Inside the tragedy that woke up the world

One family’s desperate flight and the final hours of the little boy who changed everything.




There’s one memory Kaya Oren can’t seem to shake. It haunts him every time he opens the shutters of his bar overlooking the patio at the Can Hotel. So much so that he finds himself looking away, focusing his gaze on something other than the miniature children’s pool attached to its full-sized adult counterpart. He stares at the Iraqi refugees—who have now replaced the Syrians—lounging on the deck chairs, or the distant rolling hills of Bodrum, Turkey’s resort mecca on the Aegean coast. Anything else, says Oren.

For even a fleeting glance at the kiddie pool makes the 42-year-old bartender’s heart sink, and the images of the Kurdi family come flooding back. “I remember clearly that first day when they walked into the hotel,” he says. “They went straight to their room and after awhile, [the father] Abdullah came out with the two boys, both wearing swimming trunks. They went over to the children’s pool where Abdullah tried to get them into the water. The older boy was terrified. Whenever his foot touched the water, he would scream and resist. But the younger one—Alan—was happy to go in.”

The joyful little boy that Oren recalls fearlessly leaping into the pool is now etched in the memory of millions, in a far different pose: Lying face down on the sand of nearby Golden Beach, dressed in a bright red T-shirt and blue shorts, with the warm waves gently lapping at his dark hair. In the early morning darkness of Sept. 2, three-year-old Alan Kurdi drowned, along with his older brother, Galib, 5, and their mother Rehanna, 35, as the family of Syrian migrants tried to make the perilous sea crossing from Turkey to the nearby Greek island of Kos, and the security and promise of Europe. Abdullah, 39, lived, but at least 10 other would-be refugees also died that night, as waves swamped the overcrowded and flimsy rubber dinghies that smugglers had packed them into—charging $3,000 a head for adults, with young children riding “free” in their parents’ laps. Victimized not just by greed, but their desperation to escape the Middle East’s bloody conflicts and forge better lives for themselves and their families.

Maclean’s on the Syrian refugee crisis: News, analysis, features, debate 

So far this year, some 400,000 migrants—Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Eritreans, Libyans and others—have breached Europe’s borders, mostly by sea. The grim running tally kept by the Missing Migrants Project suggests at least 2,760 more have died trying. All summer long there have been pictures of holiday-makers soaking up the sun in deck chairs as refugees struggle ashore, clutching kids and their meagre possessions. But it is the one searing photo of Alan, his body so still and peaceful that he seems asleep, that may have changed everything.

In the days since his death, an ignored and intractable faraway crisis has become top of mind all over the world. Charities have seen donations surge. And governments across Europe have suddenly switched focus from building fences to rolling out the welcome wagon, bidding up the number of refugees they are willing to accept by the day. The U.K.—where limiting immigration was a major election issue just four months ago—will take 20,000. France has agreed to shelter 24,000. Germany now expects to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year—quadruple last year’s total—with politicians projecting 500,000 more annually for “several years.” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has promised to resettle a “significant number” of Syrian migrants. And although Canada’s Stephen Harper has so far refused to follow suit, the plight of four million Syrian refugees has become a major issue in the election campaign.

Little Alan Kurdi led a tragically short life, but its impact now seems immeasurable. Millions who never met him have grieved over his passing. Those who knew him are bearing witness, harnessing the power of one family’s tragedy to illuminate the overlooked or ignored deaths of thousands more.

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)

At the Can Hotel (pronounced Jan in Turkish, meaning “life”) in Gumbet, a tiny seaside resort village just outside Bodrum, the staff are as shocked and tearful as everyone else. Vural Kaya, 54, the manager, recalls seeing Abdullah regularly in the children’s pool with his two boys. “At the time I thought little of it,” he says. “Here was a father doing what fathers do with their children. He would take them by their hands and help them glide across the water, one by one, back and forth. It all seemed so normal.” When five-year-old Galib remained a reluctant swimmer, his father raced out to a local shop to buy him a cheap flotation device.

Of course, everyone knew it was more than play. The Kurdis were one in a long succession of Syrian families that had been coming and going from the Can Hotel since early July. Rising instability in Turkey had chased the more lucrative European vacationers away. Would-be refugees have taken their place, becoming the town’s economic salvation. People smuggling is illegal in Turkey, but police do little to stop the lucrative trade.

