BEIRUT (AP) — When the rubber boat carrying a Lebanese family of 12 punctured in the choppy Aegean Sea waters, they first started throwing their belongings in the water to keep afloat. Inevitably, it sank, all but wiping out the Safwans.
Moussa Safwan held his 18-year old pregnant wife for several hours in the water until— her body stiff— he let go and swam to shore. He is one of three survivors; relatives were gathered in Beirut on Thursday to await what likely would be tragic news of four still missing.
The Lebanese family tragedy highlights how the flood of refugees to Europe is encouraging disenchanted people from across the region to take make the journey, risking their lives in choppy seas to get to safer and more prosperous lands.
More than 500,000 people fleeing war or poverty have entered Europe this year, from countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many Lebanese have also left their country, escaping economic hardship and the weight of neighboring Syria’s war on their fragile country. The small country of more than 4 million people hosts about 1.2 million Syrian refugees.
The Lebanese migrants are mostly heading to Europe with the rest of the refugees and often benefit from a market for fake Syrian IDs that has developed recently.
The wave of Syrian refugees “opened a door for all, even those who have money and are greedy, to escape the unstable conditions here. Insecurity makes people leave too,” said Hani Safwan, a relative of those who died.
Kelly Safwan, 22, said she learned the boat carrying her family was punctured and sank soon after it left Turkey late Monday. It was carrying her father and mother, two young sisters, her brother and his pregnant wife, her sister and three children, her uncle and his son.
She said her family was seeking a better life in Europe, looking to join other relatives who are in Germany. Moussa and his pregnant wife, due in just two weeks, wanted to start their family in Europe. Her sister’s 7-year-old child suffered from diabetes and wanted to get better care. To cross the Aegean Sea, each paid $1,200 and the smuggler told them to drive the boat themselves into the night, relatives said.
“Life is not good here. They were not happy. It is clear to everyone how the situation is in Lebanon. Everyone is leaving,” said Kelly Safwan, who is her last year of university. “(My brother) held (his wife) for several hours. At the end, she froze, so he let her go. She died in his arms. He let her go and continued to the shore.”
She said her father left her behind because she was the only one in the family to go to university.
Her brother Moussa and her sister’s 14-year old son are in Turkish custody for questioning. The uncle remains in the hospital in Izmir. The family is urging authorities to bring back the bodies of the others for burial.
The family’s home in Beirut’s Ouazi working-class neighborhood was packed with mourners Thursday. Kelly Safwan’s older sister— who had also stayed behind to care for her — stared out from the balcony of the small apartment that overlooks the Mediterranean. As a friend consoled her, she mumbled: “They broke my back with this trip. I don’t know who to cry for.”
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