return of Syrians to their towns now that the situation has significantly improved.

The move to return refugees is now concentrated on those who sought refuge in Arsal, after fleeing their homes and towns in Syria's western al-Qalamoun region, when the rebels, including terror-designated ones such as the Islamic State (IS) and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, were in control of parts of this mountainous region.

In the town of al-Jarajir in al-Qalamoun, which is only half an hour's drive from Arsal, relatives of the arrivals were waiting for them, looking at the road on which their loved ones would return home.

Some of the town's young men and kids waved Syrian flags, as tents were erected nearby with officers and government employees getting ready to process the papers of the arrivals.

Upon approaching the Syrian checkpoint at the town of al-Jarajir in the western al-Qalamoun region, the returnees started parking pickup trucks loaded with their belongings before heading to Syrian officers to have their papers processed.

Emad, a man who identified himself by his first name only, told Xinhua in al-Jarajir that the seven years he had spent outside Syria actually felt like 70 years.

After emotionally suffering from being far from home, the man said he advises "every Syrian who left Syria to return because Syria is fine now."

"Syria is the mother of the world and when I was outside Syria, I felt lost because we were refugees, which means life is difficult. I miss my village and friends," he said.

Disembarking from another vehicle, Rweida Ahmad strolled around, examining the surroundings as her little children trotted ahead.

She told Xinhua that she has five children, and all of them were born in Syria. She said deciding to leave wasn't easy as the war was tough.

"We were forced to flee our homes by the armed militants and thankfully we are back now. I have always thought about my country and life was colorless outside of our country," she said.

For his side, Hussain Qarqa said being a refugee taught him that one should never leave his homeland under any circumstances.

"Because those who leave end up without a home like an orphan without a mother," he told Xinhua.

Standing next to a big truck, Firas Hamourieh, who is a Syrian soldier in uniform, was speaking with a woman and a bunch of kids sitting inside the truck.

It turned out that those are his brother's family members, whom he hadn't seen for five years.

He told Xinhua that they were among the first to register their names for the voluntary return when this opportunity came available for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

"They were longing to return even more than I was longing to see them and have them with me. Now that the situation has become safe and the roads were opened, they registered and returned," he said.

Most of the men who were interviewed said they had worked in different kinds of jobs, which were tough and barely enough to make a living.

They said when they decided to leave, they thought it would be only a few days, but years had passed before they were finally able to return.

Mustafa Mahmoud Masud, mayor of the al-Jarajir town, told Xinhua that Syrian refugees are welcome to return home since peace and security have returned to al-Qalamoun and other Syrian cities.

He said nearly 500 refugees returned from Arsal to al-Qalamoun on Thursday, noting that this is the first batch of around 3,200 people, who have already registered to return to their homes in the western al-Qalamoun region.

"After the return of peace and security, we are welcoming everyone to return to their towns and farmlands," he remarked.

Bassil al-Hujeiri, mayor of Lebanon's Arsal, highlighted "the return of refugees to their homeland" as "voluntary."

The Syrian refugee crisis has become a hot topic in Lebanon lately.

According to the Human Rights Watch, more than 1 million Syrian refugees are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon, while the government estimates the true number of Syrian refugees in the country at 1.5 million.

Political parties in Lebanon have, on many occasions, voiced their concerns about a large number of refugees in the country, saying their prolonged stay represents an economic and social burden.

In January, Syria's Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haidar said his country was preparing for the return of refugees from Lebanon.

Haidar made the remarks during his meeting with Lebanese Ambassador to Syria Saad Zakhia, where Haidar stressed the continuing preparations for the return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon.

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