Each night, at about 1 a.m., the neighbourhood around the hotel springs to life. “The Syrians start gathering in the front of hotels with their bags and lines of taxis arrive to pick them up,” explains Muhamet Aydan, the Can’s night receptionist. Like many others, Abdullah Kurdi, a courteous and self-effacing man, would pay his family’s bill in advance each night. Aydan says the family made three unsuccessful attempts to embark on the boat trip to Greece during their short stay in Gumbet, always leaving with the same group, then returning dejectedly around five in the morning, carrying their sons. The smugglers were liars, Abdullah complained.

On Sept. 2, as they embarked on their fourth try, the Kurdis seemed more determined than ever before. Aydan says Abdullah didn’t ask him to hold the room—just in case—like he had on the other occasions. They were paying extra—$1,180 more per adult—for passage in what the smugglers billed as “a yacht.” The money, more than $5,000 Canadian, had been wired by Abdullah’s sister in British Columbia, Tima. (The latest on the story is here.)

The process is always the same. First the smugglers check the road to the coast to make sure that it is free of police checkpoints. Then, the taxis are dispatched to ferry the migrants to the sea. Using groves of trees as cover, they hide by the beach, listening to the pumping beats from area nightclubs and awaiting the signal.

It’s almost a joke among the locals. “We tell each other to watch out for Syrians whenever we’re driving around here at night,” says Emre Altintas, a university student vacationing at his family’s summer home near one of the launch sites. “We watch them all the time from our house. Once I nearly hit a group running across the road with a boat on their heads.”

Rehanna was terrified of the water. Near the end of August, she had called her sister-in-law in Coquitlam, B.C., and confided her fears. “I don’t know how to swim. What if I drown?” she asked. Young Galib was scared too. Just before they left the hotel, he had called their grandfather, Rehanna’s dad, in Kobani, Syria, to ask if the toys he had left behind were safe. “I don’t want to go to the water,” he said. “Can you bring your truck here and take me?”

The “yacht” wasn’t there as promised. Instead, the smugglers unpacked some rubber dinghies—the kind Canadians might buy down at the hardware store for the cottage—and began inflating them with foot pumps. There were far too many people for the three tiny boats. The smugglers made their passengers abandon almost all their possessions to make more space. The groves down by Golden Beach are littered with such cast-offs, including many bright orange life jackets.

It was late morning in B.C. when Tima’s phone pinged with a text message from Abdullah. “I’m leaving right now,” it read. The four-kilometre crossing to Greece was supposed to take just half an hour. Perhaps a little more if the stiff meltem winds were blowing. By early afternoon, she knew something was terribly wrong.

A photograph of brothers Alan and Ghalib Kurdi is displayed during a memorial service for them and their mother in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday. The brothers' aunt lives in the Vancouver area. (Darryl Dyck, The Canadian Press)

A photograph of brothers Alan and Ghalib Kurdi is displayed during a memorial service for them and their mother in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday. The brothers’ aunt lives in the Vancouver area. (Darryl Dyck, The Canadian Press)

It is hard to imagine that the Kurdi family wouldn’t have made a good home in Canada. For generations, they’ve been barbers, cutting hair, and earning their own way, wherever they went. Abdullah and his four siblings grew up in Damascus working at various salons, but always spent part of the year in Kobani, their ancestral village near the Turkish border where there was also a family olive farm.

Tima, 44, his eldest sister, began her own hairdressing career at 15, before finishing school in Damascus. She immigrated to Canada in 1992. In 2005, she met Rocco Logozzo, who works in sales, when he popped in for a trim. They’re now married.

After 4½ years of conflict, all but one of the Kurdi children have now fled Syria, seeking safe haven across the Middle East and Europe. The eldest, Mohammed, 48, is in Germany. Hevron, 30, the youngest daughter, and her children are safe in Turkey, though her husband is currently unaccounted for; smugglers have told the family he attempted multiple crossings by boat from Turkey, but has not been heard from since.

Tima and Rocco, who own a home in Coquitlam’s leafy, sought-after Austin Heights neighbourhood, hatched a plan to reunite the family in Canada, and have her brothers help her run her new salon, which is scheduled to open Oct. 1.

