Bitter-sweet family reunion in Sicily for Mediterranean capsize survivors

Telling the Human Story, 13 November 2013

© UNHCR/P.Tesoriero
Two of the Syrian children explore the streets of Sant'Angelo Muxaro, where the reunion took place.

SANT'ANGELO MUXARO, Italy, November 12 (UNHCR) On a recent emotionally charged November evening, members of four families were reunited in an isolated Sicilian commune far from their troubled homeland. They were linked by a terrible tragedy.

The 13 Syrian refugees in the town hall of Sant'Angelo Muxaro were passengers on a Europe-bound smuggler's boat that capsized on October 11 some 95 kilometres from Lampedusa Island, the southernmost territory of Italy. The Italian coastguard and Malta's Navy managed to save 211 people, but 27 bodies have been recovered and more than 250 are missing feared lost in the Mediterranean.

In the confusion, many family members who had survived were separated from each other, with unaccompanied children being taken to Sicily and adults to Malta. Waiting to hear about loved ones was an ordeal, but the families at Sant'Angelo Muxaro had been told as soon as possible about the fate of their missing relatives.

That made the reunion bitter-sweet for some, and a nerve-wracking experience for all after the long journey to reach a town that will now become their temporary home under an Italian government programme. Farah* almost fainted when she spotted her daughter out of the bus window at the end of the three-hour-long bus journey to Sant'Angelo Muxaro.

Hashim cried with happiness and pain while holding Dawud, aged two, in his arms. The boy's mother had drowned in the boat that was meant to bring them to safety after escaping from the violence inside their homeland, which has forced more than 2 million people to flee to other countries in the region.

Farah, her husband Jaber, and Hashim were among a group of six adults and one child brought from Malta to Sicily about three-and-a-half weeks after the high seas tragedy thanks to a joint humanitarian effort by UNHCR and its partners, including the governments of Malta and Italy, the Italian Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, Save the Children and the Jesuit Refugee Service.

Normal bureaucratic procedures were speeded up, but the seven in Malta Farah, Jaber, Hashim, Rashid, Ilham, Issam and his son Labib had to prepare documentation and undergo DNA tests ordered by a juvenile court in Sicily.

"The procedures were very complex due to the involvement of children," noted UNHCR Regional Representative Laurens Jolles, while thanking all those involved in making the reunion possible in such a short space of time. "We are pleased to see that this family reunion has finally been accomplished," he said.

Once the paperwork was done, the group in Malta flew out of Valletta with a UNHCR staff member. The excitement was palpable as they prepared to leave Malta. "I don't mind if it's in Italy or Malta, I just want to be reunited with Amira," Farah kept repeating at the airport.

On the plane to Catania in eastern Sicily, four-year-old Labib fell asleep, probably unaware of the momentous meeting ahead of him with his brother Abdel. But his father, Issam, could not stop asking about his wife and two other children, who are still reported missing. The excitement and tension grew on the road journey to Sant'Angelo Muxaro. "How far is it? When do we get there?," kept asking Rashid and Ilham, who were finally to be reunited with their three young children, including a 10-month-old boy.

The four families will enter a reception project under Italy's Protection System for Asylum-Seekers and Refugees. They can live where they want in Italy while their applications for asylum are processed. The families will be given shelter, food, clothing, a living allowance and language classes as well as access to free education and health care. They will remain in the programme for up to a year.

Meanwhile, some of the children have already started embracing Italy and its culture and language. "Macchinina, macchinina," Abdel told his brother, pointing to a toy car as they played. Even Issam, their father, is determined to integrate. "I will learn Italian," he pledged.

* Names of the refugees changed for protection reasons

By Pietro Tesoriero and Anouar Belrhazi in Sant'Angelo Muxaro, Italy. Federico Fossi in Rome, Italy, contributed to this story.

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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Rescue at Sea

Summer, with its fair weather and calmer seas, often brings an increase in the number of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean and seek asylum in Europe. But this year the numbers have grown by a staggering amount. In the month of June, the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation picked up desperate passengers at a rate of more than 750 per day.

In late June, UNHCR photographer Alfredo D'Amato boarded the San Giorgio, an Italian naval ship taking part in the operation, to document the rescue process - including the first sighting of boats from a military helicopter, the passengers' transfer to small rescue boats and then the mother ship, and finally their return to dry land in Puglia, Italy.

In the span of just six hours on 28 June, the crew rescued 1,171 people from four overcrowded boats. Over half were from war-torn Syrian, mostly families and large groups. Others came from Eritrea and Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Bangladesh and beyond. D'Amato's images and the interviews that accompanied them are windows into the lives of people whose situation at home had become so precarious that they were willing to risk it all.

Rescue at Sea

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