Like a Greek Tragedy: the story of the World’s Oldest Refugee – from Syria

February 14, 2014

This post is not about human rights defenders and not really about the treatment of refugees in Greece. It is simply such a story – published by Behzad Yaghmaian in the Globalist of 11 February 2014 –  that I could not resist sharing it. The original title is: “Syria’s Civil War and the World’s Oldest Refugee; A reflection on our collective failures as human societies“. Once you have read this, you will agree that Greece, Germany and the UNHCR should quickly find a solution on humanitarian grounds:

(Sabria Khalaf, 107-year old refugee of the Syrian civil war (c) Behzad Yaghmaian)

In her own words with English subtitles:

“I was not sure I would see the morning last night,” Sabria Khalaf, a 107-year old refugee from Syria told me in Athens, Greece, in January. She is the oldest refugee in the world. Sabria’s story is a crossroad between tragedies of war and sectarianism, and a world overwhelmed by the increasing population of refugees fleeing unending conflicts. I met Sabria in a run-down building in central Athens. I bowed to her. In her frail voice, she thanked me for the visit. She put her hands on her eyes, then her head, and asked God to protect me. Sabria was frail, fatigued not just by old age, but also by a long and torturous journey that had brought her to this strange city. She was in Athens by chance and did not know the world around her. “I would have made you tea if I was feeling better,” she apologized.

Seeing more than a century. Sabria is a Yazidi Kurd. Born in 1907, Sabria witnessed the closing years of the Ottoman Empire, World War I and the French Mandate. Later on, she witnessed the Baath Party’s reign in Syria, as well as many regional conflicts. She did not leave her place of birth until outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the arrival of Islamist forces. “We had never experienced such violence,” Sabria’s son said about the mayhem created by the Islamist warriors. They had arrived in the Kurdish region barefoot and they wore keys to heaven around their neck, he told me. “We don’t want to be wearing shoes when we meet the prophet in heaven,” they told the locals. The Islamists fought with the Kurdish forces and brutalized the civilians. Many locals left for other areas in the country. After all these years, home was no longer safe for Sabria.

Out of Syria Sabria’s extended family, two remaining daughters and many grandchildren and great grandchildren, have lived in Germany for years. They emigrated for economic reasons. Her son had remained behind in Syria to care for his aging mother. Still, with civil war raging, Sabria had to leave home. She took to the road, starting an uncertain journey with the hope to reach Germany and reunite with her daughters and their families. Turkey was her first stop. After months of living in migrant ghettos of Istanbul, Sabria’s son made arrangements with a smuggler for their delivery to Italy across the Mediterranean Sea. They traveled with some 90 immigrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Africa. The smuggler divided them and kept the group in three locked rooms at the bottom of the boat. Sabria and her son were in the room where fuel tanks were kept. They traveled for three days in rough waters. High waves rocked the boat, threw things around, Sabria’s son told me, his hands going up and down in a wavelike motion. Water entered the room. Fuel splashed everywhere. “I was covered by fuel. I lost consciousness,” Sabria recalled. The boat never made it to Italy. It got stuck in a storm not far from Athens. An Afghan refugee who was in the same room with Sabria broke the door and escaped. He put a knife to the captain’s throat and forced him to call for help. Two Greek Coast Guard boats arrived and rescued the stranded refugees.

Stuck in Athens For now, Sabria and her son share a dirty flat rented by a Syrian refugee who is on his way to another country in the EU. Many Syrians went through Sabria’s building and the surrounding ones in recent months. Arriving in Athens, they stayed there until their smugglers arranged their travel. Twice last year, the building next door to Sabria’s was the target of Molotov cocktail attacks, undertaken by the followers of the Golden Dawn, the Greek fascist party. Sabria’s son is worried. Sabria hopes to leave for Germany. She does not know how. All odds are against her. She would have to travel to Germany illegally. Less than a month in Athens, Sabria already made an attempt to fly to Germany using a fake ID. She was caught and politely sent home. She is too frail for a clandestine boat trip to Italy and cannot walk to the Serbian border and proceed further from there, as a growing number of Syrians do these days.

Why not Germany? Given that her daughters are in Germany, Sabria is entitled to a family reunification visa in Germany. Getting that is not a quick matter, however. Sabria’s old age and her dire living conditions in Greece will most likely betray her chance of legal family reunification. The existing migration regime in the EU, which works slowly, does not seem to have the required flexibility to deal with life-end cases like Sabria’s. She will most likely die in Athens. “I am ill. I don’t have much time left. I want to die surrounded by my family. That is all I want from God,” she told me. She is on the road in search of a place to die. Her story is the ultimate Greek tragedy. What is written in Sabria’s face is our collective failures as human societies

Syrias Civil War and the Worlds Oldest Refugee – The Globalist.


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