“I’ve never been better in worse times”

Friday 11, January 2008 Ljubljana, January 11 (UNHCR) – Elderly refugees cannot integrate without family support. “I have no home to go back to. My children are refugees, scattered all over the world. I am taking care of my health and waiting for the days to go by,” says Aisa, […]

Friday 11, January 2008

Ljubljana, January 11 (UNHCR) – Elderly refugees cannot integrate without family support. “I have no home to go back to. My children are refugees, scattered all over the world. I am taking care of my health and waiting for the days to go by,” says Aisa, an elderly Bosnian lady who found refuge in Slovenia fifteen years ago.

74 older Bosnian refugees are accommodated in a facility in the city of Maribor which in theory, was established to facilitate the integration of newly recognised refugees for a year. During that time refugees are assisted in taking their first steps towards integration. They are expected to learn the Slovenian language, acquire vocational skills, to find jobs and housing and to resume independent lives.

No such thing will happen with the Bosnians who are living here in their small, newly renovated flats. Being elderly refugees without families, they belong to the most problematic group of refugees in Europe. Although they receive all the assistance they need, but they will never fully integrate.

Drago Hausmeister, the manager of the housing project explains the problems, “These people were left behind. Their close relatives were either killed in the war or dispersed in exile”, says Hausmeister, “They are too old to work or to learn Slovenian properly. So they spend their days visiting doctors, watching TV and drinking coffee with the neighbours.”

In UNHCR’s experience, such groups with special needs often are left at the end of mass refugee movements. Young and middle-aged refugees usually succeed to rebuild their lives in a new country, persons over 60 usually don’t.

“Old people need a family support system to integrate. Without that, they are usually struggling with boredom, loneliness and depression,” says Lloyd Dakin, Regional Representative of UNHCR in Budapest.

As a rule, older people flee from home only in the event of a mass exodus or when the entire family is forced to leave. There are only very few elderly among asylum seekers arriving across the Eastern EU land border. They usually come together with their children and grand children. Polish refugee statistics indicate that only 0.7 % of new arrivals are above 60 years of age.

The Refugee Agency’s definition of refugee integration was published in 2002 (Global Consultations on International Protection) and describes three inter-related dimensions: the legal process, the economic process and the social and cultural process.

The legal process was the simplest to resolve for the Maribor refugees. In 2002 they were given indefinite legal residence in Slovenia.

As for the economic process, self-reliance is not an option for older refugees. They cannot be integrated in the labour market nor pursue sustainable livelihoods and are dependent on government assistance. In Slovenia, they receive the same social benefits as Slovene citizens. There are free meals for those who do not want to cook for themselves and NGOs to help with clothing and other needs.

However, in the social and cultural process of integration, older refugees do not do well at all. Too old or too traumatised to learn the new language well or to rebuild social networks from scratch they always hover at the margins of host societies.

84-year old Osman C. summarises the situation of the elderly refugees in a truly philosophical sentence: “We have never been better in worse times.” He gets all the assistance he needs, but no one can give him back his life, he says. He enjoys showing old photographs of his house and his relatives that he managed to save when he had to flee from Eastern Bosnia in 1992 along with his wife and granddaughter.

Four years ago Osman C’s wife died and he stayed behind with his granddaughter Mersada who by now is 20 years old. At her young age, Mersada has no difficulties to integrate. She speaks perfect Slovenian, studies tourism and dreams of moving out of the refugee centre and managing a hotel one day.

Meanwhile, her grandfather keeps himself busy in the 12-square metre flat repairing technical gadgets and reading. Due to a leg problem he is confined to this room. “All my life I used to love chess, Osman C. says, but I do not have a partner to play with here and I am too weak to go to the chess clubs in town.”

The atmosphere in the refugee centre in Maribor is a mixture of depression and appreciation. “We are grateful for what we get and most of all we are grateful that we are safe and sound here.” says 71-year old Hajrija while sipping coffee with her neighbour.

They were more Bosnians here before, Hajrija explains, but the younger ones moved out of the refugee centre and a few older ones died.

In happier moments they show each other the letters and photographs of their children, who are doing well as integrated refugees in Denmark, Canada or even in Slovenia.

Then very quickly the discussion turns back to health problems, the favourite subject of the community. They talk about their pains and diseases, about treatments and doctors and never forget to point out, how well they are taken care of.

Melita H. Sunjic in Budapest, Hungary