BEIRUT — In a sparse apartment with a distant view of the Mediterranean, seven-year-old Mohammad describes his life in Syria of just a few months ago: A bomb went off near his father’s store; snipers shot people on the roads; his uncle was killed on his way to buy a sandwich.
"Lebanon is not as scary as Syria, but it’s not as good as home," he says, explaining that he doesn’t go to school here, and he doesn’t go out to play.
"Playing was before the war, when everyone was happy," he says.
Syrian families have been fleeing civil war for more than two years, and it’s never been more dangerous than now. But despite his family's fear of returning, Mohammad's parents are preparing to drive back across the border within hours.
For them, both the financial and emotional costs of living as refugees in Beirut has too much to bear, and they are packing their bags despite imminent threats of U.S. military strikes against the Syrian regime for an August 21 poison-gas attack near Damascus that killed nearly 1,500 people, including more than 400 children.
“The life here in Lebanon, it’s very expensive, and my husband is so tired in his job," says Mohammad's mother, Lina. With their rent paid only through the end of August, she says, they simply cannot afford another month, which means they simply have no choice.
Down the road in the garden of a posh café, Lina’s husband, Chadi, serves nargila, a sweet tobacco pipe known as shisha in Egypt and hookah in other parts of the world.
Poverty, he says, is one of the many reasons he is taking his family home despite the danger.
"Besides financial troubles, I can no longer stand being treated like an outsider," he says, weeping as he explains the situation. "If he is going to die, I want to die at home with family."
Ever since the mid-1970s when the Syrian military established a presence in Lebanon, isolation has a common complaint among Syrians living here. Many Lebanese still resent the occupation, and it colors their attitude toward Syrians in general.
Lebanon, a country of less than 5 million people, has also been straining to keep up with the influx of civil-war refugees, now numbering over 700,000 men, women and children.
While Chadi and his family know there is a very real possibility of personal catastrophe upon returning to Syria, the strain of living as refugees in this increasingly unstable country is far worse.
Chadi feels that a U.S. strike against Syria would be a good thing. He knows that innocent people might die, but he thinks such direct action could be move toward ending Syria's civil war.
The United States and other world powers have called repeatedly on all sides in the Syrian conflict to end their war. U.S. President Barack Obama and top officials of his administration have said any action military against Syria that may take occur is not aimed at ending the war or ousting the Assad regime. According to U.S. officials, Washington is considering limited strikes aimed specifically at Syrian government forces and resources in order to punish those responsible for the recent chemical attacks and to deter any future use of such illegal weapons.
Before the war in Syria began in 2011, Chadi says, it was possible to live happily in Assad-ruled Syria. But nowadays, as he puts it, they are killing people on the streets.
He says he doesn’t care at all who wins this war. He just wants the fighting to stop so he can go home again.