The photograph of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who perished on his way from Turkey to Greece, sent shockwaves around the world. Now his father Abdullah describes his ordeal.
My family and I left Damascus shortly after the war in Syria broke out. I had work there as a hairdresser; we lived in the Kurdish neighborhood of Rukn al-Din. But the situation became increasingly dangerous for us, so I brought my wife and kids to Kobani. We owned some olive trees and farmland there, every summer we tilled the soil, travelled constantly back and forth between the two cities. Soon, I left my family there and continued to Istanbul to work in a textile factory.
Every day I worked 12 hours, and sent the money to Kobani. I slept at my workplace to save money — in a dirty basement that the boss locked up at night from the outside. We did that for three years, and I regularly visited my family.
Then in 2014, the Islamic State attacked Kobani. My wife Rehan and my sons Alan and Galib, who were then two and four years old, fled like tens of thousands of other inhabitants. That’s when my wife said for the first time: “I agree, we need to leave Syria.” Before that, she had never wanted to.
She and the kids came to Istanbul. I looked for work in construction to make more money for us. Every day, I carried 200 bags of cement up stairs, for 11 hours. It was hard work and Turkey is so expensive for us. We found a room, it was damp and dark, but cost 400 Turkish lira (€116) per month. My sister, who has been living in Canada for 25 years, paid the rent for us.
We thought about leaving Turkey for the first time five months ago. Galib and Alan had a skin condition, and we needed to apply a cream to their skin three times a day. The cream cost 7 Turkish lira and they needed a tube per day. That added up to 210 lira per month. Impossible. Friends who had made it to Europe told us that life was better there.
‘We Will Help You’
We had already applied at the United Nations in Istanbul and Ankara in November 2011, to be taken in as refugees in a different country. They told me: “Keep your cell phone on, we will call you. We will help you.” I always kept my cell phone on, but nobody from the UN ever contacted me. With the help of my sister we applied in Canada, but the authorities rejected our application. It was only then that we decided to flee to Germany. My brother now lives there, in a reception center in Heidelberg. Together, we tried to make it over the land route, but the Turkish police arrested me on the border to Bulgaria.
That’s why we decided as a family for the sea route, and travelled to Izmir. My wife agreed, that is important to me. My stepfather told me that I should go alone and then bring the family legally. But I didn’t want to leave them alone.
We went to Izmir, to a hotel, and stayed there for 12 days, for 50 dollars a day. The Turkish and Syrian smugglers in Izmir work totally in the open, and we immediately found someone. At first, he wanted €6,000 ($6,800) for the trip, but Galib and Alan counted as one person, so I only paid €4,000. It was my sister’s money. We went to Bodrum, because from there it’s not far to Greece.
We climbed into a motor boat. It was maybe five to six meters long, about two meters wide. It looked secure. We were 13 travelers. The captain told us the ride would take ten minutes. We could see the island, it seemed to be very close. Everybody said it was Kos. We left at 11:00 p.m. on September 1.
The water was calm. But after five minutes, everything changed. The captain noticed that the sea was too rough. He tried to go back. Then a big wave came and capsized our boat. There are reports claiming that I took over the helm. But that’s not true. The captain stayed with us. The smugglers had already left us, back at the shore. It was dark. I couldn’t see my wife or my kids anymore. But I could hear my wife screaming. Her last words were: “Abu Galib, father of Galib, take care of the kids.” But I couldn’t grab them anymore. I clung to the boat, until one of us reached the coast and called the police. They locked me up in a cell overnight.
All That I Have
After that, everything gets blurry. Police officers brought me to a hospital. They said they found my dead family. I cried, I saw their corpses.
Rehan my dear wife. Alan was a kid who always laughed and loved other children. Galib was a slightly wild boy, always moving.
On September 2, I flew in an airplane to Urfa via Istanbul with my dead family. From there, we drove over the Turkish-Syrian border. I was received by Anwar Muslim, the president of the Kurdish government in Kobani. We drove back with a large procession. The funeral lasted three hours, over one thousand people came. Afterwards, we received the mourners in the destroyed house of my stepfather, where I now live.
Living in Kobani is like being brain dead. There is no infrastructure, there is dust everywhere, and the bodies of the dead lie beneath the rubble. It smells terrible. We cannot sleep, because insects bite us. There isn’t enough milk for the kids, no medication, hardly any water.
But I will never again leave Kobani. I want to be close to my family. Even if their clothes are all that I have left of them. I cannot do anything anymore. I feel like I am dead.