“We're still grieving” — these are the words of Tima Kurdi, the aunt of the young refugee boy who captured the world’s attention when he drowned trying to cross the Aegean Sea two years ago.
On Sept. 2, 2015, the haunting image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s tiny body laying face down on a Turkish beach made headlines, drawing attention to the stark reality of forced migration, and becoming a global symbol of the ongoing crisis.
In many ways, a global conscience seemed to be awoken as people learned of the tragic fate of Alan, his brother Ghalib and their mother, Rehanna, who decided to make the perilous, 30-minute boat ride from Bodrum, Turkey to the Greek island of Kos, along with their husband and father, Abdullah.
The dinghy, designed for eight passengers but packed with 16, capsized just a few minutes after setting sail. Abdullah lost track of his family in the confusion, and while he was able to reach safety, his wife and sons met a different fate. Only four people survived the voyage.
“After that image, the world woke up,” Tima said. “That’s when people started talking about it, and that’s when I went crying to world leaders: open your heart, open your border, my people are being forced to flee their home, not by choice.”
In wake of the event, global leaders promised the family “that our tragedy would be the last,” she said. “But of course, a few months later, everyone went back to sleep, went back to business.”
And while many countries offered to give Abdullah asylum, he refused. “To him it was, ‘Where were you when my family needed it?’” she said.
Speaking to CNA over Skype from her home in Vancouver, Canada, where she has lived with her husband and son for the past 23 years, Tima shared the story of what led her five siblings to pack up their families and seek refuge elsewhere, and how her life has changed after the death of her nephews.
Ever since the occurrence of what she calls “the tragedy,” Tima has become the public face of her family's suffering and the plight of thousands of others like them, quitting her job in mid-2016 to advocate on behalf of refugees, raising awareness at conferences and universities.
War breaks out
When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, “it was very shocking to the whole country,” Tima said, including to her family, who is from Damascus.
Life before the war was peaceful, and people of different religions lived side-by-side without problems, she said. But once the conflict erupted, things became dangerous very quickly, and many of her siblings lived in areas that were being bombed.
“What would you do as a family if you have children and they are in danger?” she said, explaining that she encouraged her family to flee as the situation worsened. Eventually, the home of one of her sisters was bombed, further cementing the decision to leave.
Tima’s siblings and their families — each with small children — made their way to Turkey, where they hoped to stay temporarily until things in Syria calmed down. But when they got there, they found that the refugee camps were already at maximum capacity, and the family was not able to enter.
Facing the risk of homelessness, Tima’s siblings struggled to find work. Tima helped them find housing and began paying their rent. After hearing about their ongoing struggles, she decided to go in person and see if she could help.
But when she arrived in 2014, she was shocked at what she found. “What we see in the news was not what I experienced,” she said. “It was worse than I could ever have imagined. I saw my people in the streets, families, they have no home, they were in the park. I talked to them personally, I heard heartbreaking stories.”
The experience “changed me a lot,” she said, adding that watching children begging for bread shows the inhumane reality of their plight. “It broke my heart to witness it myself.”
After returning to Canada, Tima began researching how to sponsor her family to come as refugees, but was unable to do so at that time. So when Germany offered to take in some 1 million migrants in 2015, her brother Abdullah, who was struggling to afford even diapers, decided the best option for his family was to leave, and asked Tima for help.
“Of course you discuss it. It’s risky, it’s not good, but they have no choice,” Tima said. “And that’s when they were forced to take that journey.”
“I paid for it. I paid for it,” she said, wiping tears from her face. “The guilt...that’s why I want to keep my voice alive, because that guilt, I will take it to my grave, but I did it with a good intention, because I saw the desperation, I saw my family only eating rice, I saw those children being abused at work rather than being in school, and the world was silent.”
'I want the world to wake up'
Even two years later, Tima said it pains her to talk about the experience, “and that’s why I want the world to wake up. There is no one who will leave their home and leave everything behind just because they want to take advantage of Europe or the Western world.”
She said she rarely watches the news, because she's tired of feeling “hopeless” when she sees the reports and the lack of action.
Tima said she doesn't like to get into politics, and her family doesn't support either side of the war in Syria, but she does condemn the use and sale of weapons, because ultimately, weapons “are what caused those people to flee their homes, weapons killed their loved one.”
Rather than pointing fingers, she wants the world to look at the root cause, because “nobody is talking about it.”
She voiced her admiration for Pope Francis, who often speaks out on the same issues, saying “his message and my message are exactly the same thing, from day one. He is my inspiration.”
A goal of hers, she said, is to one day visit the Vatican and meet the Pope, to discuss how to promote peace.
In her time as a public speaker and advocate, Tima has been asked to speak at various conferences and universities throughout Canada, the U.S., and Europe. She has also given a TED Talk on her story.
However, her preferred venue is the university, because she wants to educate young people to think about the importance of promoting peace.
In addition to her speaking engagements, Tima and her brother Abdullah have launched the Alan and Ghalib Kurdi Foundation to raise money in support of refugee children. Each year on the anniversary of the boys' death, she visits her brother, who is now living in Iraq, to distribute clothes and supplies to the children living in refugee camps.
Abdullah, who was offered a house with free rent in Kurdistan after losing his family, now lives in Erbil, and is still coping with the death of his wife and sons.
“The emotional (stress) really paralyzed him and he’s not doing well,” Tima said, explaining that the first year was especially difficult. When she came to visit her brother on the first anniversary of the tragedy, he didn't want to leave the house.
She offered him $500 to buy “whatever the children wanted” in the camps. Abdullah chose to buy diapers, since he couldn't afford them as a refugee, and often used a cloth or a plastic bag for Alan, who as a result frequently had a rash.
This year, Tima had raised $1,000 for her small foundation at a speaking event held at a Canadian university. She again contributed $500 of her own money as well, helping to buy and distribute 500 pieces of clothing to the refugee children, which she described as “the most beautiful thing we ever did.”
Since the fatal boat ride in 2015, the rest of her family has dispersed. While her father continues to live in Damascus, two of her three sisters are refugees in Turkey, one has moved to Germany, and she was able to sponsor her other brother and his family to come to Canada as refugees.
Of the two sisters in Turkey, one — who has three children — is hoping to either join her 18-year-old son in Germany, or else come to Canada.
The other sister, whose house was bombed, is struggling to move forward. Her family has no home to return to, and her husband recently suffered a stroke, leaving him half paralyzed. Good medical treatment is hard to obtain in the area.
Tima said she has been offering her sister encouragement, and sending her information about local medical centers that may be able to help her cope with the trauma that she has experienced.
Tima herself often grows discouraged at the lack of international action to help refugees. Her advocacy work takes a tough mental and emotional toll. But it’s worth it, she said, if she is able to help people who are suffering.
“When I go to sleep at night and put my head on the pillow, I always say, ‘Thank God my voice is being heard, you give me power to help others.’ And (I) thank God every moment.”