Des­per­ate bid for a bet­ter life ends in tragedy at sea

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Abby Sewell

BEDDAWI, Le­banon: On the 40th day af­ter 5-year-old Khaled Ni­jmeh drowned in the sea, his fam­ily gath­ered around his grave, an earthen plot dec­o­rated with cloth roses and liv­ing vines at a Pales­tinian ceme­tery in north­ern Le­banon’s Beddawi refugee camp.

The boy’s mother sat above the head­stone, which pro­claimed her son a “child mar­tyr,” star­ing blankly at an open copy of the Qu­ran un­til she be­gan to cry silently. His aunt used a nap­kin to wipe dust from the tomb. His father sprin­kled per­fumed wa­ter around the grave. His 8-year-old sis­ter hov­ered on the side­lines as her un­cles handed out maamoul pas­tries to mourn­ers vis­it­ing other graves.

The Pales­tinian ceme­tery was not the rest­ing place the fam­ily had wanted for Khaled. In some ways, the very fact that his grave was there was em­blem­atic of the rea­sons his par­ents had, in late Septem­ber, taken their two chil­dren aboard a smug­gler’s boat bound for Cyprus.

The child’s pa­ter­nal grand­mother, Dalal al-Masri, is Le­banese, but her hus­band is Syr­ian. Be­cause Le­banese cit­i­zen­ship can be passed down only by the father, Ni­jmeh, and there­fore his chil­dren, are not el­i­gi­ble to be Le­banese cit­i­zens, even though he was raised in the coun­try.

Khaled’s mother is Pales­tinian, from the Nahr al-Bared camp.

Ni­jmeh said that be­cause of his Syr­ian na­tion­al­ity, he had strug­gled to find work, es­pe­cially amid the in­flux of Syr­ian refugees.

The fam­ily lived in Beddawi, crowded to­gether with other mem­bers of the ex­tended fam­ily.

“In this last pe­riod there has been a lot of pres­sure with re­gard to work, be­cause of the govern­ment,” Ni­jmeh told The Daily Star. “Syr­i­ans are for­bid­den to work. That’s the sit­u­a­tion, so we de­cided to leave.”

No com­pre­hen­sive num­bers are avail­able on the num­ber of peo­ple cross­ing il­le­gally by sea from Le­banon to Cyprus. But what is known is that the cross­ing is dan­ger­ous – a United Na­tions refugee agency re­port re­leased in Septem­ber said that in 2018 alone, 56 peo­ple have died mak­ing the jour­ney.

AN AT­TEMPT TO ES­CAPE

Ni­jmeh did not know any­one per­son­ally who had made the trip be­fore him, and the fam­ily did not have the means to pay the smug­gler’s fee of $1,000 a per­son. But they were de­ter­mined. “It’s ex­pen­sive, so we bor­rowed and we sold things from the house to be able to go,” Ni­jmeh said.

The cou­ple hoped to per­haps con­tinue to the Euro­pean main­land once they were in Cyprus. But the small fish­ing boat the fam­ily boarded on the night of Sept. 21 was over­loaded with about 40 peo­ple, and off the coast of Akkar, the en­gine stopped and the boat cap­sized.

“We stayed in the wa­ter from 2 [a.m.] un­til 8 in the morn­ing,” Ni­jmeh said. “Then there came a boat – a fish­er­man he saw us and he took us out.”

Ni­jmeh, his wife and their daugh­ter sur­vived the night. But Khaled, who got stuck un­der the boat, was dead by the time res­cuers ar­rived.

“He stayed un­der the wa­ter for seven hours,” Ni­jmeh said. “He was dead when they took him out.”

BURIAL RIGHTS

The child’s body was taken to a hospi­tal in Minyeh, where he re­mained in the morgue for two days while the fam­ily searched for a burial place.

“Nor­mally, when some­one dies, when they put him in the fridge, they wash him, they take his clothes off, they wrap him in a sheet,” Ni­jmeh said. “Khaled, be­cause he’s Syr­ian, they left him in his clothes. ... For two days in the fridge, he was wear­ing his shoes.”

And then there was the ques­tion of burial. Had Khaled been Le­banese, it would have been a sim­ple mat­ter he could have been buried in the town of Beddawi’s mu­nic­i­pal ceme­tery be­low the camp, where mem­bers of Masri’s fam­ily are in­terred. But mu­nic­i­pal of­fi­cials re­fused the child’s body be­cause he was Syr­ian, the fam­ily said.

“I’m Le­banese and I’m a daugh­ter of this area,” Masri said. “I told them, ‘Where are the chil­dren’s rights? Where are the hu­man rights? Where is Is­lam?’”

If the fam­ily had the means, Ni­jmeh said, per­haps it could have bought a pri­vate grave plot else­where, but all its mea­ger re­sources had been spent on the ill-fated sea jour­ney. Af­ter two days of search­ing, the fam­ily was able to se­cure a plot in a ceme­tery in­side the Beddawi camp, Ni­jmeh said.

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Beddawi said the mayor would not com­ment on the case, but told The Daily Star that he had helped find the boy a place in the Pales­tinian camp. (Ni­jmeh said the mu­nic­i­pal­ity had played no part in find­ing the grave spot.)

“The ceme­tery in Beddawi, it’s not pri­vate own­er­ship, it’s on mu­nic­i­pal land, for this area, for Beddawi,” the rep­re­sen­ta­tive said. “We do this ser­vice for free . ... If his grand­mother is Le­banese or not, I don’t know, but the one who died is [not] . ... They’re not en­ti­tled in the law, ba­si­cally.”

A HOUSE WITH­OUT A SOUL

A month and a half af­ter Khaled’s death, his sis­ter cries and wets the bed at night. His mother spends hours on the couch in the fe­tal po­si­tion, cry­ing word­lessly.

“You feel that the house is with­out a soul,” Masri said. “He used to wake me up in the morn­ing ‘Grandma, I want to drink. Grandma, I want to eat. Grandma, I want this and that.’ From the time he woke up, he would never sit still.”

She and her son place blame for the boy’s death in part on the Le­banese na­tion­al­ity law. Had Ni­jmeh been able to take Le­banese cit­i­zen­ship from his mother, they said, the fam­ily’s cir­cum­stances would have been dif­fer­ent.

“We want Le­banese na­tion­al­ity be­cause it’s our right. If they don’t want to give us na­tion­al­ity, give us a way to travel out of the coun­try, and be done with us,” Ni­jmeh said. “If you don’t want to let us travel, at least let us feed our chil­dren.”

Ni­jmeh said his son’s death has only strength­ened his drive to get out of Le­banon. “Peo­ple tell me, ‘You left and caused your son to die.’ I tell them, ‘No, I left in or­der to give my son a fu­ture, for him to be able to live and study like other peo­ple that’s why I left.’”

He said he had heard of other pas­sen­gers from the boat who took their chances again on an­other ves­sel and ar­rived safely in Cyprus. Ni­jmeh said that if given the chance, he would do the same.

“I want to get out of this coun­try. I don’t want to live here. If I get any chance, I will leave,” he said. “If I had ar­rived in Cyprus, I would have con­sid­ered my­self in heaven. And I’m go­ing to re­turn and try again ... I asked more than one per­son to lend me money af­ter my son died. I told them, ‘If some­one will lend to me, I will go back and try to leave again on the sea . ... If God wants us to ar­rive, we will ar­rive, and if God doesn’t want it, I will know that it’s God’s will that I die.’”

Mem­bers of Khaled’s fam­ily gather around the boy’s grave 40 days af­ter his death.

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