The Kurdis wanted only for options, safety and reunion

Nancy Macdonald talks to the family at the heart of the tragedy that has focused the world’s attention

Three-year-old Alan Kurdi with his brother Galib and father Abdullah.  (REX Shutterstock)

Three-year-old Alan Kurdi with his brother Galib and father Abdullah. (REX Shutterstock)

For a moment, the image of tiny Alan Kurdi, 3, found washed ashore at a Turkish resort popular with Germans caused the world to take pause.

Alan, his five-year-old brother Ghalib and their mom, Rehanna, 35, had drowned, along with 10 other Syrian refugees, trying to cross to safety on the Greek island of Kos.

The weather was clear the night they left, according to Abdullah Kurdi, the boys’ father, and the ship’s lone survivor. Alan, a happy, bubbly baby, had no idea where they were headed, but like toddlers everywhere, was thrilled at the prospect of a boat ride. Plus, his parents assured him there would be toys at the other end.

As the boat headed out into the waters, a gentle spray washed over the gunwale, causing Alan to giggle in delight. But Ghalib, his older brother, seated beside him on a rubber dinghy designed to carry less than half their load, was terrified by the cold, black waters. As they headed out, the wind and waves picked up, and the boat capsized, and eventually sank.

“Breathe,” Abdullah kept screaming to his boys. “I don’t want you to die.” In his left arm he held his first-born, Ghalib, whom he’d named for his father. He was first to die. “I just let him go,” he told his sister, “so I could concentrate on helping Alan.” When he eventually realized Alan was dead, he gently closed his boy’s eyelids. “Rest in peace my son,” he whispered.

Earlier Thursday morning, the Kurdis, the family at the heart of the tragedy, gathered to mourn in the wealthy Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam, where Abdullah’s sister Tima and her family reside.

Related reading: His name was Alan Kurdi

The Kurdis, an olive-farming family from the Damascus area, had done everything in their power to try to reunite in Canada. Tima, who’d emigrated from Syria in 1992 to join her Canadian husband, spent five months gathering the requisite documents, community support and financial information for a “G5” private sponsorship refugee application for her elder brother Mohammad, his wife, Ghuson, and their four kids. The family had made the painstaking decision to bring Mohammad’s family first, because his children are school-aged; once successful, they planned to bring Abdullah and his wife and two sons. Tima and her husband, Rocco, had just finished renovating their basement to make room.

But in June, Mohammad’s application was rejected by Canadian immigration authorities, and the family knew Abdullah’s would be too: The United Nations High Commission on Refugees does not register asylum seekers in Turkey. The Kurdis, without papers, refugee designations or passports, could not qualify for exit visas. So Tima abandoned Abdullah’s application half-filled.

Abdullah Kurdi, father of three-year old Aylan Kurdi, waits at a morgue in Mugla, Turkey, September 3, 2015. The family of Aylan, a Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, had been trying to emigrate to Canada after fleeing the war-torn town of Kobani, one of their relatives told a Canadian newspaper on Thursday. A photograph of the tiny body of three-year old Aylan Kurdi washed up in the Aegean resort of Bodrum swept social media on Wednesday, spawning sympathy and outrage at the perceived inaction of developed nations in helping refugees. His 5-year-old brother Galip and mother Rehan, 35, also died after their boat capsized while trying to reach the Greek island of Kos. His father, Abdullah, was found semi-conscious and taken to hospital near Bodrum, according to Turkey's Sabah newspaper. REUTERS/Kenan Gurbuz - RTX1QWSC

Abdullah Kurdi. (Kenan Guzbuz, Reuters)

She could barely bring herself to break the news to Abdullah: “I’m sorry,” she finally told him. “I’m not going to be able to bring you here.” Her brother, a barber, desperate to move his family to safety, quickly shifted tactics, and began approaching smugglers who work the Turkish coast. It was Tima who transferred the money to pay for their crossing.

Abdullah did not want to meet the same fate as Mohammad, who fled to Germany two months ago; he’s been unable to reunite with his wife and children as planned and is effectively stranded, alone, with few resources. Abdullah would not leave without his family.

Related reading: A refugee crisis is only half the story in Syria

But Rehanna, a seamstress from Damascus, was terrified, she confided in her sister-in-law a week ago. “I don’t know how to swim. What if I drown?” Tima assured her that she’d be fine, that her lifejacket would keep her safe if anything went awry.

