Idlib's elderly women are living out their twilight years steeped in suffering. Isolated, often suffering chronic illness, and ignored by both the local and international powers that be, their hardship is magnified by the grinding misery of displacement, abject poverty, lack of support, and the loss of those who they had always imagined would care for them as they entered into old age.
Elderly people make up the largest group in the camps of Idlib and northwest Syria; there is no longer a place for the youth in a country which has been utterly exhausted by the war over the last ten years.
Fatima al-Ramous: Forced to face old age alone
Fatima al-Ramous hobbles along on her crutches as she looks for her three grandchildren who are playing somewhere far from her tent. Fatima, who is in her sixties, suffers pains in her bones and joints which have worsened recently. She can hardly walk a few metres before she needs to sit and rest. This process is repeated several times until she reaches where she wants to go inside the camp.
The aged widow rarely leaves her tent in the Atma camp on Turkey's border, except for when necessary, for example, to pick up some basic essentials or collect pieces of wood to use for cooking for her family. She can no longer afford to use gas.
Fatima's grief is well hidden by the wrinkles that line her face, but her voice betrays an immeasurable sorrow. She lost two of her sons when her village Maar Shamarin was bombed and was then forced to flee as regime forces took control of the area. She is now an IDP (internally displaced person) living in a camp without the barest of life's basics.
The elderly Syrian says that 4 January 2019 was the "day of evil fortune that turned her life on its head." That day, her village was bombed by warplanes. She lost her two sons in one day, in one instant. One was Amar, who was 19, and unmarried. The other, Bilal (26), was married and had three sons. Their grandmother is now their sole caregiver following the death of their father, and the marriage of their mother to another man.
A few months later, following their displacement, Fatima's husband also died from an incurable disease. All that remained of Fatima's family was her daughter who is currently living in Turkey with her husband and children. The ailing grandmother suffers from loneliness and harrowing memories.
She had looked forward to being cared for by one of her sons as she entered old age. However, she has found herself forced to face getting old alone, with the added responsibility of raising her young grandchildren.
"I don't think about myself as much as I think about them – they have no one but God since losing their parents," she says, going quiet for a moment before continuing, her voice cracked with sadness: "My age stops me providing them with what they need. Even going to school like other children seems like a dream to them."
Fatima suffers from various chronic health conditions, including high blood pressure and diabetes but is rarely able to obtain the medication she requires, which has become increasingly expensive when it is available at all.
Moreover, it is practically impossible for her to access health services because of the camp's distance from the nearest city centres. In any case, she can't afford to pay fees for medical appointments or checks. All of this has left her bereft of treatment for her diseases, which are decimating her frail body day after day.
Taiba Yusuf Aboud: Idlib's camps are hell itself
Taiba Yusuf Aboud is not doing well. She lives with her three daughters in a small tent at the outermost edge of Furqan Camp, in Harbnoush town in northern Idlib. The pains in her feet and lack of access to treatment are the least of her troubles – the agony of losing her home and the estrangement from her village torment her far more. She spends her days grieving everything she has lost – her home, lands and belongings.
Her eyes glistened with tears, Taiba says life has been non-stop suffering since she had to flee her village Moataf in south Idlib. Life here doesn't remotely resemble life, she says, describing it instead as "hell itself. There is no food, medicine, or shelter to protect against the heat of summer and the cold in winter. Our tents are falling apart and our lives are full of misery and despair."
However, hopelessness does not reign supreme among the elderly in the camps of Idlib and northwest Syria. The horrendous living conditions have also seen many of the aged residents reveal another side – a resigned but patient perseverance in the face of the myriad obstacles they face.
Subhiya Qaddour: Helping each other
"A spiritual mother and mother to the unfortunate" is how residents of Deir Hassan camp describe fifty-something Subhiya Qaddour, who spares no effort to help the elderly women, widows, and disabled camp residents who need her. Her assistance might not be material – it could as easily be a kind word or advice.
Subhiya has lived in the camp since fleeing her city Maarat Al-Numan at the end of 2019. She relies on her sons, who left their studies to find work to support her. Despite her limited means, she takes it on herself to help other, more vulnerable camp residents, for whom life has become unbearable.
Subhiya describes life in the camp as "an exile" and says it distresses her that there is no assistance or provision in the way of services, medical care and psychological support for those languishing there.
"We try to help each other as a kind of social solidarity in the absence of anyone who cares about the suffering in the camps," Subhiya says, adding, "Worry and sadness hang heavily over those living here. What they need most is someone to support them – to feel compassion for their suffering – even if they can’t give much."
When she can, Subhiya gathers donations from other camp residents, with which she can buy a tub of medicine or a bag of bread to offer to the camp's poorest and most vulnerable families. She sees this kind of assistance as important even if it is not much in material terms.
Kulthum al-Khuluf (60) doesn’t hesitate to turn to Subhiya, whose tent neighbours hers when she feels anxious and sad. She lives alone in a tattered tent – every member of her family has either been killed, imprisoned or has left Syria.
However, Subhiya is always there to offer her support, she says, which stops her from feeling so alone.
Kulthum sees her neighbour as a ray of light from which she draws hope, strength and determination: "Whenever I see her and complain about my worries she helps me with a few supportive and encouraging words. She is a source of inspiration and gives hope to those who need it. Usually, I leave her tent renewed – in a completely different mental state from how I went in."
The mutual assistance between elderly women in the displacement camps isn't limited to advice, guidance and moral support. They also act to help those in distress, mediate to help solve problems between married couples and assist in whatever way they can to secure medicines and medicinal herbs for certain residents in need.
An example of this type of social solidarity in the Deir Hassan camp was when an elderly woman died one night in her tent. Her daughter, a widow, didn't know what to do and had no money for a winding sheet for the body of her mother. In response, several of her elderly neighbours hurried to her aid in the early hours of the morning before dawn. They helped her to wash and wrap the body, and summoned a number of men in the camp who helped find a spot for the grave, dig it and bury the old woman.
Access to free healthcare needed urgently
However, in the face of the growing needs of elderly women in Idlib and northwest Syria, the solutions appear limited, especially in the light of the current economic situation, the rising costs, the crippling poverty and the emaciated job market.
Marwan al-Mohamed (37), who oversees primary healthcare at the health centre in the Atma border camp says the camps are full of elderly women who lack essential material and psychotherapeutic services. There are no care homes for the elderly in the region, he adds. One reason for the glaring neglect of this segment of society is the lack of support from civil society organisations and health centres which have gradually emptied of specialised equipment and staff after international funding has been cut off from most of them.
Marwan stresses that the elderly struggle to access medical services far from where they live in the camps because of the lack of transport – and cost when it is available – as well as lacking the money to pay for medicines. He says effort needs to be made to find ways to ease access for the elderly to the services and help they need.
Here he suggests that mobile surgeries be set up to work in the IDP camps and provide medicines free of charge. This would facilitate access to treatment and health services easily and for free. He also thinks teams should be established to work in the camps providing psychotherapy services and educational sessions for the elderly so they can have "a dose of hope which will help them forget their sufferings of displacement and loneliness."
According to the Syrian Response Coordinators Group, the elderly in northwest Syria number nearly 417,000, with 175,000 of them living in IDP camps.
Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Monitor, SyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine.
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko