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World Refugee Day: Older Syrians without hope

20 Jun 2013

A family of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. (c) Claire Catherinet HelpAge International and Handicap International have recently begun work assisting Syrian refugees in Lebanon. 

Claire Catherinet, Inclusion Adviser for HelpAge and Handicap International, writes about her experiences working with older refugees and refugees with disabilities.

There is no hope

For me, a crying child is distressing but manageable. But an older person crying is unbearable; it means there is no hope left. Half the women I interviewed cry, particularly when asked if they have been in contact with their relatives in Syria and Lebanon.

When you're 55, 70 or 80, it's very hard to leave your family in a war-torn country, not knowing if they are still alive or not. As Iman, an older refugee, told a colleague of mine: "We are old, nobody can help us. We would like to take a boat, go to sea and sink".

NGOs in Lebanon are doing their best, but for older people and people living with disabilities there is room for improvement. NGOs prioritise children and pregnant women and there are specific programmes for these groups. There is nothing for older people.

Not only are older people being overlooked, there is also no data on people over 60, according to some 15 NGOs. Overall, older refugees are very thankful to the Lebanese for finding them land to live on, even though some are taking advantage of the situation by charging exorbitant rents and food prices.

Bridging the gap

Detachment, or some form of distance, is a necessary part of working with refugees. If you want to keep doing it, you have always to bear in mind that - as my father once said to me - you can't be responsible for other people's misery.

Amandine with a family of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. (c) Claire CatherinetBut being involved is also important. When I am doing assessments, I am always clear that I am simply putting things in place and can't offer immediate relief. Some people react angrily, fed up with repeatedly being asked questions and not always having their needs attended to. Some people, however, are very appreciative - particularly women.

During these assessments, a translator is required but I always make an effort to speak to people directly. When I ask questions, women are always very affectionate and tactile, touching and hugging warmly without embarrassment. One of the most memorable instances was when my colleague (pictured) and I met a Syrian lady who was 80 and had leg paralysis. Her gratitude and natural sweetness was so strong that, despite her disability, she held on to Amandine's hand and wouldn't let go.

This could be because of the lack of attention paid to them, making the gratitude for simply being listened to overwhelming. Despite the language barrier, this involvement helps. But the line between being involved as a person and actually taking on another's problems is a fine one.

The sense of unending

In Lebanon's windswept Bekaa valley lies one of the tented settlements that hosts the daily influx of refugees from Syria. Many of the refugees know they won't be going back home for a long time, perhaps even a few years. Some returned to Syria to check their houses but many have been destroyed.

In Lebanon, they face several hardships, mostly financial. The biggest difficulties are to do with integration into society: with jobs, healthcare, schools, shelter. Job opportunities are very limited and many people worry about being able to afford their rent, medication and healthcare. Back home in Syria, healthcare was low-cost or free but in Lebanon it's hard to get any information about health services. When people get ill they go directly to a pharmacy and it's expensive.

Aimal, 52, shares an unfinished building in Bekaa with her daughter and another family. She told me about her husband. He is paralysed down one side of his body and cannot afford the medication he needs to improve his blood circulation.

Food prices are increasing for refugees with some local businesses raising prices for desperate refugees. The World Food Programme say they are aware of the issue but because items do not have price tags, they cannot verify or monitor this.

Security is an increasing concern for refugees in Lebanon, as in Jordan. Resentment is growing, with attacks on residents in two of the tented settlements. However, this is thought to have been a dispute between gangs rather than specifically aimed at refugees.

There are problems with issues of prostitution and child marriage too. Although it's unclear how widespread this is, there is a strong possibility that increasing financial strain could lead to ever more desperate measures.

I would eat sand

In the tented settlements, older refugees and people with disabilities are marginalised. Life is doubly hard for someone like Samira, a 60-year-old woman with two daughters, 25 and 43, who are living with disabilities. Aside from Handicap International and HelpAge very few agencies are considering the specific needs of older people and people with disabilities in their humanitarian response.

Another older refugee, Khaled, left Syria with his family during a bombing in Damascus. His leg was trapped for hours under rubble and had to be amputated. When I met him he had just rejoined his family, but had lost everything including his leg and didn't know how he would be able to support his family.

"I would eat sand if that could give me my leg back," he said. He was referred to Handicap International and given a bed and crutches. They also measured his leg so they could provide him with a prosthetic limb. I will always remember his tears and then the smile on his face which was so heartening.

Find out more about our work with Handicap International to support older refugees and those living with disabilities.

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Claire Catherinet

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.