Why a mother en­trusted her fam­ily to peo­ple smug­glers

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

TRIPOLI: What drives a woman to get her­self deep in debt so she can send her fam­ily away? Love, fear and life in a so­ci­ety where the fu­ture is bleak at best. Salma is Syr­ian, mar­ried to a Pales­tinian with a Le­banese pass­port and liv­ing in Libya, a coun­try torn apart by the 2011 revo­lu­tion and its af­ter­math. Had her home coun­try not been em­broiled in a bit­ter civil war, the petite 42-year-old mother of six would have con­sid­ered send­ing the fam­ily to Syria. Why? Be­cause her hus­band Salim is ill and Salma is now the fam­ily bread­win­ner.

Salma finds it hard to hold back the tears as she tells her story, sit­ting in a three-room flat in Tripoli with just a mo­bile phone for com­pany. She came to Libya in the 1990s, look­ing for work. Salma met and mar­ried Salim, and their four boys and two girls aged be­tween seven and 20 were all born there. Her me­chanic hus­band had a suc­cess­ful garage be­fore he got Parkin­son’s dis­ease.

In it­self that would have even­tu­ally robbed him of his liveli­hood, but Salim then had a stroke. “It was in 2000 that I be­came the head of the fam­ily, not out of choice,” she told AFP. “My hus­band’s ill­ness was get­ting worse and it was up to me to take care of the fam­ily. “That meant work­ing in an en­vi­ron­ment dom­i­nated by men, not easy for a woman in Libya, es­pe­cially a for­eigner. I also had to be a mother and wife. “I was barely 27,” she said, cup­ping car­damom-scented cof­fee in tired hands.

Girls were Tar­geted

Her son Ay­man, 17, was ab­ducted twice by neigh­bour­hood thugs and begged his mother to send him to Europe. “I man­aged to scrape to­gether $1,000 and de­cided to let him risk it,” she said. That was in Septem­ber last year. “He now goes to school and a char­ity is look­ing af­ter him.” Two months later, Salma spent an­other $1,000 so her old­est boy, 19-year-old Hadi, could join him. “They both left from Zwara (around 160 km) west of Tripoli and were picked up by the Ital­ian navy,” she said. In Si­cily, the au­thor­i­ties gave them Ä75 ($80) so they could get to Milan by train, and then they went to Ger­many.

The wors­en­ing sit­u­a­tion in Libya led Salma to risk ev­ery­thing. “My hus­band, my daugh­ters May (20) and Mona (16) and sons Omar (12) and Ma­nar (7) left from Zwara in April this year,” she said. “The girls had to get out of Libya. It would have been too risky to keep them here, where they were al­ways be­ing ha­rassed, and not just be­cause they’re beau­ti­ful,” she said. “Be­cause they were ‘for­eign­ers’ and their fa­ther was sick they were very vul­ner­a­ble.” They had to move house more than once af­ter armed men tried to abduct the girls. “We be­came re­signed to keep­ing them hid­den away in the house rather than risk spoil­ing their fu­ture,” she said.

‘Heart Ripped Out’

Be­fore de­part­ing on their per­ilous trip the girls kept chang­ing their minds, not want­ing to leave their mother, friends and the only life they had known. Her youngest Ma­nar would have stayed, but “see­ing his tears at the thought of be­ing sep­a­rated from his fa­ther” she gave in. “It was like hav­ing my heart ripped out,” she said. Then came the wait­ing, not know­ing their fate. “I would have gone too, but I had to stay here so I could pay back the $4,000 I bor­rowed to pay for their trip.” She does me­nial jobs that hardly cover the rent, let alone her debt to the peo­ple smug­glers.

In Ger­many, Salim and their chil­dren are learn­ing the lan­guage, and he has ac­cess to proper med­i­cal care. They hope to be given refugee sta­tus. But even there the fam­ily is sep­a­rated. The two boys who went first are in Mu­nich and Dus­sel­dorf, while the oth­ers are in Frank­furt with their fa­ther. Salma is able to keep in touch, though, thanks to Skype and Viber.

“Mona and May call me when Omar won’t get up to go to school,” she said, smil­ing. “Thou­sands of kilo­me­tres away, and it’s still me who has to get him out of bed. If it wasn’t for the war in Syria I’d have gone there with my fam­ily. Life here is mean­ing­less with­out them, but what keeps me go­ing is know­ing they are well and have a fu­ture. That makes ev­ery­thing worth it.” Salma too wants to cross the sea, but the chil­dren are telling her to wait un­til they are prop­erly set­tled be­fore the fam­ily re­union. “It was the worst ex­pe­ri­ence of our lives,” May and Mona told their mother of the voy­age north.

TRIPOLI: Salma, a Syr­ian mother of six, checks her phone at her home in the Libyan cap­i­tal on Nov 15, 2015. — AFP

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