The Boy on the Beach
I can see it from here,” said my brother, Abdullah, describing the landscape to me, his older sister, far away and safe in my home in Canada. “It’s right there,” he said. “So close and yet so far.”
My brother was a refugee fleeing Syria, standing on Turkish soil and looking at Kos, a large, soft-shouldered Greek island on the horizon. During the day, Kos was a mirage in the middle distance. At night it twinkled with life and seemed close enough to touch. For thousands of Syrian refugees during the summer of 2015, that island shimmering across the sea was their touchstone, their last hope for a better future.
“One hundred per cent, the smuggler said, we’ll go tomorrow,” Abdullah texted me.
“Talk to Dad before you leave,” I texted back.
Thunderstorms rolled in and out, pushed by high winds of as much as eighty kilometres per hour, delaying their departure. A few days passed.
August 9: “Leaving tonight.” But there were more thunderstorms and gusty winds.
August 10: “We went, but the smuggler sent us back.”
“Did you lose your money?” I texted.
“No. We will try again tonight. Don’t worry, sister, go to sleep.”
It was impossible not to worry. Each time Abdullah texted, “We’re leaving tonight,” I held my breath. There is an eight-hour time difference between Turkey and my home in Vancouver, Canada, and I got into the habit of going to sleep early so that I could wake up before dawn to check my cellphone. But my husband had to keep regular working hours, and so, to preserve his sanity, I left my cellphone in the kitchen every night. Every morning, the butterflies knocking in my stomach would wake me up, and I would rush to the kitchen for my phone. Every day for a month, each time that phone made a peep, my heart threw a fit.
My brother was only four kilometres from the shores of Kos, so close and yet so far. He was living in Bodrum, Turkey. He had escaped Syria and the terrorist groups that had overtaken our homeland. He and his family had survived many hardships in Istanbul as poor illegal immigrants, barely able to keep themselves fed and housed. They had endured the callous indifference of the many governments that had closed their doors to them. Turkey now offered the closest available corridor to Greece, the only country in the region from which refugees could get to the few northern European countries accepting Syrian refugees. Countries where life was a bit better. In Germany and Sweden, for instance, refugees were offered legal asylum and resettlement, something Turkey and many other neighbouring countries in the Middle East did not provide. And refugee children could go to school, something they could not do in Turkey.
But reaching that Greek Island was no easy feat. First Abdullah had to get his wife, Rehanna, and their two young sons, Ghalib and Alan,
across the Aegean Sea, across a patch of the Mediterranean monitored by police and coast guard officials ready to turn the refugees back to the shore. This was a stretch of sea known for its late summer winds, which can materialize in an instant and blow for days, turning the water into a rabid beast. Abdullah had to believe that he could get his family safely across that passage. They had crossed vast swaths of dangerous terrain to reach Turkey. Surely they could make it across four more kilometres to find hope for a new life on the other side.
To make that crossing, Abdullah had to trust smugglers. His family could not make the crossing legally via the many large ferries that criss-cross the sea, because the Turkish authorities required valid documentation to exit the country, and legal entry to the majority of European countries, including Greece, required valid passports and visas, with a long list of requirements that only wealthy Syrians could meet—bank statements, insurance, passport photos. Abdullah, like most refugees, had a passport, but after so many years of war, it had expired; his wife and young sons had never had passports. The smugglers provided space on boats, for a fee. But even the highest amounts didn’t satisfy the smugglers’ greed, and they typically overloaded the boats far beyond safe capacity for maximum profit.
That year, close to one million refugees had arrived in Europe by sea, and the lion’s share of those desperate souls were Syrians landing in Greece. By June, the Greek coast guard had rescued almost fifty thousand people, but thousands more drowned in the Mediterranean. As many as one in four of them were children, the majority under the age of twelve. Five per cent were infants.
My nephew Ghalib had recently turned four and his little brother, Alan, was just twenty-seven months old when their desperate parents took that perilous journey on a raft to seek a better life. You must be
wondering, “What could possibly compel refugees to make that dangerous crossing, risking their lives and those of their children?” It may be impossible to comprehend unless you’ve lived the life of a refugee.
At that time, four of my five siblings and their families had escaped to Turkey, barely able to keep their young families afloat. By the summer of 2015, with the Syrian war in its fifth year and no end in sight, their situations had become more desperate. Many of my siblings, my nieces and nephews, my cousins, and other relatives were poised to risk that crossing; a few of them had already made it all the way to Germany and Sweden, where conditions were better. All my siblings had young children, and with no access to school, the kids were falling behind; many of my teenaged nieces and nephews had to work in Turkish sweatshops to help their parents make ends meet. My younger brother, Abdullah, did not want the same fate for his two boys. His hopes for them were simple—adequate food and shelter, education, and health care—but fulfilling those basic needs was impossible in Syria and beyond challenging in Turkey.
