Syria's oldest refugees

Born over 100 years ago, some ache for the past. Others pray for peace. And many dream of going home one last time.

Mofleh, 103, lives with a Lebanese family he once hosted in Syria.
© UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

They are the oldest survivors of Syria's civil war. Men, women, grandparents, husbands and wives – over 100 years of age and far away from home.

Often overlooked, but just as vulnerable as younger Syrian refugees, the elderly are mostly ill-equipped to flee and struggle to rebuild their lives after being uprooted from all they know. Tens of thousands have made the perilous journey to safety, frail and weak, in a bid to escape the violence and social upheaval tearing their country apart. Some have even tried desperately to stay behind. Are there checkpoints, can we go back, can we leave today?

The 12 centenarians profiled here are among Syria's oldest refugees. Born over 100 years ago, they have lived through two world wars. Now, three and a half years into another brutal conflict, they worry about their grandchildren – and about the future of Syria.

Dagha, 101, used to mend clothes as she listened to the shells falling in Syria from her family's shelter in northern Lebanon. Now she is partially paralysed.  © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Dagha, age 101

Dagha used to listen to the sound of shells falling in Syria from her family's little tent in Lebanon. Sitting quietly on the hill, she would mend clothes and try to figure out which part of her homeland the shelling was coming from. Then she suffered a stroke.

Now partially paralysed, she can only squeeze the hands of family and friends who come up to give her a kiss. Every week, news arrives of more people who have died in her home village – including relatives. Her family say she often cries in her sleep.

"Bury me elsewhere when I die. Bury me in Syria – please promise me you'll bury me at home."

"Her biggest fear is that she'll die in Lebanon," says Fatima, Dagha's granddaughter. "Before her stroke, when she was still able to talk as clearly as a teenager, she'd say, 'Bury me elsewhere when I die. Bury me in Syria – please promise me you'll bury me at home.' "

Ghetwan, 100, and his wife, Khaduj have a long marriage. The couple wed 72 years ago, at the height of the Second World War.  © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Ghetwan, age 100

Ghetwan and his wife have been married for a very long time. They wed 72 years ago, at the height of World War II. The conflict in Syria could not tear them apart. When shelling destroyed their home, they fled to Lebanon. Together.

Today, the couple live with family in a makeshift shelter below a mechanic's garage in Sidon, in southern Lebanon. The electricity cuts out frequently, and most afternoons Ghetwan's great grandchildren swarm around him, even as he rests – two generations in the same poorly lit, two-room radius.

The call to prayer echoes through their home. Sometimes, Ghetwan thinks it's coming from his local mosque back in Syria. To soothe him, a Lebanese neighbour sometimes takes him to his field, where Ghetwan stands among the animals and can feel at home.

A lot has changed in the 45 years since Hamda, 106, was last in Lebanon. Her husband has passed away, she has lost her eyesight, and now she is a refugee.  © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Hamda, age 106

A lot has changed in the 45 years since Hamda was last in Lebanon. Her husband, whom she once lived with in the Bekaa Valley town of Bar Elias, has since passed away. She has also lost her eyesight. And now, as the war in Syria drags on, she has become a refugee.

"Maybe it is a good thing that God took my eyesight before I saw the destruction of my country," she says, from the small rented home she now shares with her youngest son and his family.

"Even if the war ends and we rebuild our homes, there are many things that can never be rebuilt."

It was the destruction of her hometown near Syria's Lebanese border that forced Hamda to return to Bar Elias. "At first, we only heard bombing in the distance, but within a few weeks they were upon us. That is when we ran." Her world was quickly turned upside down.

"Even if the war ends and we rebuild our homes, there are many things that can never be rebuilt," she says. "Syrians were never divided – alas, now they will never be the same."

Saada has experienced a great deal of loss in her 102 years. But surrounded by her family and neighbours in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, she keeps her spirits high.  © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Saada, age 102

Saada has lost a lot in her life – seven of her ten children, her husband and now her home. But today, surrounded by her family and neighbours in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, she keeps her spirits high by recalling better days in Syria. "Nobody had time to make wars back then," she says. "We used to wake up before the sun and go work in the fields. By the end of the day I used to be so exhausted that I'd fall asleep on the donkey's back on my way back home."

