Syrian father traces son who embarked on dangerous journey to Europe


Published: 2023-09-13 18:04

Last Updated: 2024-04-14 05:03

Editor: Roland Schonbauer


“Papa, I might be without connection for three days when I am on the boat to Italy”, Mohammad Al Ghazaali, recalls a phone call from his son Shoug when he had reached the Mediterranean shore in Libya. “So don’t worry, my son said. On the fourth day, I started to worry.” Meanwhile, Mohammad whose family fled to Jordan in 2013 after feeling caught in the middle of warrying fractions inside Syria, is certain: “My son died in a shipwreck on the way to Italy.”

Mohammad’s eldest son is one of at least a dozen refugees who previously lived in Jordan and were on a ship that capsized near Pylos, Greece. Hundreds of refugees and migrants were on board on 14 June 2023, several dozen bodies were retrieved, many more are missing and feared dead. Some 2,700 men, women and children went missing or dead in the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year, according to IOM figures. Together with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, the organization continues to call for coordinated search and rescue at sea as a legal and humanitarian imperative.

Parents’ hope

It all began when Shoug who worked in bakery shops felt he was not treated fairly by employers or co-workers in Irbid governorate that hosts 143,000 of the over 730,000 refugees registered with UNHCR countrywide. “A lot of people tried to take advantage of him, they did not pay him the full money”, recalls Mohammad. “My son came with the idea to go to Europe, so we wanted him to get married to get away from the idea. We were very worried”, says his father. Shoug married Fidaa* in October 2022.

The parents’ plan did not work. At the contrary. “Shoug felt extra responsibility after the
marriage, he wanted to take care of his family”, says Mohammad as he fights with tears, “one day in April he told me: ‘Dad, I have decided to take the boat.’” Shoug wanted to reach Italy and head on to Germany or the Netherlands where the family has relatives. Mohammad needs a few minutes before he can continue the grim account.

A call from Libya

They were in touch again by phone when Shoug crossed Libya until the fateful last call from the Mediterranean coast near Tobruk. Mohammad tried not to worry. As the Pylos shipwreck was all over the news, he searched social media for answers. Some posts suggested they were following events closely, even during the last hours before the shipwreck when the migrants and refugees on board warned each other of moving suddenly in larger groups on the ship as this might jeopardize its balance. Mohammad was shocked to read in a post that even before the shipwreck six passengers had reportedly already died of dehydration.

Mohammad did not want to believe the news of the shipwreck for several days. “Deep inside, I was thinking that my son was still alive.” A long agony of uncertainty began for Mohammad, his wife, children and grandchildren.

In touch with survivors

Mohammad also tried to contact other people who were on the ship - four relatives and a couple of neighbors – to no avail. His worries only got worse. He reached relatives in Germany and Netherlands who went to Greece and found survivors. One of Shoug’s friends on board, one of about four dozen Syrian survivors, had not seen Shoug among the survivors. Others finally confirmed that Mohammad’s son had in fact been on the third floor of the ship. After days of worry, Mohammad had to realize: “My son is dead.”

“People know, and they will keep thinking of reaching Europe”, Mohammad shrugs, “because the humanitarian conditions are so hard here.” Mohammad used to earn a living as a taxi driver in Syria, but is barred from his profession in Jordan as he cannot get a driver’s license here. He works hard in agriculture, but the little income from this seasonal work is not enough for him to make ends meet. He says he has received eviction orders for not paying the rent of 120 Jordanian Dinars (some 170 US$) for their apartment in a three-story building in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Irbid in which his daughters and their families, his other children and grandchildren live. UNHCR has warned of the serious consequences declining humanitarian support will have on refugees, including the protection risks of taking dangerous routes to other countries.

Refugees in Jordan for 10 years

In Mohammad’s recollection, leaving for Europe has “increased in 2019, first via Belarus, now everybody heads for Libya.” Daniela Floridia, Head of UNHCR’s Legal Unit in Amman, finds this “very worrying: People who had found refuge in hospitable Jordan, decide to leave out of despair, as they tell us when we interview them”, she says. “After analyzing some of the known cases, we found out that they had lived in Jordan for over ten years on average. It breaks my heart that they do not see a perspective in Jordan anymore and undertake these dangerous journeys.”

Mohammad’s 24-year-old daughter Sawsan Alghazali breaks out in tears when Shoug’s name is mentioned. Sitting on the old sofa next to her father, she shares the impact on Shoug’s wife Fidaa: “One day, I heard a scream from inside the house. When I went down to their flat, I found his wife in their bedroom in a hysterical state, crying, and throwing her new clothes everywhere in the room”, she recalls. “‘For whom will I wear them?’, she shouted.

Fidaa had been four months pregnant when Shoug left. After the news on Shoug, Mohammad and his wife were looking forward to this grandchild. “We put a big hope in the baby, we wanted to see our son in the child”, says Mohammad.

The hope was in vain. Fidaa’s mental health deteriorated seriously after the dreadful news, she even stopped eating, against the advice of her doctor. “My daughter-in-law lost her baby”, decries Mohammad.

Following the shipwreck, UNHCR held awareness sessions on the protection risks of onward movement across Jordan, and distributed posters on facilities providing services for refugees. “We have referred Mohammad and his family for psychosocial support, counseled them on legal and other available services, we also provided the family with urgent cash assistance to mitigate their unspeakable pain”, says Mouaz Al Takrouri, Associate Protection Officer in Irbid. “But we know, this cannot give Shoug or his child back to the family.”

Story was provided to Roya by UNHCR

(*) Name changed for privacy.