Desperate bid for a better life ends in tragedy at sea
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.”
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.