I knew all too well the kind of life that my brothers and sisters had endured since their families had been forced to flee Damascus in 2012. I had seen for myself their destitute living situation in Istanbul when I visited in 2014. That’s when I started saving money to help my family get out of Turkey. At first I went through official channels, trying to provide them a safe harbour in Canada. My husband and I had committed to privately sponsoring my eldest brother Mohammad’s family, and we had also started collecting the application paperwork for Abdullah’s sponsorship. But my attempts failed. I couldn’t get all the paperwork needed—it was impossible to get documents from a country destroyed by war—and the price of two private applications at once was just too much. By the summer of 2015, I had given up hope of Canadian asylum for Abdullah and his family. I decided to give him five thousand dollars to pay
the smuggler’s demand for him, his wife, and my two little nephews. Of course, I had many, many doubts about whether I should do this. But in times of such abject desperation, knowing that my family was already in such danger, I decided to pay for the journey. There isn’t a day that goes by when I wish I hadn’t. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t wish for my beautiful sister-in-law and my sweet nephews to be with us still.
At the end of July, Abdullah texted me from Istanbul: “I got the money. Your friends are nice people.” He had received the last chunk of the smuggler’s fee. The next day, he and his family departed for Izmir, a port city about halfway between Istanbul and Bodrum and a hub for refugees to meet smugglers. The refugees were easy to find. Thousands of them camped overnight in parks. And they would often share their smuggler contacts.
Abdullah secured a smuggler in Izmir and talked to other refugees about their experiences. Many of them had scary stories about attempted crossings on those flimsy rubber dinghies. Abdullah and Rehanna were petrified by the thought of getting on a dinghy; they wanted a sturdy fiberglass boat, but the smuggler repeatedly told him they couldn’t afford that. They could afford good life jackets. But those weren’t easy to find. I had heard news of refugees who drowned after their life jackets became waterlogged and heavy. There were many fake life jackets on the market. Abdullah called me while he was shopping.
“How can you tell the difference between the real ones and the fakes?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Buy the most expensive ones. How are the kids?”
“They have colds. And Alan is teething. I bought some hard biscuits for him.”
I remember every call he made to me, every message he left me during this time. I still have every text he sent. That long chain of messages provides a record of the events that transpired. It is also a testament to
the human condition under extreme pressure, to our hopes and fears, to our many nagging doubts and anxieties—about the impending voyage and so much more than that, going right back to our earliest memories of ourselves.
August 11: “Didn’t go.”
As the days inched by and Abdullah refused to take a rubber dinghy, my anxiety turned to frustration, and I pushed him to just make the journey or call it quits and return to Istanbul. Later, reading back through my texts, I could hear the voice of a nagging older sister, prodding her younger brother: stay put, turn back, be more cautious, be less cautious, just get it done.
I put so much pressure on Abdullah that he sent me a video of the sea. Those big waves filled me with dread.
August 21: “The waves were too high. I would not do it.”
The next morning, I texted him again. “Where are you? What’s going on?”
“On the street. The waves were too big again last night. If the boss smuggler tells his men not to go, that’s it, they won’t go.”
August 25: “We’re going tonight.” The weather was perfect. They got all the way to the point. The smugglers arrived. But there were at least forty other refugees being herded into the boat. Abdullah refused to board.
August 27: “Water so calm today. But the smugglers had a rubber dinghy. I won’t take a rubber dinghy.”
That night: “The water is peaceful. Rehanna’s heart and my heart say tomorrow.” I called him as soon as I received that text. It was already the morning of August 28 in Turkey. Alan was laughing in the background, as usual; that boy was always laughing. But Ghalib was worried. He said, “Auntie, I just phoned Baba Shikho”—that’s what Ghalib called his grandfather, Rehanna’s father—“I told him I want to go back to my
bedroom with my toys. Baba said they’re still there. I asked him to please bring the truck and take me home.”
Imagine being a grandparent on the receiving end of that call. How might you explain to two tiny boys that home is now gone, that it will never return to the way it was before? As for Alan, he was so young that he had yet to start speaking in sentences. Aside from pointing—to a banana, a stuffed toy, a sailboat on the horizon—he could not even communicate his hopes and dreams. To get his dad’s attention, Alan would cup Abdullah’s face so that their eyes locked. And then he would smile, or laugh, or stick out his tongue. In those incredibly stressful days, it was as if he were saying, “Smile, Baba. Everything will be okay.”
Many of Abdullah’s texts contained similar comforts to us. In hindsight, I wonder if he was trying to reassure himself that the basic freedoms and dignities of life were within reach, that home, even a temporary one, was an attainable place.
The following morning, I woke up to another short text: “Didn’t leave.”
When Abdullah sent me another message—“, Inshallah. God willing, we’re leaving tonight.”—I admit that I expected to wake up the next morning to another “Didn’t leave.”
August 31: There were no messages from Abdullah. That long chain of texts ends with at least a half-dozen texts from me, asking, “Where are you?” “What happened?” “Text me, please.”
All my messages were sent to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.
