A Family Affair (How is it going for Syria’s elderly?)

With minimal pension benefits to senior Syrians, some of the country’s elders struggle with poverty and loneliness.

Photo by Owny Mohammad

At 75, Um Khaled has worked as a cleaner at Hama’s Home for the Elderly and People with Disabilities for 46 years.

“The residents of the home are all like my kids,” she said proudly. “I’ve taken care of them for years – I even married one of them off.”

The centre’s residents are more like family than her biological children, with whom she has no relationship.

Given Syria’s traditionally strong family ties, most elderly people are cared for and supported by their children. The state considers elderly care to be the responsibility of families, and therefore offers minimal pension benefits to senior citizens. As a result, lone elderly people like Um Khaled continue to work – and struggle – well into their twilight years.

Pension problems

The age of retirement in Syria is 60 years in both the private and public sectors. Only after working for 30 years in the public sector and 25 years in the private sector does a Syrian worker qualify for a full pension, which is equivalent to 75 percent of his or her salary, Moummar Kharboutly, a Syrian lawyer specialising in employment law, said.

These figures are commensurate with Western standards: workers in the US and the UK retire at an average age of 62 and 61 respectively, with public-sector pensions paying 20 percent of workers’ salaries in the US and 40 percent in the UK. However, workers in these countries are expected and able to save substantial portions of their wages, whereas in Syria, public-sector wages, at about SYP 12,000 (USD 255) per month, remain too low for workers to accrue personal retirement funds.

“This leaves an average employee with a pension that is barely enough to put food on the table,” Kharboutly said.

Although public-sector salaries are low and employees are banned from taking a second job, working in the private sector is worse, he said. Because more than 50 percent of private companies in Syria do not register employees, Kharboutly estimated that less than 10 percent of retired workers from the private sector qualify for pensions.

Retired Syrians with inadequate or no pensions who cannot rely on family care must live on charitable donations or move into Dar al-Karameh, the country’s only free home for the elderly that has two branches in Damascus and Aleppo. Another 20 privately run homes exist, and their fees vary. The facility in Hama where Um Khaled works costs SYP 5,000 (USD 106) to SYP 15,000 (USD 319) per month, depending on residents’ ability to pay, Mohammad Kheir Zikra, who serves on the home’s board of directors, said.

“Some elderly people are so hard up that we end up offering them a room for free,” he added. “We are a charity organisation after all; we can’t leave them out in the street.”

To raise funds, the centre collects donations, runs its own funeral services and operates several small shops.

Legal protection

Syria’s personal-status law is based on sharia, so poor or ill parents without family care have the legal right to sue their sons, though not their daughters, for parental alimony.

“According to sharia, just like parents cared for their children when they were small, the children have to take care of their parents when they grow old,” Kharboutly said.

Since few Syrians register their full incomes with the authorities, however, elderly parents are rarely awarded more than SYP 1,300 (USD 28) per month from each son, he said.

“If a man registers around SYP 15,000 (USD 319) as his salary, the judge simply can’t order him to pay SYP 10,000 (USD 213) to support his parents,” Kharboutly explained.

More than lack of money, many of the residents at the home for the elderly in Hama said they are concerned about estrangement from their children.

“It just feels so lonely when eid (Muslim holiday) comes and no one passes by,” a resident who has not seen his family for 23 years, said. “It used to be different; my house used to buzz with friends and visitors. Now I have nothing to look forward to. I’m just sitting here doing nothing until death comes.”


Life Imitates Art

Once you grow old, life is no longer “an action film”; it is a “black-and-white classic”. That is how Abu Yazan, who is in his 80s, described his life now. Luckily, the cinema aficionado loves old movies.

“When the first cinema opened in our neighbourhood, I was 10 or 11 – I can’t remember exactly,” Abu Yazan said with an embarrassed laugh. “As I was underage and couldn’t buy a ticket, I used to sneak in to watch the films. Now I’m old enough, but I can’t afford a ticket.”

Since his wife died three years ago, Abu Yazan lives on a pension of SYP 10,000 (USD 213) per month – enough to cover his bills and food, but not enough for him to go to restaurants or to the cinema. Instead, he watches films on television and takes short walks every evening with his elderly friends in nearby parks.

“Alhamdullilah,” he said with a smile. “It’s not a lot, but it’s enough for someone living alone like me.”

Although his children live abroad, Abu Yazan would never consider living in a home for the elderly.

“Moving to a home would be admitting that my life has ended,” he said. “It would feel as if I’ve expired. I’d rather stay in my own house, live my daily routine and wait for my children’s summer visits. Another nine months and summer will be back again.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.


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