The Kurdis decided Mohammed, his wife, Ghuson, and their four school-aged kids should come first, since they had now been out of classes for three years. Rocco recently finished renovating their basement in Coquitlam to give them a comfortable place to live. Next, they’d planned to bring Abdullah, Rehanna and the boys.

Tima spent five months, starting in December, gathering the requisite documents, community support and financial information for a “G5” private sponsorship refugee application for Mohammed’s family. But it was difficult to meet Canada’s stringent standards. There was no way to obtain papers in Syria. And asylum seekers who cross the border into Turkey are not registered by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. The Kurdis, without permits, refugee designations or passports, would not qualify for the exit visas Ottawa required.

In June, when federal bureaucrats rejected Mohammed’s application for refugee status—and a letter delivered to Chris Alexander, the minister of immigration, failed to change things—the Kurdi family knew Abdullah’s case was hopeless too: Tima left his family’s application half-filled in. She could barely break the news to him. “I’m sorry,” she told Abdullah. “I’m not going to be able to bring you here.”

Tima describes Abdullah as a jokester, warm and funny, the type of person “people want to be around.” He had fallen in love with Rehanna, 12 years his junior, at first sight, when he spotted her out working in the fields while visiting the olive farm in Kobani. In 2011, they had wed—a marriage arranged by his father, Galib, per their Kurdish tradition.

For a time, the Kurdi brothers and their families lived under the same roof, in a shared, three-storey home in Damascus. Abdullah and Rehanna lived on the main floor. Mohammed and his family were on the top floor. Their father, a widower, was tucked between them on the second storey.

But the civil war began, and Rehanna, a seamstress from a large family, was worried and homesick. Soon they resettled in Kobani, where her father owned a brick company, which has since been destroyed in the fighting. Abdullah opened a barbershop there, but with so many residents fleeing, his clientele was minimal, and they had trouble making ends meet. Three years ago, with Tima’s assistance, Abdullah left for Istanbul; Rehanna and the boys moved in with her parents, and planned to follow once he was established. But life in the Turkish capital was grim: Abdullah had trouble finding enough construction work to earn a living, and as a migrant, had no legal rights.

While Turkish laws allow asylum-seekers from places like Iran to obtain refugee status and then legally apply for resettlement in a third country, with the help of the United Nations, no such aid is extended to Syrians. They fall under a separate category specifically designed for them, under which they are promised protection, but no status.

The consequences have been devastating for the nearly two million who have fled to Turkey. Public anger over the scale of the refugee influx has created a belligerent atmosphere toward them. And the existing infrastructure—a few refugee camps housing less than 14 per cent of the total refugee population, run by a handful of aid organizations—has not been able to cope. Some, those with enough money, have managed to acquire residence permits and start businesses, but the vast majority lives in legal limbo, unable to secure work permits and exploited as illegal labourers.

Istanbul, in particular, teems with marginalized and maligned Syrians. Some aid workers and legal experts have even argued that the current policy is contributing directly to the crisis. “It seems like the current government has taken the position of just letting these people go and become a European problem,” says Lami Bertan Tokuzlu, assistant professor of law at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, who sat on the advisory board overseeing the 2010 drafting of a new migration law for Turkey. “The current laws are too vague and offer little protection for Syrians. Turkey needs to make it easier for them to legalize themselves in Turkey.”

The problem for ethnic Kurds, like Abdullah, is even more acute. Over the past year, their brethren in Syria have been vilified in the Turkish press as terrorists trying to carve out a Kurdish homeland. Tensions between Kurds, Turkish nationalists and Islamists have reached a crisis point. In recent weeks, reports have begun to emerge of pro-government Islamists attacking Kurds on the streets of Istanbul and other Turkish cities.

But things were hardly more secure for Abdullah’s family in Kobani. Rehanna and the children fled last September, before the pitched battle with Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS, for control of the town. When ISIS fighters returned this spring, sneaking in disguised as Kurdish peshmergas, they killed 230 civilians and 37 soldiers. Among the dead were multiple members of the Kurdi family, including children, women and elderly relatives. Back in B.C., Tima says she received “horrific” photos of the carnage, including images of mutilated and decapitated corpses.

When the doors to Canada slammed shut earlier this summer, the brothers wasted no time in charting a course for Europe and a better life. Mohammed left first, leaving Ghuson—then pregnant with their fourth child—and the rest, hoping to bring them later. He reached the Greek Island of Kos in a rubber dinghy, and eventually made it to Germany, mainly on foot, where he now finds himself alone, with few resources.

