Syrian family drowns whilst fleeing civil war

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For most people, it was yet another Aegean Sea tragedy in which a group of would-be migrants in a small boat drowned while trying to reach Greece.

But for Husam Hashash, who lost his brother, his sister-in-law and their three children in the March 6 sinking, the incident was much more profound.

Husam’s brother Omar, 40, came as close to any immigrant to realizing his Greek dream after 15 years in his adoptive country, where he had managed to start a small textile business that employed some 20 people.

But that dream ended in 2010. When the economic crisis made landfall in Greece, Omar returned home to Syria to start another business. Instead, the civil war caught up with him.

“He had problems there too,” recalls Husam, sitting in his sparse Athens living room and holding back tears. “His shop was robbed and business seized up.”

Omar decided to return to Greece. But in the meantime, his Greek residence permit had expired and he could not renew it from Syria. He had no option but to attempt to sneak back.

The family first tried the overland route through the Greek border with Turkey, where they were stopped and turned back.

Greece recently completed a 10.3-kilometre barbed-wire fence on the border in a general crackdown against undocumented migration assisted by European Union forces and funding.

According to EU figures, a total 11,900 Syrians were caught trying to enter the bloc in 2012 in comparison with just over 3,000 in each of the three years before.

Rights groups such as Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders regularly accuse Greece and the European Union of endangering the lives of undocumented migrants and refugees.

Greece in particular is also charged with detaining them in inhuman conditions when they are caught.

Thwarted by land, Omar was left the sole option of crossing the Aegean Sea. He found a smuggler and paid over $1,500 to make the arrangements.

That night in March, he set off with his wife, children and another four people on board an inflatable dinghy, heading for the Greek island of Mytilene.

“The last time we spoke to our brother was on the morning of his departure,” says Husam. “Then he called around midnight to say that he was about to arrive.”

That night, all nine people inside the boat drowned. Among them was a pregnant girl in her teens.

“We called his mobile after midnight but he never replied. Even if he had been arrested by the police, he would have found a way to get through to us,” says Husam.

In desperation, Omar’s other brother rushed to the island of Mytilene, to begin the macabre task of searching among the bodies swept ashore by the sea.

The family received little help from the smugglers who had organized the crossing.

“They lied to us at every turn,” says Husam. “They told us that the group had landed on Chios, another island. And while my brother scoured the islands, the authorities were no help either,” he adds.

In the end, it was a tourist who found Omar’s body on a Mytilene’s beach.

But the family’s ordeal was not over.

Husam went to extraordinary trouble to have his brother buried in one of the few sanctioned cemeteries for Muslims in Komotini, northern Greece.

The rest of Omar’s family was buried with him, save for one of his children whose body was never found.

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s programme director for Europe and Central Asia, gave the epitaph a few days later as the group mounted fresh criticism on Greece’s immigration crackdown.

“It was a tragedy waiting to happen,” he said.

‘Crisis-hit Greeks crying harder than Syrians’

Even the survivors of such crossings have little to cheer about, landing in a country mired in recession for the last six years and grappling with soaring unemployment and rising hostility to foreigners.

Over the past year, a once-marginal neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, has increased in influence, electing 18 deputies in last year’s crisis-marked general ballot.

Golden Dawn’s rise has been accompanied by indiscriminate beatings of migrants in various Greek cities by racist gangs.

“We wanted to flee Syria and Bashar al-Assad, now we want to flee Greece,” says Ali al-Massoud, a 28-year-old Syrian Kurd who arrived seven months ago with a pregnant wife and three children.

Their village in the north of Syria was destroyed in July in a bombardment, scattering their extended family between Iraq and Greece.

Three generations of the family -- 15 people in all including various cousins -- now live in a small apartment in central Athens.

Ali’s father has a job but cannot support the entire clan. In order to eat, his mother gathers third-rate vegetables discarded by outdoor vendors at the end of daily markets.

“And yet, whenever I go to see a Greek employer to ask for a job, they generally cry harder than me,” Ali notes.