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Syria’s Civil War and the World’s Oldest Refugee

A reflection on our collective failures as human societies.

February 11, 2014

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

“I was not sure I would see the morning last night,” Sabria Khalaf, the old refugee from Syria told me in Athens, Greece, in January.

The deep wrinkles on her face and hand, her frail and shrunk body, and her waning voice betray her age. “I may be 105 years old,” she said. Sabria’s Syrian ID card marks 1907 as her year of birth, making her 107 years old.

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It is, however, a futile task trying to determine the actual age of a woman born in the rural Middle East in the early years of the last century. As there were no official registries, family members recorded the birth of their newborns on a piece of paper, records that often disappeared as time passed.

In other cases, birthdates were put to the fading memory of the elders. When actual ID cards were issued years later, many simply guessed the date they opened their eyes to this world. We may not ever know Sabria’s exact years in this world, but her face reveals the heavy dust of a very long history.

Seeing more than a century

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.

Sabria Khalaf (Credit: Behzad Yaghmaian)

Sabria is a Yazidi Kurd. She 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

Most of Sabria’s extended family has lived in Germany for years. They emigrated for economic reasons. Her son 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 of reaching Germany and reuniting with her family.

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 family is in Germany, Sabria can be entitled to a family reunification visa in Germany. Getting that is not a quick matter, however.

Sabria’s chance of being admitted to German is overshadowed by complex local politics in Syria, and survival strategies her family members chose during their migration process.

In 1962, the Syrian government conducted a special population census in Sabria’s province as a part of a larger Arabization scheme. Some 120,000 Kurds lost their Syrian ID cards after they handed them over to the government for renewal. Among them were some of Sabria’s family members.

While Sabria was issued a new card, the others were stripped of their Syrian identity. Stateless and without a Syrian ID card, they used new names and created new identities upon arriving in Germany and registering with the government.

Sabria’s family tree, essential for her case for family reunification, is riddled with complexities and realities beyond her control.

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.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on March 4 with additional information about Sabria’s age and the complexities of immigration from the Middle East to Germany. To find out how you can help, click here.


The story of Sabria, a 107-year old refugee from Syria, is the ultimate Greek tragedy.

The EU’s existing migration regime works slowly and lacks flexibility to deal with special situations.

What is written in Sabria’s face is our collective failures as human societies.

The stories of Syrian refugees are a crossroads between the tragedies of war and sectarianism.

“I want to die surrounded by my family. That is all I want from God.”