Syrian mother reunites with children she feared had drowned

Manal with her three children, Karam, 8, Joudy, 13, and Sarah, 18.

Manal was working for the Syrian Ministry of Justice when the violence of the country’s conflict came too close for comfort. Running out of options, she made a decision that no mother should have to make: she fled for her life, leaving her three children behind.

Manal’s home was destroyed by bombs and bullets as the fighting raged. After she received a direct threat from rebels and a judge was murdered, she realized her own life was in danger.

There was too little time and money to organize the journey for all four of them, so her plan was to go it alone in the belief that they would be just a few steps behind her. It would be more than a year before she saw them again.

Manal reached safety in Denmark in December 2014, but her worries were far from over. She learned that she would have to wait three years to obtain the right for her family to join her. That meant three more years of worrying about her children in Syria and the prospect of them making the dangerous journey to Europe by themselves.

“I had one wish,” she said. “To see my children. I could never imagine to live my life without them. No one wants to live without their children.”

“I had one wish – to see my children.”

Desperate, Manal turned to people smugglers to bring her family to Denmark as soon as possible.

Their journey began in October 2015 and she kept in touch with her eldest daughter, 18-year-old Sarah, through Facebook and WhatsApp. It was autumn in Europe and Manal knew the trip would be cold and dangerous.

On October 30, Sarah wrote that they had found someone to take them across the border into Turkey, and from there arrange a boat to Greece.

Usually, the sea crossing from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesvos takes just a few hours, so Manal was excited when Sarah wrote that they had finally reached the coast and would board the dinghy next morning at dawn.

After that, Manal heard nothing. She went to bed fearing the worst and woke up to news that a boat heading to Lesvos from Turkey had broken down. Many of those on board had fallen into the sea. It was the boat she knew her children were on.

Manal’s world collapsed as a news report spoke of the numbers of men, women and children who had drowned. Alone in the asylum centre and racked by guilt, she curled up into a ball, shivering and unable to move.

As the day wore on, she stared at her phone and scrolled through photos of those who had drowned in the accident, searching for her children among the faces.

By the fourth day, Manal had found a photo of a drowned boy who looked just like her eight-year-old son Karam. He has the same curly brown hair, the same eyes, the same innocent face. The photo was blurred but it could easily have been him.

“What is the meaning of life if your children have died?” she asked herself. “All they wanted was safety, and now they are dead because I said that Denmark was a safe place to come to.”

Then, a message appeared in Manal’s Facebook inbox. It was short and from a stranger, but still the most precious message a mother could receive. It read, simply: “Your children are alive. They are in Turkey.”

“What is the meaning of life if your children have died?”

A fisherman had saved Karam, Joudy and Sarah from the sea and taken them to the Turkish island of Cunda. They were being lodged in a prison in their soaked clothes and had not been able to change since their failed voyage. At least they were together and alive. They were released after 10 days.

The children and their father decided to continue their journey to join their mother. Staying in Turkey was not an option if they wanted to be one family again, nor was returning to Syria, and their desire to be reunited with their mother stronger than the fear of drowning. Despite Manal’s fears for their safety, the three children managed to reach the island of Lesvos in Greece.

From Greece, the children continued north through the Balkans by train. The journey took them almost a month and they were finally reunited with their mother in Denmark in November 2015. By then, they had already been separated for more than a year.

Manal and her children have now been in Denmark for 11 months, but decisions on family reunion and the children’s asylum applications are still pending. The authorities have since separated them again, moving the children to a different asylum centre, more than an hour away from their mother.

The cost of the train and two buses that she must take to see them, the journey time and having to juggle visits with her work as a volunteer translator make it difficult for Manal to see her children every day. However, they are safer and closer now than they were a year ago, and Manal hopes that what she went through is never repeated.

“No one should have to cross an ocean and risk their lives to reunite with their family,” she said. “No one.”