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Nation & World

Migrants Flee Lebanon In Desperate, Doomed Journey

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Even with pandemic restrictions that made some countries shut their doors, migrants from the Mid-East keep trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea for Europe, and they keep dying in the effort. The International Organization for Migration says at least 1,100 perished at sea in 2020. NPR's Ruth Sherlock brings us the story of one boat from Lebanon.

AFAF ABDULHAMEED: (Speaking Arabic).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Afaf Abdulhameed says before her only son, Mohammed Khaldoun, left for the smuggler's boat, he kissed her hands and forehead as he said goodbye. We speak in a cinderblock apartment where Abdulhameed, her husband and five grown daughters share the only bedroom. Life has always been hard for this family, and especially for Khaldoun. When he was just 10 years old, Abdulhameed says she had to pull him out of school...

ABDULHAMEED: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: ..."Because to have your child in school requires money. And in our situation, we couldn't afford it." He worked in a factory, and when that shut down four years ago, he couldn't find more work. She says he felt useless. Then he heard about smugglers who could get you to the island of Cyprus, where there were jobs paying $50 a day.

ABDULHAMEED: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She says she didn't want him to go, but he was determined, so the family supported him. His sister sold her savings, a gold necklace, to pay for him to get on the boat to Cyprus last September. Khaldoun was trying to do what experts say tens of thousands attempted again in 2020 - crossing the Mediterranean to flee war or find work in Europe. It became even harder this year as pandemic restrictions limited search and rescue missions and closed ports. Many migrants were forced back home or died at sea.

After Mohammed Khaldoun set off from Lebanon, days went by without word, and his parents, worried sick, called the smugglers. His family share with me the WhatsApp voice note exchanges between Khaldoun's father and the smuggler.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: "Have you heard anything about them?" the father asks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: "They got there. They got there in safety and cheer," the smuggler replies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: "Soon, you'll be able to speak with him yourself," he assures Khaldoun's dad, saying Khaldoun is just buying a phone. But these were lies. In fact, the family would never hear from him. We spoke with another man who was on the boat to find out what happened.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Praying in Arabic).

SHERLOCK: We meet 22-year-old Ibrahim Lasheen outside his mother's home in Lebanon as nearby mosques make their calls to prayer.

IBRAHIM LASHEEN: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He's poor and says he sold his mother's couches to pay for the boat trip he didn't even tell her he was going on. The smugglers put him on the same boat as Khaldoun, and he recalls how they took all the migrants' possessions, phones and even baby formula for the children before boarding.

LASHEEN: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He says he trusted their promises of a straightforward seven-hour crossing to Cyprus on calm waters, but it was much longer. And then they ran out of fuel with no sight of land. Lasheen, Mohammed Khaldoun and about 45 others were adrift at sea. After two days under the hot sun without food, baby milk or water, the youngest passenger on the boat, 2-year-old Sufian Mohammed, died in his mother's arms. It was then, Lasheen says, that Khaldoun decided to swim. He tied empty fuel canisters to his waist with string to help him float.

LASHEEN: (Through interpreter) He said he was going to find help. He asked us all for forgiveness if he didn't succeed.

SHERLOCK: That was the last time anyone saw him. Two more days passed, and Lasheen says others swam for help, too, and three more people died on the boat, another toddler among them. On the seventh day, already dizzy and weak from hunger and thirst, Lasheen decided it was his turn.

LASHEEN: (Through interpreter) I decided to go because there wasn't anyone left but me on the boat who knew how to swim.

SHERLOCK: So he jumped overboard.

LASHEEN: (Through interpreter).

SHERLOCK: Lasheen says he was bitten by fish, and he got jellyfish stings. He passed the night like this, tossed by the waves in the darkness. He was rescued by a boat that happened to be passing by. So were the other migrants, eight days after they set off from shore. But by then, six people, including those two young children, had passed away.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.