“I would have preferred to perish at sea than to return to Lebanon. If a boat leaves tomorrow, and I have the chance to take it, I will go without hesitation.”
Struck by extreme poverty, more and more Lebanese are trying to flee the economic crisis in their country to find asylum in Europe. Last month, eleven died at sea, including two children, as they illegally left Lebanon for Cyprus.
Last month eleven people including two children under the age of 24 months died at sea while on board a felucca attempting to illegally reach the island of Cyprus from northern Lebanon.
As every year since 2015, when a wave of migrants sweeps over Europe, during the autumn, taking advantage of the calm Mediterranean Sea during this season, many boats secretly leave the Lebanese coast to reach Cyprus, and consequently Europe.
Usually, the boats mainly carry Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in and around Tripoli. It is to be noted that Tripoli, though the second largest city in Lebanon, is the poorest city on the Mediterranean shore.
But this year, the difference is significant, it is the Lebanese who mostly take to the sea trying to flee an unprecedented economic and social crisis.
In the space of a few months, the Lebanese lira has experienced a dizzying drop against the American dollar; today one dollar is equivalent to 8,000 Lebanese lira while a little less than a year ago the dollar rate stood at 1500 pounds.
For the past five years, many boats have been intercepted by the Lebanese Coast Guard and forced to return back; the lucky ones arrive to their destination while the unfortunate, run out of fuel and lose their way. This is what happened to a boat of 49 passengers last month. Eleven died among them two children under 24 months.
In Bab el-Tebbaneh, one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city, two families who have lost children live in the same complex of buildings. The buildings with faded facades bear the impact of rockets and bullets; they stand on the old demarcation line that divided the city between Alawites and Sunnis from 2008 to 2015.
Sitting in the living room of his mother’s house, Mohammed 21, tells his story. He left with his wife Obeida, 19, and their son Sofiane, 19 months old.
“We arrived at night on a seashore in Denniyeh, about ten kilometers north of Tripoli, just before the Syrian border. There were much more people than we expected, the smugglers told us to leave all our things on the beach to lighten the boat, reassuring us that a yacht will be waiting for us a few kilometers from the coast. We believed them and we didn’t take anything with us, not even our water bottles,”he says.
Mohammed paid 10 million liras, the equivalent of 1250 dollars to the smugglers, from a coastal village near Tripoli. These smugglers had already driven several boats to Cyprus.
3500 Euros cash
Very quickly the boat lost its way and 24 hours later ran out of fuel in the open sea. “We left on September 7 at dawn, and we were rescued seven days later, on September 14 exactly, by a Turkish navy boat which immediately alerted the Lebanese authorities,”says Mohammed.
“There were a lot more of us than expected. They were mostly Lebanese, we had with us a family of Syrian refugees, a woman among them died on the boat, two Syrian girls who had paid 3500 Euros cash to take the boat, a Yemeni man who was studying in Lebanon and four immigrant workers from India or Bangladesh, one of whom simply perished. We threw his body overboard. When he was tired, he wrote his name on a piece of paper so that those who survive alert his family. I don’t know if this has been done,”he said
Those on board were thirsty and hungry, and seven passengers jumped one after the other into the water hoping to get help. They perished and three bodies were found.
“Sofiane my son was thirsty. He was crying all the time, we didn’t know what to do. I gave him three bottles of seawater which he swallowed very quickly, then he started having diarrhea and vomiting, we gave him antibiotics. He died a few hours later, I was carrying him in my arms. He was getting smaller and smaller. I saw his breathing stop completely. We wanted to keep him on the boat, in fact that was possible for two days, but with the heat it was impossible to continue. My cousin’s son died a day after him. We prayed over the bodies, washed them, wrapped them in shrouds made from our torn clothes, and tied the bodies to the boat so that they could be buried once we reached dry land. I spent the rest of the journey looking at his body in the water under the hull of the boat,” he says.
Mohammed married at the age of 17. He had never worked in his life. He always relied on the alms and help he received from his mother. A few weeks before taking the boat, he had attempted suicide. “For years I’ve been looking for work and I can’t find any,” he explains.
To leave, he sold his furniture. His sister helped him by selling the only two gold bracelets she had.
If he can, Mohammed will go a second time. “My wife is pregnant, I must be able to live decently with her and the child who will be born and this is impossible in Lebanon. In another country, the state helps the citizens! Perhaps I will find work,” he says.
The German dream
His uncle’s house where his cousin Nazir Mohammed, 45, is living now is located one floor lower. Nazir too sold his furniture to pay 15 million liras (the equivalent of 1,875 USD) to the smugglers, so he could leave with his wife and four children, a 20-month-old baby boy, and three girls aged 14, 12 and 9.
Nazir lost his son at sea and since his return he has been living with his family under the roof of his own parents.
His wife, Zeinab, 34, talks about her son Mohammed, who died on board. “I have never been able to buy anything for him, nor for my daughters. When I got him, I couldn’t even afford to buy him a bottle, toys, clothes. Mohammed liked bicycles, he didn’t have one, but he watched in amazement as other children rid their bicycles. I have always been poor and my life has been a series of misfortunes. I would have preferred to perish at sea than to return to Lebanon. If a boat leaves tomorrow, and I had the chance to take it, I would go without hesitation,”she said.
“My son died of thirst. The sun was quite strong, I put seawater compresses on his face and gave him to suck on a fabric soaked in seawater. A little while later, he had diarrhea and he died in front of my eyes,” she says, tears running down her cheeks.
“If I could go once again, I would do so without looking back. Better die at sea than live here. Poverty can also kill. I want to live in Germany, my husband has been there and everyone has treated him well. In Germany everyone leads a decent life and everyone has a future. It’s not like here,” says Zeinab.
Nazir Mohammed says that he already left for Germany with the Syrian emigrants in September 2015. At the time, he had taken a charter plane for Turkey then a boat to arrive to Greece and then trains and buses to cross the Balkans, once in Austria, he headed for Germany.
“I lived like a king. The German state gave me 360 Euros per month. I have never made in my life 360 Euros per month. Here, I sell coffee in the streets, so I barely manage to make 25,000 liras a day (which was 16 US dollars before the devaluation and is equivalent to 3 US dollars today). Now, with the Coronavirus and the devaluation of the Lebanese Lira I am no longer working. In Germany I lived well, the money was enough for me, I was respected as a human being. And I could tour in Europe. I had even visited the Netherlands and Belgium. A year later, my asylum application was refused. I didn’t hire a lawyer, I should have. I returned to Lebanon”.
Nazir will try the impossible to go to Germany, but this time he will not go without his wife and children.