A family divided by war leaves an elderly woman alone, ‘too ashamed’ to ask for help

When Umm Rahef, 71, remembers her late husband Hani, she remembers the good days: her childhood neighborhood in the coastal city of Latakia where they first met, the peaceful years spent with one another and their two daughters.

“Life was simple and beautiful,” she tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani from her house in regime-held Latakia. “Everyone in the neighborhood was happy with one another—we were all one big family.”

Widowed 10 years ago, Umm Rahef’s house is empty except for her. Her two grown daughters, whom she used to visit “every month” before the war, live with their husbands and children in the small town of Jabal al-Akrad. The town is just 35km away, but it is held by the opposition, which means she cannot reach it.

The war’s shifting frontlines divide families and friends, now cordoned off from one another by an array of government and rebel checkpoints—“borders made with our own hands,” says Umm Rahef.

 By Kristen Jubran. Courtesy of Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution.

She cannot safely cross into opposition territory, and her daughters cannot cross into regime territory.

And so, Umm Rahef is left to spend her final years, alone and scared that she will die in her house and no one will know it.

“Sometimes I get sick and I’m unable to leave the house, so I stay at home without food for days, eating dried-up scraps of leftover bread,” she says.

“I’m too ashamed to ask for help from strangers.”

Q: How does living apart from your daughters impact your day-to-day life?

After the war began and I was deprived of my daughters’ visits, some of my neighbors felt sympathy for me and brought me food and medicine.

But sometimes I get sick and I’m unable to leave the house, so I stay at home without food for days, eating dried-up scraps of leftover bread. I’m too ashamed to ask for help from strangers—they have their own problems to worry about.

Every day, I’m scared that I will die in this home and nobody will know. I hide my tears and the truth about my situation whenever one of my daughters calls to check on me.

I’m in my seventies, and I’ve already lost my husband. I don’t have anyone to look after me but my daughters. I’m alone in this house.

 “Syria Before and After,” by Moustafa Jano. Courtesy of Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution.

Q: You have two grown daughters, who live nearby in the Jabal al-Akrad area, just 35km away from you. Describe the obstacles preventing you from seeing them. Do they ever try to visit you?

Both of them live with their families in the small town of Jabal al-Akrad, which is under the control of opposition forces.

The last time I saw them was about a year and a half ago. Even though I’m elderly, it’s safer for me to visit them than the other way around.

The regime might accuse me of colluding with opposition areas or think that I am supporting the opposition by carrying funds or information.

As for my daughters, I’m certain they would end up arrested, along with their husbands and children, if they even thought of visiting me. Just being residents of a rebel-controlled area is enough to guarantee they would be arrested [by regime forces] on a fabricated charge like terrorism.

Q: Can you tell me more about your late husband? How did you two meet?

I met my husband Hani in the old neighborhood that we both lived in, when I still lived with my mother and father before I got married. In those days, life was simple and almost everyone knew each other, because Latakia is a small city.

When I was 24 years old, he approached me and asked for my hand in marriage. We had a traditional engagement party and wedding. I was very happy with Hani. Throughout our entire time together, I can’t recall a single day that we spent arguing with one another.

He worked as a government employee, and though the paycheck was small, he always tried his best to provide for me. We had everything we needed. Life was simple and beautiful, and everyone in the neighborhood was happy with one another—we were all one big family.

Q: Did you ever expect that this stage of your life—as a grandmother, with grown children—would be marred by war? When you were younger, what were the elderly women in your family like? Did you hope to someday live as they did, when you grew old?

We’ve lived through war and siege before, during the October War with Israel in 1973. However, that war was different. At that time, the enemy was foreign, and the fighting wasn’t between the people of Syria. That war worked to bind us all together even more, and we all helped one another get through it.

Today, we are all fighting one other—brothers are killing brothers, and families are split between the opposition and the regime. It’s as if we are cursed.

I still can’t understand how it’s possible for me to live inside my own country and I can’t even visit a city that is close by—one in which I have beautiful memories. How is it possible that I can’t visit my daughters, who aren’t even far from me?

There are checkpoints, roadblocks and borders within our country, made with our own hands.

Before, all the elderly women in my family lived normal lives. Their sons, daughters and grandchildren supported them until they passed away in peace and dignity, with a proper funeral.

If I died today, I would die a stranger. Nobody would come to my funeral.

Q: Your husband Hani passed away several years before the war began. When you remember him now, do you wish he was by your side? Or does it comfort you that he never had to see the war?

When I remember Hani, I remember the beautiful old days, but I can’t help comparing those days with what I’m going through right now. I never expected that I would be in the situation that I’m in today—alone, suffering, living in a house that’s empty of sound and life. I never imagined myself like this, with nobody to take care of me or even knock on my door. These days, I have nothing.

At times, I wish Hani could be by my side during these difficult days. But when I think about this war and the deprivation, the poverty and destruction wrought on this country, I tell myself that his soul is at peace—at least he never had to see what is happening today.

It is better for him that he didn’t have to see all the killing and the homelessness, that he didn’t have to hear what happened to his loved ones, his neighbors and all the people from his youth.

I wish I could have died before this war, like my husband.

Q: You mentioned that you visited your daughters about a year and a half ago, despite the risks involved. Tell me about your trip. Why did you return to regime-held Latakia, where you are living alone?

After opposition forces took over my daughters’ town in 2013, I went two and a half years without seeing them. Before the war, I used to visit them every month.

I couldn’t cope with the distance anymore so I decided to go and see my daughters, whatever the price. My neighbor’s son promised me that he had friends in the [pro-regime] shabiha militias at the checkpoints. He said he could accompany me, but he asked for a high price to bribe the militias at the checkpoint.

I paid around $1,500 in bribes, and we passed through five checkpoints after leaving Latakia, until we reached the last one under regime control.

The entire time, I was terrified of not knowing what would come next on the road, and at every moment I was praying for everything to go smoothly.

At the last regime checkpoint, my neighbor’s son had to leave me, because he couldn’t keep on going through to the opposition areas. Meanwhile, I called my daughters’ husbands, who were planning to pick me up from the opposition checkpoint in his area, with the help of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

I walked for nearly an hour, then rode in a car until we finally arrived.

It’s impossible to describe my joy when I saw my daughters. I stayed with my daughters for two weeks before I went back to Latakia. I had to return home along the same road, because the shabiha fighters made my neighbor’s son promise I would return as a condition for the bribes. They did paperwork to guarantee I would return, and then they took even more bribe money. 

If only I could have stayed with my daughters forever—I’ve lived a long, full life, and all I want now is to stay close to the people I love.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.