GREECE – World’s oldest refugee: Iraqi woman aged 116 escapes from IS


An Iraqi grandmother aged 116 years who escaped from IS is the oldest refugee in Greece – and possibly the world!

Zafir, born on 1 July 1910, is older than the Iraqi state itself. At that time the Ottoman Empire still existed and the Titanic had not yet sunk. She was only a teenager when the Armenian genocide happened, and her family helped to protect two victims in their home. The 116-year-old says the secret of her longevity is “having the spirit of a child” and staying with your family “even when you have grown up”.

Yet she was still forced to flee from her home last February with her children and grandchildren. Zafir and her family were among the 500,000 Yazidis who were driven out of their homes by Islamic State.Those who were unable to leave were either killed or forced into slavery: attractive woman and girls were sold as sex slaves while the men were instantly shot dead.

Zafir and her son Barakat, his wife and five grandchildren aged between four and 12-years-old, were able to afford the fee to cross the Aegean Sea before landing in Lesbos on February 24. The family carried Zafir, weighing only five stone and completely blind, on their backs or pushed her in a wheelchair as they made the treacherous crossing.

The family arrived in Lesbos in February 2016 and spent  their first few nights in tents in the Athenian port of Piraeus with 6,000 other refugees. They were then moved on to the Nea Kavala camp, one of 47 sites created by the Greek government a few kilometres from the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and about 600 kilometres from Athens, where they were left waiting for weeks.

In August, the family was transferred to the Serres camp, Because Zafir  was deemed a vulnerable case, authorities housed them in a building where they spent their nights on a mattresses on the floor. Things are now looking up for the family thanks to Kristina, a volunteer who works for charity Yazda and has been helping Zafir for the last few months.

Kristina says: “You have to study cases individually, NGOs receive so many asylum requests that they probably didn’t realise the date of birth of this woman.

“I began the process to get her out of Greece on a trip I made in June last year, but I realised the enormous difficulty of obtaining a humanitarian visa for her. 

“At the end of September, during a visit from a German delegation to the Skaramagas refugee camp, I asked for help in facilitating the visa and contacted Greek refugee Council and the good news finally arrived.”

Kristina said the Greek Refugee Council told her they would be travelling to Germany in January. Zafir and her relatives have now been taken out of the camp where they lived for four months and are currently waiting in a hotel in Athens to catch a flight to Germany. 

 ACN Malta