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.
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.