Abdullah and Rehanna didn’t want to part, and chose to flee together, with the boys. With Syrian refugees flooding Germany, they hoped to ultimately make it to Sweden, after following the same route across the Aegean from Turkey into Greece. Tima and Rocco sent the money in several chunks, worried that it would be stolen, or Abdullah might become the victim of a kidnapping or extortion plot. The things they worried about never happened. What did was much worse.

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, father of three-year old Aylan Kurdi, waits at a morgue in Mugla, Turkey, September 3, 2015. (REUTERS)

There was a long wait, and then finally, the whispered command to make the 20-m dash across the beach into the water. As the boat left the shore, a gentle spray washed over the gunwale, causing Alan to giggle in delight. Galib, seated beside him, remained terrified of the cold, black waters. “We went into the sea for four minutes and then the captain saw that the waves were so high,” Abdullah, raw-faced and red-eyed, told reporters when he visited the morgue in Bodrum early on Sept. 3. “He steered the boat and we were hit immediately and he panicked and dived into the sea.” Abdullah took hold of the tiller, but the raft soon flipped, dumping them all into the water. “Breathe,” Abdullah kept screaming to his boys, trying to keep them above the ferocious, roiling water. “I was holding my wife’s hand,” he later told a Turkish news agency. “But my children slipped through my hands. It was dark and everyone was screaming.” The boat was maybe 500 m off shore, but it might as well have been 500 miles. A worker at a nearby resort discovered Alan and Galib’s lifeless bodies lying the surf around 6:30 that morning.

In Canada, Tima learned the news the same way everyone else did. “When I saw the picture of the boy facing down, I thought: ‘This is Alan,’ ” she says. The shorts and T-shirt were among the clothes she had purchased for him when she travelled to Turkey last year to visit the family. “Everything is gone,” Abdullah told her, when she was finally able to reach him on his cell. In his grief and rage, Abdullah says he wishes for one thing alone: to join his wife and sons. They were buried in a sandy field in Kobani on Sept. 4. He’s still refusing to leave their graves, sleeping beside them when night falls.

That same day, a Turkish court remanded four Syrians on accusations of “conscious negligence” for the death of 12 refugees, including Alan Kurdi. They have yet to be formally charged, and so far, no Turks have been arrested.

One group of Pakistani migrants, hiding in a grove of trees across from the spot where Alan’s body was discovered, told Maclean’s the smuggling networks run deep in Bodrum. “Everyone is involved,” one of them says, too frightened to give his name. “There’s the head of our group, who lives in Germany, and then his network of Turks here. You will never see the Turks, though. They use other refugees as their middlemen—Syrians, Pakistanis, Afghans. Whatever language the group that wants to cross speaks, they use a middleman that speaks that language. Then there are the taxi drivers who bring the refugees here, the hotel owners who work with the smugglers so groups of them can stay at the same hotel. It’s like a travel agency. And of course the police are also involved. There is no way any of this could happen without the police.”

The human smuggling trade has temporarily slowed around Bodrum, but continues unabated further along the coast. Every day, desperate Syrians congregate in Istanbul’s Aksaray district to begin the journey south. The historic neighborhood of textile and shoe factories, retail outlets and endless apartment blocks has become a meeting point, with restaurants serving up Syrian cuisine, and a ready supply of customers.

One well-known tea garden is the primary launching point, and dozens of groups—old, young, families with children—can still be found there, bags packed and ready to begin.

“We make the deal with smugglers and then we come here to wait until it is time to go,” says one 23-year-old Syrian, calling himself Ali, part of a group of university students from Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast who are planning to go to Germany. “Sometimes people wait days, other times weeks before the call from the smuggler comes to move.”

Syrian refugees carry their children as they jump off a dinghy overcrowded with Syrian refugees upon arriving on a beach on the Greek island of Kos, after crossing a part of the Aegean sea from Turkey, August 9, 2015. United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) called on Greece to take control of the "total chaos" on Mediterranean islands, where thousands of migrants have landed. About 124,000 have arrived this year by sea, many via Turkey, according to Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR director for Europe. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Syrian refugees carry their children as they jump off a dinghy overcrowded with Syrian refugees upon arriving on a beach on the Greek island of Kos, after crossing a part of the Aegean sea from Turkey, August 9, 2015. United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) called on Greece to take control of the “total chaos” on Mediterranean islands, where thousands of migrants have landed. About 124,000 have arrived this year by sea, many via Turkey, according to Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR director for Europe. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

The journey begins abruptly. You see it often: groups of Syrians suddenly hoisting their luggage onto their backs and walking out of the garden, their expressions transformed from expectation to determination.

