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THE OLDEST MAN IN ZA’ATARI

Yousef lies on his bed in the caravan, watching carefully as the visitors arrive. His handshake is firm. In his other hand he clutches his prayer beads. According to his official Syrian family book he is 113 years old, born in January 1, 1903.

Nejmeh (means star in Arabic) leans over her old father and kisses him, he whispers few words to her, she laughs and hand over a cigarette.

“I forbade him to smoke because he is old,” she says. “But I feel bad for him, my heart melts. So I give him one.”

Yousef claims that smoking cigarettes is part of his secret for an immensely long life, the other two secrets are prayer and healthy natural food.

“His faith is strong. He always prayed and fasted. Even though he is bedridden, he always holds his prayer beads. And he always praises God.”

Now Yousef must pray and praise in exile. His home is Za’atari refugee camp, across the border from Dara’a, the Syrian region where he lived for more than a century. Za’atari began as a collection of tents in the desert. It is now a settlement of ordered rows of caravans, home to more than 79,000 people, with nine schools and two hospitals. And 3,000 shops run by refugees.

Nejmeh remains at his side, along with her 16-year-old son, Ahmed, born almost a century after his grandfather. Theirs is a story of love. Yousef moved in with Nejmeh after her husband died 12 years ago. Now she and her son care for him tenderly.

“He tells me he wants to go back,” she says. “He made me promise, if he dies, to bury him in Syria.”

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