Syrian Mother Sends Children Across Mediterranean With Smugglers

Jun 8, 2015
Originally published on June 8, 2015 6:56 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's a murky process that sends migrants on these risky journeys. And we're going to go now to an Egyptian coastal town. It's filled with Syrians who've escaped their Civil War and hope to make the trip. NPR's Leila Fadel met one family who told her how it's done.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Um Mohamed makes Turkish coffee in her little kitchen in the sparse apartment she shares with her husband and five children in Agami, a rundown resort town just west of Alexandria. But today, two of their children are not home. They have begun their journey to try to take a boat across the Mediterranean Sea and into Europe. They're doing it alone.

UM MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: "I need them to get an education to have a future," she says, "to be happy. They're so smart." Her oldest son is 14. Her daughter is 20. The parents stayed behind to help support their extended family, and they hope to join them later if they can raise the money.

U. MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: The Syrian housewife goes by her nickname, mother of Mohamed, to protect her family still in Syria and her children in the midst of a dangerous journey to Europe. The family fled the civil war in Syria more than two years ago. Her husband, Abu Mohamed, sits nearby, and they wait for news. Their children started the journey the day before. He describes the contents of the little backpacks they each took.

ABU MOHAMED: Life Jacket, Chocolate, Snickers (laughter).

FADEL: Lifejackets, candy, water and dates - they were packed over a year ago when the family first made the decision to send them to Europe. Every week, Um Mohamed switched out the food and the water until they got the phone call that it was time.

A. MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Her husband describes how it works. It's all done by phone. There are people in the community, usually other Syrians, who line up the trips for a fee. They tell the family to stand by while they get in touch with the smugglers.

A. MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Weeks or even months later, the phone might ring, and all they're told is a place to meet. The phone call has come a few times for his children, but each journey was thwarted by bad weather or infighting among smugglers.

U. MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: "We're not as emotional this time," Um Mohamed says, "because we don't know if they'll really go." It's an expensive and risky trip. Nearly 2000 people have drowned this year going from Africa to Europe. But with no work in Egypt and no hope of going home, Syrians shell out $2,500 a person to make the trip. It's money the family doesn't have, so a relative paid for the daughter. And Mohamed, the 14-year-old, is going for free.

A. MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken).

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: So 10 Syrians, one free?

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: Abu Mohamed jokes about the deal, how his son got a free trip because he was traveling with 10 others, almost like a reward ticket for frequent travel. If it works like usual, a small boat, often run by an Egyptian fisherman, will take them to a larger boat that takes hundreds across the Mediterranean. Other Syrian families describe the same process.

A. MOHAMED: Already several people from Abu Mohamed's family have taken the boat journey. But these days, it's harder. The Egyptian coast guard is cracking down.

A. MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken).

U. MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Thank you so much, (unintelligible). Bye.

I say goodbye to the family, and just a few days later, they called to say their daughter and son returned home - another failed try. The boats couldn't get past the coast guard. Um Mohamed will restock their bags and wait for the next phone call. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Agami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.