What it's like to be an elderly Syrian refugee

Dalal, an elderly Syrian refugee in Jordan. Many elderly Syrian refugees live almost forgotten in camps and host communities. Photo by: CARE Australia

Dalal, 69, arrived in Jordan with just her passport, referral form for identification and the medicines she needs to treat her high blood pressure and diabetes.

She came to Amman with her three sons and their families in Dec. 2012, but now she’s all alone and surviving on borrowed money while her loved ones live in the Za’atari refugee camp. Like many other elderly Syrian refugees, this widow has nowhere to go and, as a widow, no one to support her except a family already struggling just to stay alive.

“For the first month that I was in Amman, I ate only bread and thyme. For a whole month. My children don’t have food for their children. How can I expect them to help me?,” Dalal told a representative of CARE Australia in Amman.

This is the story of countless elderly Syrian refugees, that suffer overstretched health medicines that can’t give her the drugs she needs and live almost forgotten in camps or host communities while the humanitarian crisis has no end in sight.

On the International Day of Older Persons, we asked CARE Australia CEO Julia Newton-Howes about the plight of these senior citizens:

Why are older persons commonly neglected in emergencies?

In emergencies, older refugees are often overlooked and forgotten because they are less mobile and struggle to access transport to centres where they can officially register as refugees or to services such as healthcare.

The majority of elderly refugees have no income and therefore rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs. Their health is often poor, they struggle to access medication and healthcare and even when living with family members, they often tend to eat less to provide better meals for younger members of the family.

How can the aid community better address their needs?

Home visits are critical to ensuring that help reaches the elderly. With no source of income, elderly refugees are at a greater risk of falling deeper into poverty and face the threat of eviction from their temporary accommodation. CARE provides them with emergency cash to pay for basic living costs such as food, rent and healthcare. Emergency cash has proven very successful to date and is one of the keystones of our refugee program in Jordan. Feedback from refugees suggests that emergency cash has helped in many ways to reduce family stress and improve family relations and well-being.

However, home visits are also critical for elderly refugees who may be house-bound and unable to source heavy goods such as mattresses and heaters for themselves. CARE delivers these items to vulnerable refugees in their homes.

Apart from house visits and cash transfers, what other types of interventions would help elderly refugees?

The elderly often find themselves confined to their home and tend to suffer in silence. Feelings of isolation and loss of community are consistently reported and many people report increased feelings of depression and negativity.

Refugees also report vulnerabilities around their access to stable and appropriate housing, access to food and overcrowding in cases where many families are living in close quarters.

As a result, CARE provides psycho-social support with financial counselling, stress management and support networks. Counseling services are also available to help people overcome trauma they have experienced as a result of the conflict in Syria.

How about their situation in camps or hosts in Jordan? Is it really best for them to live alone, or do you have a provision to house several together?

In Jordan, more than 80 percent of refugees live in urban areas and not in camps. A significant number of refugees have found shelter with host families or rented apartments in border towns or in Amman. The majority of elderly people live with close or extended family and it is not uncommon for up to three refugee families to share a home. CARE is currently working in these urban areas to provide cash assistance, material assistance such as blankets and heaters, and psycho-social support.

For elderly refugees who are house-bound, we conduct home visits to provide them with items such as winter kits which include a mattress, blanket, heater, fuel refills, a solar lamp and clothes.

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    Carlos Santamaria

    As associate editor for breaking news, Carlos Santamaria supervises Devex's Manila-based news team and the creation of our daily newsletter. Carlos joined Devex after a decade working for international wire services Reuters, AP, Xinhua, EFE and Philippine social news network Rappler in Madrid, Beijing, Manila, New York and Bangkok. During that time, he also covered natural disasters on the ground in Myanmar and Japan.

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