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After a century

Abdul Rahman Ahmed

From Elmah, Syria

now in Zaatari Camp, Jordan

Left Syria January 2013

Abdul Rahman Ahmed is 105 years old.

He was born into the Ottoman Empire. He hasn’t had teeth for 42 years.

“My wife took them out with her kisses,” he says.

By his count, Ahmed has had six wives, nine children, more than 100 grandchildren and at least 150 great-grandchildren.

“After that I’m not sure — I don’t keep in touch with them all,” he says, laughing. He’s always laughing, his rheumy, cataract-clouded eyes twinkling with mischief.

He lived for most of his life in the Syrian village of Elmah, where he was a farmhand tending wheat, lentils, chickpeas and watermelons.

Then the Syrian war came, and his house was destroyed by bombs dropped by Syrian government planes. Now he lives in a 20-foot-long trailer among 120,000 other Syrians crammed into the sprawling chaos of the Zaatari refugee camp in the desert of northern Jordan.

Most elderly refugees worry about doctors and health care and spend a lot of time at the camp’s numerous medical clinics. Not Ahmed. He feels great. He says he has never been to a doctor in his life, ever.

He doesn’t take medicine, doesn’t like it. Won’t even take an aspirin.

“God will take care of me,” he says.

He says he has perfect eyesight — doesn’t even need reading glasses. But that’s not a big problem since he never went to school and never learned to read or write. His village didn’t even have a school until 1930.

He eats a lot of hard candy. He loves coffee and drinks buckets of the high-octane, mud-thick brew that is coffee in this part of the world.

His white beard is stained yellow at the center of his upper lip, from the cigarettes he is constantly puffing. He says he smokes three packs a day, and there is always a pack of Manchester Lights sitting in front of him on the foam pad on the floor where he spends his days and nights, wrapped up in gray blankets from the U.N. refugee agency.

The secret of his longevity?

“The keys to a long life are cracked wheat, olive oil, tobacco and God,” he says, with the dead certainty of a man who has lived a century, his face almost disappearing in a cloud of cigarette smoke.

About the only concession Ahmed makes to old age is his wheelchair, which he uses to get around the rutted dirt roads of the refugee camp. He likes to walk a few steps every evening for exercise.

He mainly passes the time with family and neighbors, who seem to love to crowd around him. He’s fun. He’s a smart aleck. He says his final dream in life is to travel to Venezuela.

Why Venezuela? His friends practically shout at him as they ask, since he doesn’t hear so well.

“For the weather and the women,” he says, and everyone roars.

Abdul Rahman Ahmed sits with a son and grandson in his shared caravan at Zaatari refugee camp.

But there is a serious side, too. Ahmed is sad about being forced from his home.

He says it happened to him once before. After World War II, he spent a couple of years working in Palestine. But during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, he was forced to move home.

“When you leave your country it’s hard,” he says. “It’s okay here, but I lived in Syria for 104 years. My whole life in the same village. But if I have to die in Jordan, I will die in Jordan.”

He keeps up on the news from Syria through his friends.

“The crisis is getting worse and worse,” he says. “Right now I’d like to pick up a gun and go join the Free Syrian Army.”

Asked whether he knows the name of the U.S. president, he shakes his head and says, “Why would I know that?” (There have been 19 in his lifetime.) But when prompted by his friends, a look of recognition spreads across his face.

“Yes, Obama,” he says. “I want him to come save us.”

Every day, about 3,000 Syrians leave the country.

Since you started reading, roughly ## Syrians have left the country.