“People full of love:” Honouring the bravery and sacrifice of refugee grandparents

Across the world, refugee grandmothers and grandfathers are overcoming adversity while caring for their families and one another.

UNHCR Canada
4 min readSep 9, 2020
Mona and Kaj are Finnish pensioners who have assumed the role of grandparents for 3-year-old Diana, a refugee from Iraq who arrived on the Finnish island of Nagu in 2015. Diana and her father, Azaldeen, fled Iraq after her mother was abducted. © UNHCR/Max-Michel Kolijn

When conflict, violence or war forces refugee families from their countries, seniors are at particular risk of abuse and neglect. Already battling mobility issues and chronic illnesses, being a refugee is another burden which only makes them more vulnerable. Despite their struggles, refugee grandmothers and grandfathers go above and beyond to care for their families. Here are five incredible stories of grandparents from around the world looking after their loved ones and newcomers to their communities.

“Grandpa’s House” becomes a warm home for elderly Venezuelan refugees

Morato, a 75-year-old painter, spends his days creating murals on the walls of Grandpa’s House, a care centre for seniors in Colombia. The lives of those in the quiet residence were changed one day when Venezuelan families fleeing violence and poverty in their country knocked on the door looking for help. The residents of Grandpa’s House welcomed them, offering them a place to sleep and food to eat with the support of UNHCR. In return, the Venezuelan refugees help cook and serve lunch.

“Helping them feels like I am helping my mother or my grandma,” says Susy, who fled Venezuela with her four daughters.

Rohingya grandparents and grandchildren rely on one another as they trek to safety

Rohingya refugee Mabia Khatun, 75, (left) rests after being carried to Bangladesh from Myanmar in a blanket on a bamboo pole as Amina Khatun, 80, her sister in law (right) sits nearby. © UNHCR/Adam Dean

The Rohingya, a largely stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar, have often been victims of persecution. Many families have had to flee, sometimes walking for days and weeks in search of safety in neighbouring Bangladesh. They have done everything they could to care for one another, from children carrying their grandmothers on foot for days on end, to seniors caring for their grandchildren once they arrive in their new settlement. Refugee grandmother Gulbahar fled Myanmar with her nine-year-old granddaughter. They travelled together for 12 days before arriving in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, where Gulbahar was reunited with her youngest grandchild. Now, she cares for both of them.

“If we hadn’t come here, we could have died,” Gulbahar says.

A Finnish senior becomes a grandmother figure to young Iraqi refugee

Three-year-old Diana from Iraq and her Finnish ‘grandmother’ Mona. © UNHCR/Max-Michel Kolijn

After his wife went missing in Iraq, Azaldeen knew his young daughter, Diana, was not safe. Knowing they could not find safety in their home city of Baghdad, Azaldeen and Diana were among 100 Iraqi refugees who found a new home on a small island off the coast of Finland. There, 80-year-old resident Mona took the family under her wing, becoming a grandmother figure to Diana. On the island of Nagu, Diana was given a calm space in Mona’s home where she could relax and feel like a loved grandchild.

“I don’t want to move Diana again now that we finally have found a big family here,” Azaldeen says. “My family is Mona and Kaj.”

Under one roof: Afghan grandmother rebuilds life with family after decades in exile

Sardar Bibi, 45, takes a tea break in front of her newly-built shelter in Kandahar province, on 4 February, 2020. © UNHCR/Farzana Wahidy

Sardar Bibi is among more than six million former refugees who have returned to their native Afghanistan over the last 20 years. She had lived with her children and grandchildren as refugees in Pakistan for decades before making the journey back home. They arrived back in Kandahar with nothing. Sardar Bibi’s family of 12 and her daughter’s family of nine all lived in a single room.

“Life was hard back then. We were in such bad condition.”

With the help of UNHCR’s Cash For Shelter project, Sardar’s family have been able to move into a new home. “When we came to the new place, we became comfortable,” she said. “There is enough space for everyone.” In their home, Sardar Bibi can provide her grandchildren — like four-year-old Malali — with shelter and homemade bread.

Polish refugees and grandparents build a family legacy in Canada

William Procyk with his parents, sister and brother. Photo courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

Originally from Poland, the Procyk family’s story is one that firmly establishes their family’s legacy in Canada where the importance of hard work and community was paramount. Mike and Pauline Procyk fled Poland in 1939 at the beginning of the Second World War, looking for a safe home where their family could thrive. Arriving in Halifax by boat, the Procyk family travelled to a small farming community in Ontario. There, Mike and Pauline bought a farm and began building their family’s legacy. When Mike became ill, he asked his son William to take over the farm.

“My father had made him a promise… promise is what has inspired our family’s hard work ethic, as my father always said, ‘a promise is a man’s honour.’”

It was with this legacy that Mike and Pauline’s grandchildren — who are still operating a farm in Ontario — were able to prosper in Canada.

Help support refugee grandfathers and grandmothers this Grandparents Day. During times of displacement, older men and women have urgent needs that UNHCR works hard to meet. Donate now and help us ensure that older refugees live their later years in dignity and security.



UNHCR Canada

The UN Refugee Agency in Canada is dedicated to providing life-saving support to refugees, displaced and stateless people.