Rehanna, Ghalib, and Alan Kurdi all drowned in the Mediterranean Sea on September 2, 2015. Since the tragedy, I have asked, “Why them? Why us?” thousands of times, as many times as refugees have drowned in the
Mediterranean Sea. At other moments, I have lashed out far and wide, in every direction. I have cried out to the governments that have denied a safe harbour to so many refugees, or failed to provide a slip of paper that legitimizes their right to the most basic necessities. I have asked the military forces, the rebel fighters, and the ISIS terrorists that have turned our homelands in Damascus and Kobani into rivers of blood, “Why? What are you fighting for? Oil? Political ideologies? Religion? Power? Revenge?” I have called out to the global authorities, in the Middle East, Western Europe, America, and Canada, “We are not animals. We are human beings, just like you. Why did you close your hearts and minds to forging a peaceful end to this war?” Still other times, I have shouted at the smugglers and human traffickers, the faceless boogeymen who have profited from misery: “Why is money more important to you than human life?”
I have often envisioned the island of Kos, the stable rocks of the cradle of Western Civilization that my brothers and sisters could see from the shores of Bodrum. Such a short journey, four kilometres. Why couldn’t that island have been just a little closer? I have asked the sea and the wind, “Why did you take our loved ones from us?” I have called out to the media, “Why did you ignore the plight of the refugees for so long? Until it was too late to save my nephews and sister-in-law? And why did some of you attack Abdullah’s reputation, after he’d lost everything else?” Often, I have cried to God, “Why?” Sometimes he didn’t answer. Sometimes he responded with a question of his own. Sometimes I knew how to answer it. Other times, I was speechless.
I have reserved the most vicious condemnations for myself. I may appear to be an average middle-aged woman going about my business, shopping for groceries, cooking a meal for my family, resting my head on a pillow at the end of the day. My body is there, going through the motions, but my mind is somewhere else. In a brightly lit interrogation
room, staring myself down across the table, demanding, “Why did you send Abdullah that money for the smugglers? Why didn’t you send him more money, so that he could take a safer, seaworthy boat? Why didn’t you go to Bodrum and rent a motorboat, like so many tourists and holiday-makers, and take your family across the sea? Why didn’t you start trying to get your family to Canada on the very first day that the war in Syria started? Why were you so foolish and naive? So selfish?” I’m still lost at sea, drifting. Sometimes I float. Other times I sink like a stone and drown.
At some point before the tragedy, my family began living on borrowed time. When did it start? How long ago? When ISIS began to put a chokehold on my ancestral homeland? Years before, when Rehanna was pregnant with Ghalib and the first rumblings of protest against the Syrian government began? Decades earlier, after I emigrated to Canada as a young woman? Before I was born?
When you wake up from a nightmare, you reach out to your loved ones, seeking solace, warmth, and safety. Among my family, we often discussed our waking nightmare, and those conversations steered us back in time, to memories from the past, our family’s past, our people’s past. About what life was like before. Perhaps we were attempting to find a place where we could truly belong, whether it was a place we’d already lived or somewhere else. A man-made disaster forced us to abandon our homeland, but there was at least some comfort in knowing that we carried our history deep within us.
When I began to write this book in August 2016, a month shy of the anniversary of the tragedy, Abdullah was in the intensive care unit of a Turkish hospital, clinging to life. In his hospital bed, he often slipped into delirium, calling for his wife and his boys—“I need to get them clothes, water, and food”—as if he were still preparing them for the journey. The doctors told me he needed heart surgery and that there was an
eighty per cent chance that he would die. When my father heard the news, he said, “I would gladly give my son my heart.” Then my father too had to be rushed to the hospital in Damascus. My father didn’t want to worry me, so I didn’t know what was wrong with him exactly, but I believed the true cause of his illness was heartbreak.
Even in my deepest moments of despair, I recognized that we were the lucky ones: we, the living. We had lost too many loved ones and nothing would bring them back, but we were alive. We had our memories and our cognizance. We had many wonderful children and grandchildren with whom we could share our history. It was our honour and our duty to pass those memories to the next generation, to put words on paper and share them, not just with our relatives but also with the world. By writing this book, I was attempting to document the story of Abdullah’s family—to give it a permanence that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
“Millions of refugees are in the same desperate situation as us,” Abdullah said to me every time I pushed him for more information. But his story bears witness to the experiences of millions of refugees and the many victims of war and genocide around the world.
When you saw the photograph of that little boy, my dear nephew Alan, dead on a faraway shore, you became a part of our family. You shared our horror, our heartache, our shock, and our outrage. You wanted to save him, but you knew it was too late. In your grief, you reached out, and by doing so, you grabbed hold of my hand and pulled me to you. You joined my family’s chorus of grief. You helped save me from drowning.
I hope that my words help bring all of us one step closer to each other. I hope that my story, tragic as it is, also plants the seed of hope in your hearts and minds. I hope it inspires you to join me in speaking up for all the people who have no voice. And for all the children who were taken from us before they could speak.
In Syria and other Arab countries, we call elders “auntie” and “uncle”—strangers, friends, and family alike. If you are older than me, you are my aunties and uncles, and if you are younger than me, I am your auntie. Now our histories and our destinies are entwined. Now we are all one family.