At first, she was reluctant to leave. Even when the bombing started, she simply continued with her daily routine. Eventually, her grandson persuaded her to flee, but only after promising that he would carry her body back to Syria and bury her next to her brother when the time comes.

Abandoning her home has been difficult. "You know, without the help of UNHCR most of us would starve here," Saada says. "But you need more than just a box of food. You also need interaction with other people so you know you are still a human being and not just a number."

Bahira, 100, was forced to flee to the Lebanese capital, Beirut, last year with her family. She is desperate to return to Syria.  © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Bahira, age 100

From a rickety plastic chair on her fourth floor balcony, Bahira gazes out over Beirut, Lebanon, where she sought refuge last year. "Syria is a masterpiece created by God," she says, sadly, glancing at the unfamiliar streets below. "You feel wonderful when it is in front of you."

Bahira wants to know, 'Are there checkpoints? Can we go back? Can we leave today?'

Surrounding Bahira are children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren – too many, sometimes, to count. At her age, she should be enjoying life with such a large, loving family. But Bahira desperately aches for her homeland.

Although she does not complain, her son admits that sometimes, in the middle of the night, he wakes to find her crying alone on the couch. "She always asks about relatives back home and if the road to the village is open," he says. "She wants to know are there checkpoints, can we go back, can we leave today?"

Khaldiye, 103, pictured in her son's rented home in northern Lebanon, has outlived all of her siblings. She fled Syria two years ago.  © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Khaldiye, age 103

Khaldiye has a favourite photograph. In it, her twin brother and mother stand together, hand-in-hand. Although both of them have now passed away, and the photo itself was lost in the hurry to flee Syria, she still sees it in her mind every morning.

Khaldiye arrived in Lebanon two years ago. Sharp as a whip, she can still recite the names of 12 children, 30 grandchildren, and several great grandchildren. Living with her son's family, she has begged them to sell her gold wedding ring to help make ends meet, but they refuse.

Her late husband was ten years her junior and a general in the military. "They all used to make fun of him for having an older wife, but he loved me," she proudly recounts. One of her fondest memories is of him buying an orange for her every day. "He would then peel it for me," she recalls. "Men should always peel oranges for women."

Mofleh is 103 and lives in Lebanon with the same family he rescued six years ago. He has tried to return to Syria twice.  © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Mofleh, age 103

Mofleh is reaping what he sowed. After playing host to a refugee family from Lebanon during its 2006 war with Israel, he has now found shelter with the very same family. Bilal, who was just a boy when his family took refuge with Mofleh in Syria, now takes care of him full time.

Eight years ago in Syria, Mofleh took in a family of Lebanese refugees. Today he is sheltering with the very same family at their home in Lebanon.

But Mofleh is desperate to return to Syria, where two of his great-grandchildren were killed in the shelling. He has tried to run away twice and even keeps his old ID, issued 70 years ago, in his shirt pocket. "I am going back to Syria, so I must not lose it," he insists.

Occasionally, he breaks out into song, singing of lost love and missed opportunities. "I feel like I've been here for 500 years," he announces to nobody in particular. "It's too long."

Fatoumeh, 102, was the strongest person in her home village in Syria, before being forced to flee in 2013. Today, as a refugee in Lebanon, she is very ill.  © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Fatoumeh, age 102

Back home, Fatoumeh is a bit of a legend. Long before the days of heavy machinery, she was the strongest person in her village, often beating men at their outside chores. "Men would only harvest one area, and I could do four in the same amount of time," she says with a laugh.

She fled northern Syria in early 2013, arriving in Lebanon by bus with her 66-year-old son Mohammed, his wife and their five children. Today, she is very ill, but does not know the cause. "The sickness I have, the doctors can't cure," she says.

