Memories of Syria from a 113 year-old refugee

Hamde Fares’ gnarled fingers nimbly run the beads of the masbaha, the Muslim rosary, which she holds in her left hand. Every so often, the elderly Syrian woman pauses in her story to murmur a prayer. According to her Syrian ID card, she is 113 years old, so theoretically she was 105 when she fled the war in Syria to become a refugee. Sitting on a mattress inside the tent she inhabits in the informal camp of Tueli, in northeastern Lebanon and bordering the Syrian border, this herdswoman recounts the last decade of strife in Syria, the era of greatest poverty in more than a century of life, she says. Wiry, the woman clears her throat, her throat dry from not drinking water all day. Despite her age, she still observes the fast in this holy month of Ramadan.

Fares crossed the Lebanese border in 2013 accompanied by her youngest son, Rasein, who today sits next to her and is in charge of shouting questions in her ear, without a mask. “She never studied, she is a simple and devout woman,” the son apologizes to each answer. She lost her sight in 2001, just as the ophthalmologist Bashar el-Assad was one year in power after the death of his father, Hafez el-Assad. The United Nations counts 865,000 Syrians living as refugees in Lebanon, a figure the Lebanese government puts at 1.5 million. Of these, only 50 are over 100 years old, says Lisa Abou Khaled, spokeswoman for the Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Fares is the oldest among those registered, after another 119-year-old compatriot who “neither sees nor hears,” says Abou Khaled.

The old woman is hard of hearing, but her memory is intact. “Before, there were no borders, I took my cattle from one side to the other without any problems,” she recalls in an interview last April 22. By “before,” he means at the beginning of the last century. In winter he would walk for weeks to take his camels and cows to graze in Al Badia, the Syrian desert in the center of the country. In summer he did so in the province of Homs and in the meadows of the Lebanese Bekaa Valley, long before France and the United Kingdom agreed in 1916 to partition the Middle East into zones of direct control and influence. A line then separated the land where Fares’ animals grazed, dividing Lebanon and Syria on either side. Then, the Bedouin and her family stopped being nomads to settle in their village in Homs.

Her family is from Nahariyah, a small village on the outskirts of the city of Qusseir (Syria), although Fares probably came into the world in the winter of 1908, because her identity card marks Al Badia as her place of birth that year. It was precisely there that he was surprised by the departure of the French troops when in 1946 Syria ceased to be a Gallic mandate to become an independent country. “When we returned from Al Badia to the village there was not a Frenchman left,” he recalls. For the Bedouins, identity did not depend then on a document issued in Damascus but on the tattoos that still mark the tanned skin of this woman between her eyebrows and chin, symbols of belonging to the Nughim tribe. Official registration came later.

At 113 years old, Hamde Fares is one of the longest-lived Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Another 50 displaced persons, among more than 865,000 refugees, have lived more than a century.Natalia Sancha García

For this woman the history of Syria is also not defined by political preferences or social freedoms that guide the debates of her grandchildren, but by droughts, taxes, confiscations of livestock and obstacles in the movement to graze. In the time of the French, he asserts, they were the only ones with vehicles. “Times have changed,” the old woman continues, “because now the ranchers transport their animals in trucks.”

The departure of the French ushered in an era of political and economic instability, Fares continues. For her, Maamoun’s arrival in Kuzbari in 1952 as vice president brought an improvement in the quality of life. None of those present in the store, between the two sons and several of the more than 100 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, know who Kuzbari is. The younger ones scramble for a cell phone to Google the name. However, when asked what she thinks of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) entry into the war, the old woman replies, “Who are those?”, sparking laughter from those present.

Of the five children she gave birth to, two died of natural causes. Her husband has been dead for more than half a century. The rest are all refugees in various camps in Lebanon. Qusseir was one of the toughest battles of the war and the town is now taken over by Lebanese Hezbollah militiamen. Return is impossible. Of the 3,000 inhabitants of the village, only about 30 have remained in their homes. The rest have scattered to seek refuge in neighboring countries or in Europe, says his son Rasein.

Political instability was a constant in the Levantine country, recalls the centenarian: “The leaders did not even last six months”. This is how she sums up the era between 1949 and 1970, when eight coups d’état took place. The last one brought Hafez el Asad to power, establishing a period of stability based on an iron fist. “At the beginning everything went very well with Hafez, and life improved. We had access to hospitals and the young people were educated,” says the refugee. “Then came the fear,” she continues. She voted for the president by signing each ballot “with her thumb smeared in ink”. Hafez won four consecutive elections with between 99.9 and 100% of the votes. Fares will not vote on May 25, when Bashar is expected to win his fourth election as president in a country devastated by a decade of war, economically ruined and plunged into pandemic.

Clinging to her masbaha, Fares claims she does not fear covid-19. In fact, she has refused to be vaccinated. “I have delicate skin and fear a skin reaction,” she says. The last 10 years of strife are just one passage in this woman’s memory, but the saddest, she says: “Before there was always something to eat, now Syrians go hungry.” Blindness prevented her from seeing anything of what was happening, but she was able to hear the roar of the bombs and live in her flesh the hardship of becoming a refugee dependent on UN aid in a land now alien to her, where her children, opposed to the regime, took her. The same land where she used to graze her cattle.

She says she is fortunate because, although she no longer has animals or land, she lives surrounded by her family, even if it is crammed into a tent. Blindness has condemned her to spend her days lying on a mattress. Dressed in black and with her head covered by a cloak, she agrees to get up and walk a few steps to pose for the camera. She does it slowly but without much help as she tells how much she misses the apricots, figs and pistachios of her village. A village to which, “if Allah wills it,” he may one day return.

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