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For the world's 80 million displaced people, memories fade, but not hope

Syrian refugees Saleh Hammo (left) and his brother-in-law Mohammad Bwedani repair woodwork on a rooftop in Amman, Jordan. CBS/Amjad Tadros

Amman, Jordan — On a rooftop in the center of Jordan's capital, handymen Saleh Hammo and his brother-in-law Mohammad Bwedani are busy repairing woodwork. Eight years ago, both men escaped with their families from their hometown of Douma, in the countryside outside Damascus, Syria. Douma was the scene of some of the fiercest battles between Syrian rebels and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"The destruction and my fear for my children's life made us escape to Jordan," Hammo tells CBS News. Thousands of Syrian refugees have returned home as the war has eased, but like many others, the brothers say they won't feel safe going home as long as Assad remains in power.

"I left my land, my house and my car behind," says Hammo. 

He has pictures on his phone of the three-storey building they lived in. Now it's just a pile of rubble.

What's left of Saleh Hammo's family home in Douma, Syria. Saleh Hammo

"Even if we go back to Douma, it won't feel like home again," he says. "Most of the people we knew there have left, too. For my 10-year-old son, Omar, home is now Amman."

Neither of the men had heard of World Refugee Day, which will be observed on Saturday. The day is promoted and observed every year by the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

This year, the UNHCR's annual Global Trends report said there are currently 80 million people around the world who have been forcefully displaced from their homes — people like Hammo and his family.

"That's about 1% of the world's population," UNHCR's Senior Communications Advisor for the Middle East and North Africa, Rula Amin, told CBS News, adding that "with fewer and fewer of those who flee able to return home, growth in displacement is far outstripping solutions."

The UNHCR report affirms that "the situation in Syria continues to drive the largest refugee crisis in the world. There remain over 5.5 million Syrian refugees registered in the main hosting countries — Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt — of which over 2.6 million are children."

The war has left more than 6 million more Syrians internally displaced — forced to flee their homes but still sheltering inside their country. In total, Syrians make up a sixth of the world's displaced population.

"Jordan continues to host the second-highest number of refugees per capita globally," notes the UNHCR report. The kingdom has offered refuge to millions of people escaping almost every regional conflict for decades, from the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars to the wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and, most recently, Syria.

Syrian refugees selling organs to survive 00:34

On the west side of Amman, Mohammed al-Otaibi is visiting his cousin Rizq in a quiet middle-class suburb. Over an early family dinner, they discuss COVID-19, Middle East politics, and international conspiracy theories.

Like Salah and Mohammed, the Otaibis are refugees. They hadn't heard of World Refugee Day either.

After the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, the Otaibi cousins fled their village near what had been the Palestinian town of Khudeira. Since then it has been the Israeli city of Hadera. They were barely teenagers when they were forced from their homeland 72 years ago.

Their memories of escape aren't as vivid as those of the Syrian refugees, but they can still recall their exodus to the West Bank, then to Jordan, and finally to Kuwait, where they spent most of their lives. Both ended up in Jordan after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

"We still have the keys and land deeds for our houses back in Palestine," says Rizq al-Otaibi.

Mohammed al-Otaibi (right) visits his cousin Rizq for dinner in Amman, Jordan. Both men are Palestinian refugees who fled their homes in what is now Israel in 1948. CBS/Andrea Polia

Even at his advanced age, Mohammed al-Otaibi hasn't accepted the fact that his life will likely end here, in Jordan. They know their old homes have been largely destroyed, but he says, "as long as we have the keys, we will pass them on to our children, and our children's children."

The UNHCR report says "millions of refugees around the world live with little hope of ever returning home."

Neither the Otaibis nor the relative newcomers from Syria are ready to let go of that hope yet.

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