Three days ago Tima received a text message from her brother: “I’m leaving right now,” it read. “Pray for their safety,” Tima told her family, alerting them that the crossing had begun. But when hours passed and she still hadn’t received word of their safe landing she knew something had gone terribly wrong: “It’s a half-hour crossing.”

“I’m so sorry,” Tima told her brother overnight, when she was finally able to reach him by phone. “I’m so sorry I sent you the money—it’s all my fault.” Abdullah told his sister not to blame herself. “There is no way Canada would bring us. You just wanted to help.”

“We’re not asking the government for money,” Tima told reporters gathered outside her tidy, ’50s-era bungalow on Thursday. “Abudullah’s family wasn’t going to come and drain the system. I have the money to support them. I just bought a salon. We can work together, the three of us.” Her brothers are barbers, she said. “They own a shop back in Syria. I’m paying for everything—not the Canadian government.”

But the Kurdi family, instead of reuniting in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, is planning a funeral; on Thursday, Tima helped her brother arrange flights to return to Syria, where he plans to bury Rehanna, Ghalib and Alan. “Turkey is not our country. They are born in Syria. I want to take them back.” In his grief and rage, Abdullah says he wishes for one thing alone: to join his wife and sons.

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The Kurdis wanted only for options, safety and reunion

  1. Was not the father also the captain of the escape craft? If he was a responsible father he wouldn’t have taken his family in an unsafe boat in those waters without lifebelts when he hadn’t even applied for refugee entry into Canada. Was staying in Turkey worse than the risks? The whole case of these kids is a tragedy but the politicos are being a bit slimy (as is the media) in playing up this horror. I don’t know if anyone also saw and heard the refugee lawyer but he was admiring of Canada’s processes and goals. I hate these sob stories when the father did not even apply for entry into Canada. So how could anything been done in the family’s favour if he didn’t even go that fare when a sister was trying to use political influence. Why didn’t she get some of her country people to form a group which could have sponsored the family under the provisions already in place – then the boat trip would not have been necessary. I think the NDP and the Libs are being political bleeding hearts here and that the gov is doing right both to provide humanitarian assistance and also blow ISIS away with the rest of the coalition. This disaster story can be laid at the feet of Dubbya and his pals who blew Saddam away without having a plan to occupy Iraq. And nobody could conceive a plan to handle Assad when there were so many parties involved. All this apart from the issue of how many Muslims do we want to bring into our country to be the source of more misled youths?..

    • The worse part is that initially it was reported that the sister had done all the proper paper work. Then in comes out that she had not an had relied on her NDP MP to muscle the minster Chris Alexander into jumping for her family. He sent this family $5K in Turkey. Did they use it to live a decent life there and fill out the Canadian sponsorship papers? No, they took their family members who cannot swim on the ocean in dingy to Europe but their bad judgment is the Canadian government’s fault. We have rules in place. We have refugees from many countries. Many come to us sick with HIV and TB. We need housing and volunteers to acclimatize them to Canada. The churches to much in this regard. We live in a winter country. Many of these refugees have one goal…to get to Germany. They don’t want a safe country. They want a rich country. Well Canada is apparently in a recession, maybe they won’t to come here.

      • Not surprising that Conservative faithful are now portraying the victims of this tragedy as it’s perpetrators.
        What a load of BS.
        Where were all these greedy drowning Syrians before the civil war?

        • Oh, you don’t know….apparently this family has been safe in Turkey for 3 years…….You want to blame Harper for them fleeing Syrbia 3 years ago.

          • Where were all these greedy drowning Syrians before the civil war?

        • The Syrian civil war can be laid at the feet of Assad and now he is being propped up by Putin who apparently is building a military base in Syria. Harper and his crew didn’t go into Syria after ISIL until a few months ago. This family was already safely in Turkey. The father however was able to go back into his hometown to bury his family and plans to reside there. You want to blame everything on Canada for some reason because his sister lives in BC and applied for one brother to immigrate. The state department asked for more info and then the 2nd brother decided he needed to go to Europe on a dingy because he didn’t have $14K to fix his teeth and his sister could only provide $5K.

          • Living a tenuous existence in a squalid refugee camp where you’re unable to work, reliant on aid (which is threatening to run short) for all your needs, in a country which is hostile to you any reasonable person describes as “safe”.
            And you still haven’t answered the question:
            Where were all these greedy drowning Syrians looking for free teeth before the civil war?

  2. You either or not being honest or you didn’t see the sister’s entire interview. It is on you-tube. The father took his family on a dingy to Europe to get free teeth. Shame on the press for not reporting the whole story.

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