Mohammad swipes the screen on his smartphone and zooms in on a street map showing a neighbourhood in Aleppo.
“That’s my house, that’s where we lived,” said the Syrian refugee in Germany, before his smile turns sad. “This area belongs to the regime now.”
While fleeing with his family from the rockets and shells of Syria’s brutal civil war, the modest home Mohammad built with his life savings on the outskirts of Aleppo was never far from his mind — a tangible focus for the possibility of his eventual return. But a new law allowing the Syrian regime to seize homes for redevelopment has raised Mohammad’s fears he’ll never be able to realise that dream. In Europe, the move has caused concern that without the incentive of property to return to, many Syrians will decide to stay forever.
Some 800,000 Syrian refugees have streamed into Germany since the start of the 2011 civil war, according to regime figures, and Germany has been counting on many to return home once the country is again safe.
The innocuously named Law No 10, passed in April, empowers regime to confiscate property without compensating the owners or giving them an opportunity to appeal.
The law has not yet gone into effect, but Chancellor Angela Merkel swiftly brought it up with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in May, urging him to use Moscow’s influence with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to change it.
“This is bad news for all of those who want to return to Syria one day,” Merkel told reporters after meeting Putin. “It would be a big barrier to return and it must be prevented.”
The change affects many beyond Germany. Some 5.6 million Syrians have fled their country since 2011 — most to other countries in the Middle East but also to Sweden, Austria and other European nations — and another 6.6 million have been displaced within the country, according to the UN’s refugee agency.
Critics maintain it gives Al Assad the means to keep opponents from returning and create neighborhoods of his supporters. The Syrian regime insists it’s simply a measure designed to facilitate the country’s reconstruction after seven years of civil war.
“The law aims to protect the personal rights and properties of every Syrian citizen abroad or inside Syria,” Syrian Minister of National Reconciliation Ali Haidar said.
The issue reached the UN Security Council in August, when Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, broke from his planned speech to assure members his regime had provided a detailed explanation of the purpose and goals of Law No 10 that he said “clearly refutes all the doubts and fallacious claims.”
The law initially stated that Syrians had 30 days to prove ownership of properties in a designated redevelopment zone. If they didn’t, they lose their property without compensation, such as a share in any profits from redevelopment.
After concerns were raised, Syria extended the period for people to prove ownership to one year, Haidar said, saying that should be “sufficient to confirm ownership of the property.”
It’s still not clear when appropriations might begin, and the issue has left people like Mohammad wondering what to do.
“Many people have houses, land and other assets, and they fled the country because of the war,” said Mohammad, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisals against his family in Syria. “And how are they supposed to come back now?”
Dominik Bartsch, a representative for the UN’s refugee agency in Germany, said it is hard to estimate how many Syrians might be affected by the decree, but said his office has received numerous inquiries.
People are puzzled, he said, asking “What does this mean? How do we have to deal with this?”
Human Rights Watch, which has criticized the plan as “a major obstacle to returning home for displaced residents,” said there are numerous obstacles preventing Syrians from asserting claims to their property.
Among other things, many fought against or otherwise opposed the Al Assad regime and fear for their safety if they try and return so soon. Others are currently unable to leave their adoptive countries due to asylum restrictions, said Sara Kayyali, a Beirut-based Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Many Syrians also lack the identification and registration documents that would allow relatives to make claims on their behalf. According to Human Rights Watch, only about half of Syrian property was officially registered before the war — and many registration documents were destroyed during the seven years of fighting.
Kayyali welcomed the news Syria was planning on extending the period allowing people to prove ownership, but said “the problems with Law 10 extend well beyond the duration of the time period.”
Before the law, Mohammad had counted himself one of the lucky ones that his home wasn’t destroyed in the fighting.
A year before the civil war broke out, Mohammad completed initial construction on his home, a single-story four-bedroom building on a 500-square metre (5,400-square foot) plot he bought after saving money from seven years of construction work in Dubai. He hoped that, as his sons grew up, they could add levels for their own apartments above.
“I consider the house to be my lifework,” he said. “There was so much time and energy I spent on building this house.”
As the fighting spread, his home became a haven for his family, with more than 50 of his and his wife’s relatives cramming inside at one point, he said.
They first watched the war from afar as rockets streamed across the skies. As it moved closer, they sheltered in a neighbour’s basement for protection.
Then in August, 2012, it got too close. An artillery shell fell on the street nearby where his children were playing — far enough away that they were not harmed but close enough that they were sprayed with dirt and rubble.
The family fled to Dubai, then relocated to Turkey, and in 2015 finally moved to Germany where Mohammad is now training to be a bus driver.
He still dreams of his home in Syria, but said his main priority remains his wife and his four boys — the oldest 10 and the youngest born four months ago in Berlin. Though he didn’t fight against Al Assad, he expressed strong anti-regime opinions and fears that he won’t be able to return home to make any sort of a claim without landing in jail. His family members no longer live anywhere close, making it difficult for them to try and prove ownership on his behalf.
“I’m not sad about the house, I’m sad about the effort,” he said, “But I’m thankful that my children are safe — because they were in a very dangerous situation in that house. You can make up for a house or money, but you can’t replace a child.”
He said he also recognises others have lost far more.
“My house is worth what? $25,000? That’s not too much,” he said. “Yes, it was my life’s work. But it’s not much.”