Mohammed keeps all their family documents together in a small bag and sometimes brings out his father's identification card to let Fatoumeh hold it in her hands. She kisses her husband's picture whenever she sees it. "She was queen of the world," Mohammed says. "And now she's here without a throne."

Saada, 100, lies on a little mattress in the home she shares with her son in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. She misses her freedom and her home in Syria.  © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Saada, age 100

Saada lies on a little mattress in the small house she shares with her son and his wife in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. "Is it time to pray? Did the Athan begin?" These are the only words she utters. Blind for 14 years and almost completely deaf, her days are an unwavering routine that revolve around praying, occasional eating and nostalgic reminiscences about life in Syria.

"Here she feels like she's just waiting for her time to come," says Saada's son. "She even prays for it to come soon."

Before fleeing Syria with her son two years ago, Saada enjoyed walking along the terrace of her home. Now her only activity is getting up to wash so she can pray five times per day.

Her son says that when she does speak she either recites prayers or curses the war. "She misses her freedom and her home, she felt alive there," he reflects. "Here she feels like she's just waiting for her time to come. She even prays for it to come soon."

"They say that if God loves you, He will let you live a long life. But I wish that He loved me a little less," says Ahmad, who is 102.  © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Ahmad, age 102

"They say that if God loves you, He will let you live a long life," says Ahmad, from his plastic shelter in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. "But I wish that He loved me a little less. I wish that I didn't live long enough to see my country in ruins."

Ahmad fled Syria for his health, after the war made it impossible for him to get the prostate surgery he needed. Now he's unable to return. "Syria is my home, my country, and I worship its soil. Now, the only place I can call home is this small tent."

He gains some strength from his memories and from his family. Altogether, he has 11 children, and more grandchildren and great grandchildren than he can recall. "I surely can't remember all their names," he says, laughing.

"I am devastated for my grandchildren and for the children of my country," says Tamam, 104. "Their future is destroyed. I lived my life, but they won't get to live theirs."  © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Tamam, age 104

Born in 1910, Tamam reminisces about the simpler times of her youth in Syria. Waking at dawn, she would strap her youngest to her back and work in the fields. "We never got sick because we used to eat what we grew on our lands," she recalls. "It was so safe; we used to go out to get wood in the middle of the night . . . "

Last year Tamam fled with her son to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. The turmoil of recent years troubles her greatly. "My grandchildren watch the news and ask me, 'Habiba, what is Sunni and Shi'ite?' They don't know. We never spoke about these things; we were all Syrians and that was enough for us."

"I lived my life, a long one at that, but I am devastated for my grandchildren and for the children of my country."

The heat of the day is building up in the tarpaulin shelter Taman shares with her son and extended family in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Sitting next to the small window in the hope of catching a breath of cooler air, she adds: "I do not know when my time to leave this earth will come; it could be any minute now. I don't care where I spend my last days."

She pauses, then adds: "I lived my life, a long one at that, but I am devastated for my grandchildren and for the children of my country. Their future is destroyed. I lived my life, but they won't get to live theirs."

In Syria, Khadra lived in a house of her own where she cooked, cleaned, and walked up to two kilometers every day. Now she lives in a tented settlement in Lebanon.  © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Khadra, age 104

In Syria, Khadra lived in a house of her own. She cooked, cleaned and walked up to two kilometres every day. She was strong, with boundless energy. Then the war reached her town and she fled to a tented settlement in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

"Can you see inside one's heart?" she asks. "I can't see inside yours, and you can't see inside mine. But if you could, you would see a black heart; one that constantly weeps for my children and their future."

At first, Khadra was determined to stay in Syria, but the bombing drove her out. "Ever since she came here and lost her house, she is sad all the time," says her son. "She never leaves the tent and her health has been deteriorating." He remembers the day in 1980 when his mother returned to consciousness one hour before her burial. But Khadra waves him away. "Who cares if I died once a thousand years ago," she says. "I die every day I'm in this tent."

Lauren Bohn and Rawan Al Kayat also contributed to this photo essay, conducting in-depth interviews and distilling them into the profiles above.