Iraqi Boat Family Warns Others: Don't Risk It, It's Too Dangerous

Sep 11, 2015
Originally published on September 11, 2015 10:57 am

Behind a rusty black gate in the rough-edged Shaab neighborhood of Baghdad, a home echoes with sobs as relatives mourn two children drowned as their family tried to get to Europe.

The mother, Zainab Abbas, is pale and exhausted from weeping.

"No one told us not to go," she says.

Everyone knew she and her husband were poor and, amid Iraq's dismal security and economy, thought their best hope was to try to get smugglers to take them to Greece.

The smugglers "are liars," she says. "They take money and send people to their deaths."

Last week, when a wave swept over a boat crossing the Aegean Sea and washed Abdullah Kurdi's Syrian family into the sea, the poignant image of his son Aylan's body brought the plight of migrants into sharp focus.

Abbas and her husband, Ahmed Hadi Jawad, were on the same boat and lost their children Zainab, 10, and Haider, 9.

They sit with their surviving daughter Rawan. Jawad, his rugged face shocked with grief, tells me why he took his family to sea: money.

"My life has become very difficult," he says. Jawad is an accountant who could only find work as a taxi driver.

Life is tough for the poor in Baghdad. Sewage and garbage collection are terrible and electricity is more off than on. The kids slept on mattresses on the floor and asked him for bedrooms.

"My son Haider — God have mercy on him — loved candy so much," Jawad remembers. But the boy knew his father couldn't afford to bring him sweets. "He said to me, 'I want to pay for it with my money.' "

He adds that his daughter Zainab was so smart at school, he wished he could afford a laptop for her.

Jawad has five brothers who've been in Europe for years. They're not rich, but they're providing for their families. He says the smuggling route got cheaper lately, so by selling his taxi and borrowing, he scraped together $20,000 and hoped for the best.

He wished it was more, but says, "I decided to take this risk with the amount I have."

They left for Istanbul and made their way to Bodrum on the Turkish coast. He paid about $10,000 to a smuggler.

Dodging police, they took taxis to the seashore in the dark and climbed on a boat with nine others, including the Kurdi family, who confirmed this part of Jawad's account. The trip was meant to be 30 minutes.

His daughter Zainab was looking at her watch. "She said, 'Dad, I'm just counting right now — we passed half an hour, it's been 40 minutes.' "

Jawad says their life jackets wouldn't fasten. A wave pushed them overboard. Father, mother and one daughter stayed afloat and were rescued. Little Zainab and Haider got stuck under the boat and disappeared.

Their mother breaks down as she unwraps photographs of the children. I ask what she tells the many people in Baghdad now trying to get to Europe.

"I tell them don't risk this, it's too dangerous."

Iraqi TV and social media are now flooded with images of people getting to Europe safely, encouraging more and more to take the trip. But more than 2,700 people have drowned in the attempt this year. Lise Grande, the U.N.'s humanitarian chief in Iraq, says the asylum process needs to be overhauled.

"Certainly from the viewpoint of the U.N., you want a process that's put in place where the dignity and the safety and the voluntariness of people's movements is protected and ensured — and I don't think that's what we're seeing now," she says.

It's common in Iraq to hear of people who've applied legally for asylum or special visas and waited years for a response. Grande says that makes people desperate and pushes them to take risks.

"And that's why I think the discussions on public policy, about streamlining the process and making it more rational, making it more transparent and predictable — that's urgent and it's necessary," Grande says.

But until that happens, it seems people will keep trying.

One relative, even as he sat sobbing for the dead children, said Iraq is so hopeless that he'd still risk putting his kids on a boat to Europe in the hope of a better life.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Just as devastating as the photo of a drowned toddler are the stories of people who survived. The image of that young person fixed the world's attention on a refugee crisis in recent days. The Syrian was one of many people on a boat and not the only one who died. Iraqis were also on that craft which never reached its destination. Now surviving family members have returned to Baghdad after paying a devastating price, and they spoke with NPR's Alice Fordham.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In a family home in a rough-edged neighborhood of Baghdad, relatives gather to mourn two drowned children. Their mother, Zainab Abbas, is pale and exhausted. She's been weeping since she returned from the attempt to get to Europe.

ZAINAB ABBAS: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "No one told us not to go," she says, "because our financial situation is very bad." As visitors come to pay respects, she sits with her surviving daughter, Rowan. Her husband, Ahmed Jawad, his rugged face shocked with grief, tells me why he took his family on the tiny boat.

AHMED JAWAD: (Through interpreter) So the first reason that pushed me to travel is the financial reason.

FORDHAM: Jawad is an accountant who could only find work as a taxi driver. Baghdad sewage and garbage collection are terrible. Its electricity is more off than on. His three kids slept on mattresses on the floor and asked him for bedrooms.

JAWAD: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "My son Haider - God have mercy on him - loved candy so much," Jawad remembers. But the 9-year-old knew his father couldn't afford to bring him sweets.

JAWAD: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "He said to me, I want to pay for it with my money, not your money," says Jawad. And he adds his 10-year-old daughter Zainab was so smart at school he wished he could afford a laptop for her.

JAWAD: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Jawad has five brothers who've been in Europe for years. They're not rich, but they're providing for their families. He thought the smuggling route had got easier and cheaper lately, so by selling his taxi and borrowing, he scraped together $20,000 and hoped for the best.

JAWAD: (Through interpreter) At the end, I decided to take this risk with the amount I have.

FORDHAM: They left on August 19 for Istanbul and made their way to Bodrum on the Turkish coast. He paid about $10,000 to a smuggler.

JAWAD: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Dodging police, they took taxis to the seashore in the dark and climbed on a boat with nine others, including the Kurdi family who confirmed Jawad's account. The trip was meant to be 30 minutes, Jawad says. His daughter Zainab was looking at her watch and said, Dad, it's been 40 minutes. The boat stalled. It was taking on water. Jawad says their life jackets wouldn't fasten a wave pushed them overboard. Father, mother and one daughter stayed afloat and were rescued. Little Zainab and Haider got stuck under the boat and disappeared.

Their mother unwraps photographs of the children. I ask what she tells the many people in Baghdad now trying to get to Europe.

ABBAS: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "I tell them, don't risk this. It's too dangerous." She calls the smugglers liars for taking their money and sending them to death. Iraqi TV and social media are now flooded with images of people getting to Europe safely, encouraging more and more to take the trip. But more than 2,700 people have drowned in the attempt this year. Lise Grande, the U.N.'s humanitarian chief here, says the asylum process needs overhauling.

LISE GRANDE: Certainly from the viewpoint of the United Nations, you want a process that's put in place where the dignity and safety in the voluntariness of people's movements is protected and ensured, and I don't think that's what we're seeing now.

FORDHAM: It's common in Iraq to hear of people who've applied legally for asylum or special visas and waited years for a response. Grande says that makes people desperate and pushes them to take risks.

GRANDE: And that's why I think the discussions on public policy about streamlining the process and making it more rational and making it more transparent and predictable - that's urgent, and it's necessary.

FORDHAM: But until that happens, it seems people will keep trying. One relative, even as he sat sobbing for the dead children, told me Iraq is so hopeless that he'd still risk putting his kids on a boat to Europe in the hope of a better life. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.