When the risks are too great

The migrant disaster last weekend in which more than 800 people drowned trying to reach Europe has triggered a new round of crisis management in the West about how to stanch the flow or refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean. But it has also given some refugees themselves pause. This week I heard the story of a woman who had just chosen to back out of the perilous journey. A writer and mother from Kobane, she had already paid her money to make the crossing but pulled out at the very last minute with her two young children. Her story underscores the agonizing choices thousands of survivors of Syria’s civil war are being forced to make as the war enters its fifth year and life becomes increasingly difficult inside Syria and in neighboring countries as well. At least 1,700 refugees and migrants have already died crossing the Mediterranean to Europe since the beginning of 2015, casting a harsh light on European policy towards those taking the Mediterranean route, as well as the conditions from which they are fleeing. We’ll call her Yasemin, as she cannot be identified using her real name. Yasemin is a writer with a university degree, fluent in at least four languages including English, who grew up in the the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane. She was forced to flee to Turkey a little over a year ago when fighting and the so-called Islamic State reached her town. (Kobane, which was the subject of intense bombardment by both IS and US-allied airpower, has since been liberated but is still considered uninhabitable because of the extent of the destruction and the stench of corpses buried beneath the rubble.) Unable to find adequate work in Turkey and concerned that her   two children would be prevented as non Turks from getting a proper education, Yasemin decided not long ago to try to take them to Europe.

Through friends she got in touch with a man who was known to have a reasonable ‘success rate’ for bringing refugees to Europe. She deposited $3000 with a middleman, who promised to release it to the smugglers if she successfully arrived in Europe and to return it to her if she failed. When news broke of the sinking of a ship off the coast of Libya earlier this week leaving more than 800 dead, she had already agreed to make the crossing herself. But the news spread alarm among those waiting to go. She began to have second thoughts. At the time she was staying in a small hotel, which had been organized by a trafficking group, including Syrians and Turks, where she and others were gathered to wait for their ship to take them to Italy. Local authorities are watching the coastline and the timing of the pick up is variable, depending also on cloudy weather to prevent satellite surveillance photographs from picking up the boats. She contacted a friend in Lebanon to discuss her fears. Also from Kobane, he had already lost two friends who died trying to make the crossing and he was determined not to add her to the list. “I spoke to her for two hours pleading with her to reconsider,” he told me. Yasemine explained how badly she wanted to go and how the traffickers, who seemed presentable and spoke kindly to her, reassured her that all would be okay. But her friend persisted. He tried reason; he tried probability (“this is not even a 10 percent chance of failure, it is way higher than that.”) When she finally decided to leave the hotel, the traffickers came after her and her two children and continued to urge her to stay and that everything would be ok. She kept talking to her friend on her mobile. Eventually, he told her she had no right to make this kind of decision for others—her two children. She relented. Her friend says he is relieved but that she I not happy with him. She worries that she has not done right be her children. She may try again. I was struck by the courage of both her and her friend, who did his best by her to try to save her life. Rarely in our own lives—those of us lucky enough not to be born in Syria, or Yemen, or Iraq –are we faced with anything like the life and death decisions that both these young people made this week. That is something for which I am more than grateful.

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