As the Syrian conflict enters its sixth year Age International and our partners are stepping up work among older refugees in Lebanon, helping even more older people to get access to the life-saving treatment they need to manage chronic health conditions. This includes people like Luhaya.
Luhaya is a 75-year-old widow who fled from Damascus three years ago with her son and his family. They are sharing a partitioned area of a large garage, which has been split into 19 rooms for refugees. Luhaya has diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and back pain, and used to receive free diabetes care in Syria. When the family first arrived in Lebanon she bought drugs from the pharmacy, but they were so expensive that she was asking people who were coming from Syria to bring them for her, which was unreliable. Our work means that for the past two years Luhaya has an easy-to reach primary health centre where she can get the medication and tests she needs.
Lebanon is host to more than 1 million Syrian refugees, 2.6% of whom are aged 60 and over. Older people are generally less likely and less able to make the long and difficult journeys that are needed to find refuge, and many simply cannot face the thought of abandoning their homes. That is why the majority of older people have either stayed in Syria or fled to neighbouring countries only. These older refugees have specific vulnerabilities, such as long-term illnesses or disabilities, and are less able to compete for what manual work is available.
Over 54 per cent of older Syrian refugees suffer from at least one chronic condition, most commonly diabetes and hypertension. Recent changes to Lebanon's residency laws mean that many will find themselves unable to access public health services, becoming increasingly reliant on healthcare provided by humanitarian organisations.
For refugees like Khalifa (55), having free healthcare is a lifeline. Having fled from the fighting in Raqqa, Syria, five years ago with her youngest son and his family, Khalifa started suffering from hypertension soon after they arrived in Lebanon. The family pays $70 a month for a plot in an informal tent settlement in the Bekaa Valley and would struggle to find the money to pay for healthcare. But through our health clinics Khalifa is able to receive free consultations and medication, "I like coming here, I feel safe," she says.
Older Syrian refugees are also three-times more likely to show signs of psychological distress - fear, anger, depression and feelings of hopelessness - than the general refugee population. The four most common causes of psychological distress were: traumatic experiences, lack of a sense of 'daily life', growing insecurity and a loss of dignity.
The programme is providing essential psychosocial support for those who need it most. It has also improved access to treatment of chronic, non-communicable diseases and over the next three years it will help nearly 2,000 older refugees a month. We will provide training on older people's needs, medicine and upgrade existing medical facilities to be more age-friendly.
One of the clinics is within 30 minutes of the Syrian border and provides a range of services, including GP consultations, psychological support, dermatology, non-communicable diseases and acute infection treatment. Living conditions are poor and often those suffering can't afford essentials such as food, let alone the medication they need, meaning that health conditions deteriorate. Services for older people are entirely reliant on support from the Charity at this clinic, many of whom would have nowhere to turn without it, providing the security of healthcare for those fleeing conflict.
The situation for older Syrians still living in Syria is even more stark. Medical treatment of any kind is scarce and drugs for chronic diseases are just not available for many. Many older Syrians have little to no support network left as younger family members and carers have fled, leaving them unable to access essential supplies and services, and vulnerable to violence and abuse.
The Syrian conflict has caused unimaginable levels of hardship for so many people. The impact of the crisis on older people has not received the attention it deserves, and the response to the needs of older people has been far from adequate. Older refugees have too often been hidden amongst the overall refugee population, facing significant difficulties in accessing appropriate aid and at risk of falling through the gaps in humanitarian relief. We will continue to do what we can to change this.
To find out more about our work in Lebanon or make a donation go to www.ageinternational.org.uk/syria
1. In 2010, a year before the war started, UN estimates were that 5.2 per cent of the Syrian population were aged 60 and over (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, DVD Edition). The latest figures from UNHCR show that just 2.9 per cent of registered Syrian refugees are older (http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php)
Photocredit: Quentin Bruno / HelpAge International