Syrian grandmother defies perils to cross Aegean at age 110


How far can a desire to see a loved one take us? Laila Saleh was so desperate to see the granddaughters she helped raise that she didn’t think twice about following the rest of her family out of northern Syria, despite being 110 years old. Her yearning to see Nisrin and Berivan, who had fled Kobani for Europe three years ago and now live in Germany after being granted asylum, bolstered her determination.

“The journey was not easy, of course,” Laila’s grandson, Halil, told Kathimerini as he welcomed us into an apartment rented by Solidarity Now for asylum seekers in downtown Athens. The family, which is of Kurdish descent, traveled from Kobani to Izmir on the Turkish coast, and from there to the Greek island of Lesvos by inflatable boat. “Our grandmother can walk a little bit, but not long distances.”

Their group consisted of seven people, spanning four generations, and tried to ensure that as little as possible of the journey was on foot. When finding transport proved impossible, Halil and his father would carry Laila. “I carried the two children, one on my front and one on my back,” said his young wife, Saousan, as she played with twins Azar and Ari, Laila’s great-grandchildren.

Despite the enormous challenges of the journey and a treacherous sea crossing – a first for Laila – the idea of leaving the elderly woman behind never crossed her children’s minds. “Our house had been bombed and we had to rent another one, but living conditions were bad,” said Halil. “Even though Grandmother is independent, she wouldn’t want to live anywhere without her children.”

The family had already suffered tremendous loss and there was little to keep them in war-ravaged Kobani. “In Syria, it is the duty of the youngest son to take care of his mother when she grows old,” said Laila’s son Ahmet, who has a heart problem and couldn’t carry his mother alone. He thankfully has his wife of 33 years, Ali, by his side, who helps care for the elderly woman. “I sleep very lightly at night because she often needs me,” said the 58-year-old woman. “She is very confused right now because of all the changes,” she added of her mother-in-law.

Born in December 1907, Laila had a birthday this month, though the family does not know her exact date of birth. He longevity may make an impression on outsiders, but the family thinks it normal. “Our grandfather, Laila’s husband, died at the age of 115. That was in 1987, and Grandmother has lived with us since,” said Halil.

Laila married young and had seven children, only five of whom are still alive. Her days were spent tending to their field and the family. She also enjoyed cooking – and eating, her son said. “She’d steal bites out of the pot before the food was ready,” said Ahmet. “She still has a very good appetite, which we take for a sign of good health.”

Laila often talks about Kobani as it was when she was a young woman, before cars and industrial development. “They had goats which they used for milk and butter, the famous Arabic butter that is so hard to find today,” said Halil. “She would eat a lot of butter with bread, which may have contributed to her longevity.”

Years of hardship may have left their mark on Laila, but the elderly woman is still considered the pillar of the family. On our visit, she made sure her children offered us a drink and a snack. “God knows better than us,” she said at one point during our conversation.

A few months ago, the family made the big decision to flee Syria. They arrived on Lesvos on November 7 and spent four days at the Moria camp. Because of Laila and the children, they were categorized as vulnerable and offered more suitable accommodation in an apartment in the main town, Mytilene. The family was later accepted into the housing and hospitality program of the nongovernmental organization Solidarity Now, which is run by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and funded by the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations department. The family now live in Athens and are getting to know their new neighborhood until their asylum hearing – unfortunately set for 2019, despite Laila’s age.