Older people forgotten in displacement camps of northern Syria

A 75-year-old man lives with his elderly wife alone in al-Tah Camp in the northern countryside of Idlib - September 2020 (Enab Baladi / Youssef Gharibi)

A 75-year-old man lives with his elderly wife alone in al-Tah Camp in the northern countryside of Idlib - September 2020 (Enab Baladi / Youssef Gharibi)


Enab Baladi- Hebaa Shehadah

On the hard grounds of the displacement camp, the 60-year-old woman with a hunched back was looking at her orphan granddaughter while she was playing.

This old woman told Enab Baladi that life- problems made her feel older, pointing to her wrinkles that nearly disappeared with a laugh placed on her face when she started singing “After I was like a beautiful flower thriving beside the water, now no one is attracted to me […]Time unashamedly makes us older.”

Turkiye Hakki said that she had never been worried about how to secure a home or food. She recalled the days where she used to have many guests; she used to serve them much fresh fish caught from the lake near her home in al-Ghab Plain. She is so poor to show hospitality towards her guests; her table does not have fish anymore. 

She looked away with her tired eyes, counting her children who are scattered between displacement camps, asylum countries, and beneath the dirt.

She is left with only a widowed daughter with her little girl. Her angry voice reflects a fixed determination that couldn’t be defeated by difficulties.

Life in displacement camps is not easy for any of its residents. Still, it is more difficult for the sick and the elderly, who are, despite being classified among “the most vulnerable” groups, according to the international relief assessment, are not considered “special cases.” No specific projects are presented to them even in light of the threat of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the emergency relief coordinator at Violet Organization, Ahmad Qutaish, told Enab Baladi

“We, my daughter and I,  got registered to give us some humanitarian aid, but they gave us four or five bars of soap. I told them that food is more important. But nobody has come to offer us help in months,” Hakki complained to Enab Baladi with signs of resentment on her face, while sitting in front of her torn-out tent in al-Rayan camp.

What do the elderly need?

The 30-year-old man did not hide his surprise on his face when he heard about “International Elders’ Day,” which is celebrated on the first of October. Still,  he welcomed the interest in the camp’s residents, which he runs, even if it is for one day a year.

“All the camps lack equipment that could ease and improve the quality of life for the elderly, but they are full of their needs,” Abd al-Salam al-Youssef, the director of al-Tah camp in the northern countryside of Idlib.

He pointed out, “We should design safe bathrooms for the elderly, establishing them close to the elderly’s tents as well as providing them with disinfectants and detergents. We also should ensure that they have warm clothes before winter comes and help them to beat the heat in the scorching weather,” which caused several cases of heat syncope among the elderly in the camp in the past few months.

Sattam al-Hussein couldn’t stand on his feet to welcome his guests, but he greeted them with a wave and a broad smile, pointing to his wife to pay attention to their arrival. The 70-something-years-old man told Enab Baladi that “my wife cannot hear well.”

Al-Hussein lives with his wife in the tent on their own after displacement led them to experience the life of the “Bedouins,” he said, laughing. Then, he complained about his need for a lamp to light his way to the toilets at night. He mocked, saying, “My wife asks for my help to guide her to the toilet, but I cannot see well, either. So, we help each other to find our way to the toilets.”

Even though COVID-19 has become a top concern worldwide, where the older people are regarded as the most vulnerable, al-Hussein did not know about this disease until someone refused to shake his hands as a precaution.

“We do not want to get infected; I am 75 years old, and so is my wife. Yet, we have no masks.” However, al-Hussein thinks that refusing the offer of a handshake seems to be a shameful act.

Some relief organizations carried out raise-awareness campaigns and provided people of the camp, including the elderly,  with masks and sanitizers. 

 Qusai al-Khatib, the manager of the “Balsam” voluntary team, told Enab Baladi that they launched a campaign targeting senior citizens to confirm their commitment to prevention methods.

Moreover, the Insan Charity plans to provide psychological, health-care, and social support services, especially for the elderly. So, they can deal with the pandemic “without panic or worry,” according to Khaled al-Fajr, the director of public relations and partnerships in the Insan Charity.

The statistics of the Assistance Coordination Unit recorded 1,073 cases of COVID-19 up to late September.

 However, the number of older people with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, blood pressure, and heart diseases, who do not get their basic health needs in the camps, is much higher, as estimated by Mohammed Hallaj, the director of Syria’s Response Coordination Group (SRCG).

Hallaj said to Enab Baladi that around 135.7 thousand older adults are living in the camps. The older people’s main problem is their chronic diseases. That is because drug prices are subject to price fluctuations, the prices of medicines soar as a result of various things, such as increased costs as well as lack of all sorts of medication. The engineer, who oversees the updating of the periodic statistics of human needs in northwest Syria, added that “They are unable to work, and they have no stable income.”

In northwestern Syria, the proportion of elderly headed households reached 38 percent, according to the latest assessment released by the “REACH” initiative at the end of last September of the needs of the newly displaced in northwestern Syria.

Nearly 55 percent of the elderly who live alone cannot meet their own food needs, thus securing medication, and even hygiene and sterilization supplies remains difficult.

The head of drug control in Idlib’s health directorate, Mustafa Daghim, told Enab Baladi that medicines are available free of charge in primary care centers, supported by relief organizations, noting that the Syrian pound was replaced with the Turkish lira for stabilizing the prices of products including the medicine in northwestern Syria.

However, medicine is not always available, and health centers are far from the campsites, according to Abd al-Salam al-Youssef, director of al-Tah camp, pointing out that the mobile clinics visiting the camp once a week do not provide its residents with medicine. Therefore, they try to get their medications by communicating with charities.

Al-Hussein does not spend his time worrying about diseases, but he strolls bent over to meet his neighbors in the camp from the elderly to check on each other, “I like sitting with them since I got here and they took care of me.”

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