THE BOY ON THE BEACH – Tima Kurdi, Simon & Schuster, Toronto
When Tima Kurdi gave up hope that her Syrian brother, his wife and two children would ever be allowed to come to Canada as refugees, she sent him five thousand dollars to pay smugglers to take them to Greece
Tima, who grew up as the eldest daughter of a Kurdish family in Damascus – “Jasmine City” – had come to Canada in 1992, married to a man approved of by her parents. Now it was summer, 2015, and the Harper government was dragging its heels on refugee acceptance despite the worsening of the war in Syria.
Throughout the long month of August Tima waited for word that Abdullah and his family had made it across the few kilometres of the Aegean Sea that separated Turkey from the Greek island of Kos. From there, hopefully, they could move north to a European country where they might begin new lives.
Abdullah could see the island from where he stood. “I can see it from here. It’s right there. So close and yet so far.” Day after day, he waited, with his wife Rehanna and sons Ghalib, four, and Alan, two, for storm-tossed seas to subside. Twice they set out, only to have their boats flounder. Turkish Coast guard cutters brought them back to shore. The third boat they took overturned and sank in high waves.
On the morning of September 2, Tima saw on her cell phone an image of a small boy, drowned on a Turkish beach. It was Alan. His brother and mother had also drowned. Only Abdullah had survived.
The Boy on the Beach is the story of how this came about, the price that the people of Syria have paid for the uprising that began in April 2011, and what has happened to Tima’s family since that awful day when TV stations and newspapers around the world carried that dramatic picture.
This is a book filled with sincerity and love, but also with frustration and bitter tears of failure. It speaks to the love and intimacy of Tima Kurdi’s family, of her growing up with a longing to be an independent woman of the world.
Tima’s account of her efforts to secure the entry to Canada of Abdullah and his family, and also her brother Mohammad and his wife and children, makes for difficult reading. Tima’s MP carried a letter to the Minister of Citizenship, Chris Alexander, pleading for approval. Nothing happened.
By now, in 2015, Abdullah had been captured and tortured by an ISIS gang in Syria . He had found refuge in Turkey with his family, as had Mohammad and his. That summer, Mohammad joined the exodus to Germany, one of a million refugees who walked most of the way from Greece. After the death of Abdullah’s wife and children, the Canadian government relented, flew Mohammed’s family to him in Germany, and allowed them to come to Canada as refugees under Tima’s sponsorship.
The death of Alan Kurdi became an issue in the October, 2015 Canadian federal election. Why had the government been so slow to react to the crisis? Tima Kurdi writes with remarkable restraint of her experiences with the refugee system, and tries to avoid placing political blame. Canadians were not so charitable toward the Harper government, turning it out in favour of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals who promised to allow 25,000 refugees into Canada by year’s end. They missed that target by but a few weeks.
(Like other Canadians, I was shocked by the picture of Alan Kurdi on the beach in Turkey. We organized a committee of writers in Kingston, Ontario to sponsor a refugee family. Syrian writer Jamal Saeed , his wife and two sons recently celebrated their first year here.)
The Boy on the Beach stands as a personal testament to the disaster that has overtaken Syria, and how the world has reacted to the upheaval of seven million people. The book concludes with Tima’s reunion with Abdullah in Iraq, where he has settled in Erbil, capital of the Kurdish autonomous region. Together, they have launched the Kurdi Foundation to assist children living in refugee camps.
Tima Kurdi is unsure whether writing this book has helped her find answers to questions that have haunted her since Alan’s death. She hopes it will help people understand that “we are all essentially the same; we all dream of healthy, peaceful, safe lives … We are more similar than different, and we are stronger when united.” Tima will speak at the Kingston Writersfest in September, 2018.
(My thanks to Simon and Schuster for an advance reading of this book, which will be published April 27.)