The moment Siham stepped into the room, the 82-year-old asked the UNRWA organizers about the whereabouts of her younger sister, Hamida, not knowing whether or not she would be there. But she did not have to wait long for an answer; as she scanned the room, Siham spotted Hamida. “I couldn’t describe the feeling at that moment,” says Siham. Hamida, who is six years younger than Siham, says, “I did not expect to see Siham. We hugged and we cried [when we found each other].”
The last time they had seen each other was over a year ago. The separation had been intense as the conflict in Aleppo, and in Syria in general, has made it harder for families to stay connected. Although Hamida and Siham live a relatively short distance from each other, road closures, a lack of continuous phone access and physical disabilities had made it harder for the sisters to stay in touch.
Hamida has difficulties walking and lives in a collective shelter with her daughter and her two grandchildren – their father died as a victim of the ongoing conflict. As for Siham, although she is mobile, it is difficult for her to leave her third-floor single-room shelter, which is only accessible through a narrow, steep and dark staircase. Siham explains that although the elderly prefer to meet in person, they are reluctant to impose on their children, on whom they rely. “Life is so difficult that people focus on their immediate family needs, so we have stopped reaching out to our relatives because we do not want to be a burden on [our children],” she explains. “The fabric of families has been affected in the crisis.”
Siham and Hamida’s children, like many Palestine refugees affected by the crisis, struggle to earn wages to cover their basic household needs. Over 60 per cent of the 438,000 Palestine refugees in Syria have been displaced at least once, and 90 per cent rely on UNRWA for food and cash assistance.
Prior to the crisis, the sisters used to visit each other every week in Ein el Tal camp, north of Aleppo, where they both lived. This changed when the camp became engulfed in conflict in 2012, forcing the sisters to flee in search of safety. “When we left, [it was raining] mortars,” recalls Siham. The five properties they collectively owned were destroyed.
To bring the elderly some respite during the conflict, an UNRWA Area Office Support team, working with the UNRWA Relief and Social Services Office in the north, created a psychosocial support event called ‘Refresh Your Memory’. The event was designed to stimulate the community’s collective memory and encourage seniors to share their experiences and express themselves to help mitigate the impact of the crisis. Forty-six seniors (over the age 55) participated – the eldest participant was 88 years old.
This is the first of such initiatives targeting elderly people in Aleppo for both UNRWA and the humanitarian community. The aim is to continue engaging with the elderly to gain a better understanding of the impact of the crisis on this population and to inform the appropriate interventions. Based on the designs and the leadership of the participants themselves, UNRWA plans to continue such events in Aleppo and around the country.
Siham was among those participating who recalled her experiences from the Nakba. She was 12 years old and her sister was 6 in the winter of 1948 when their family fled their home in Palestine to the north of Syria. Almost 70 years later, neither sister expected to have to live through another traumatic conflict.
When asked how she felt at the gathering, Siham says she had mixed feelings. “We were thrilled and excited to see old neighbours,” she says. “I was happy to learn that some have made it out alright, but sadness has haunted us as others have lost their sons during the conflict.”
To bolster the Agency’s programmatic response on the ground, the UNRWA Area Support Offices were created in 2015 to assist programmes in delivering services to meet the minimum standards of safety, dignity, accessibility and equity. Area Support Officers have a wide remit of interventions that allow for creative responses to support the smooth delivery of services to the community, including design programming that addresses the needs of the most vulnerable populations. The programme provides technical support and guidance to all UNRWA operations, in addition to support for programme coordination. In 2017, UNRWA requires US$ 411 million for its Syria Regional Crisis Emergency Appeal.