“The smugglers have buses or vans to transport people to the Aegean coast,” says Nemr, a 28-year old sports journalist from Damascus who escaped Syria in January after being drafted into the Syrian army and is now helping his fellow Syrians connect with smugglers. “From here they drive to the coastal cities of Izmir or Bodrum where they wait for a chance to go by boat to Greece.”

The road trip is idyllic, but stressful. Police checkpoints are a cause for worry. Syrians with valid passports are allowed to continue. But those like the Kurdis, lacking official documentation, are often arrested and sent back to Istanbul or thrown into refugee camps where hopes of escape are at least temporarily dashed. (The official efforts to stem the flow appears half-hearted at best.)

Back in Gumbet, new groups arrive daily. One of them, a family of seven from Idlib in northwest Syria, near Aleppo, say they waited six days in Aksaray before finally reaching Bodrum on Sept. 7. And they will now wait again for the smugglers to call them for the final leg of their journey, the push across the sea. All say they have heard about the Kurdi family; one of them has even kept the iconic picture of Alan’s body on the beach on his cellphone. But they are undeterred.

“This is not the first time we’ve heard of people drowning,” says one, refusing to offer his name. “We hear about it all the time. But what other choice do we have?”

In hundreds of other hotels, in various Turkish cities, towns and villages along the Aegean coast, similar stories of hopelessness are driving tens of thousands of Syrians to risk their lives.

Aydan, the night receptionist at the Can Hotel, wonders why the world is paying attention now, after so many other lives have already been lost. “The Kurdis were kind people,” he says. “The children were beautiful. But so were the thousands of others who have died before them. Abdullah came back here the morning after his wife and children drowned. He reminded me of the pictures I’ve seen of people who have lost everything in natural disasters, like he was here, but not here. I hugged him but while I was holding him I thought this could be any one of the Syrians who have already lost everything. He could be one of the Iraqis we have staying with us now. In a week, or a month from now, I could be holding another father who has lost everything. It made me angry. Why did these people have to die? Why are all those people coming here to this hotel, ready to die? Why won’t the world help them?”

For her part, Tima has found new reasons to try and bring Abdullah and Mohammed to Canada, with her grieving younger brother being the “No. 1” priority, she says. “One day I will bring him here. He can’t be by himself there.”

She has tried to steer clear of politics in the days since the tragedy. “I’m not blaming the Canadian government,” she says. “Every country has their rules; and you have to follow those rules.” But Tima also wants all Canadians to know her family was “not asking the government for money.” Abdullah’s family “wasn’t going to come and drain the system. I have the money to support them. I’m paying for everything—not the Canadian government.”

Tima Kurdi, aunt of late brothers Alan and Ghalib Kurdi, releases a balloon in memory of the boys after a memorial service in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday. (Darryl Dyck, The Canadian Press)

Tima Kurdi, aunt of late brothers Alan and Ghalib Kurdi, releases a balloon in memory of the boys after a memorial service in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday. (Darryl Dyck, The Canadian Press)

At the packed memorial service for her nephews and sister-in-law at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre in downtown Vancouver last week, she tried to put what she has lost into words.

“Those kids, from the day they were born, they never had a good life,” she said. “But God put those angels on the planet. He knew the plan for them. Those two kids one day were going to wake the whole world.”

On the dais, alongside the Kurdish flag and framed photos of Alan, Galib, and Rehanna, were white balloons and two dozen yellow roses.

“They are human beings,” said Nissy Koye, a friend of Tima’s from Vancouver’s Kurdish community, who also spoke. “They are like every single one of us in this room. They are not pawns in a political game.” Before they died, Koye said, “millions of refugees—Kurdish, Arab, Yazidi, Christian and other minorities—have been crying out to the world. But nobody listened. Alan’s body on that shore is the outcome of our silence. You three angels woke up the world. Please forgive us for letting you down.”

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