At first, 102-year-old Saada was reluctant to leave Syria. Even when the bombing started, she simply continued with her daily routine. Eventually, her grandson persuaded her to flee to Lebanon, but only after promising that he would one day carry her body back to Syria and bury her next to her brother.

Saada has lost a lot in her life – seven of her ten children, her husband and her home.

Now living in a refugee settlement 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 to 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.”

The International Day of Older Persons on 1 October calls for greater attention to the unique needs and challenges faced by many older people. This is particularly important for older refugees, who make up an estimated 8.5 per cent of the overall population of concern to UNHCR.

Saada Al Jomaa, 102, pictured in her son's rented home in Nabi Chit, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. ©UNHCR/ A. McConnell

During times of displacement, elderly refugees are just as vulnerable as younger refugees, but their needs are more likely to be overlooked. The elderly are often ill-equipped to flee and tend to be the last to escape from danger. A lack of mobility, weakened vision and chronic illnesses can make it difficult for them to access support.

In exile, the elderly can become socially isolated and physically separated from their families, compounding their vulnerability. Many struggle to rebuild their lives after being uprooted from all they know.

“You know, without the help of UNHCR most of us would starve here,” says Saada.

“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.”

Elderly displaced Syrians from Eastern Ghouta keep warm inside a collective shelter in rural Damascus. ©UNHCR/B. Diab

On the other side of the world, 90-year-old Rohingya refugee Gul Zahar looks back on a lifetime of injustices that have afflicted her family.

At home in Myanmar, they lacked basic rights and freedoms. Gul first fled to Bangladesh in 1978, then again in 1991 and once more last August, when her village was torched in a deadly attack.

Now a great-grandmother, she lives in a one-room shelter in Kutupalong refugee settlement with four generations of her extended family. “It’s been a lifetime of sorrow,” she says.

In Bangladesh, Gul has access to healthcare, trauma counselling and other specialised services, but the call of home remains strong. “I want to die on my own soil,” she says.

UNHCR works hard to support and protect older people on the move, providing access to support services as they recover and rebuild after a crisis. With the help of our donors, we aim to ensure that older refugees live their later years with dignity and security.

You can help protect and assist elderly refugees in their time of need
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Ninety-year-old Rohingya woman Gul Zahar has been forced to flee her home in Myanmar three times over the course of her life. ©UNHCR/R. Arnold

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