Why we do it – the struggle to reach European salvation

by Tim De-Jie Ming-Long Rudolph

“I’ve come to your shores looking for refuge from the tyrannical torments of the Syrian regime.”

Amira stood on the third-level deck of a raggedy boat filled with roughly 550 other Syrian refugees drifting along the Mediterranean Sea. The vessel was vastly overcrowded; designed for no more than 200 people, almost triple the amount of weight was now burdening the creaky fleet chugging along the currents. Enormous waves were pounding the ship into submission – Amira had been sick for the entire duration of the trip; she curled up and held her stomach with both her hands.

She was wretching but made sure to let no more liquids exit her mouth. She hadn’t drunk anything for well over a day now and had to maintain a steady level of hydration if she was to stay conscious. The limited rations the smugglers had given them were all but gone. The floor of the ship was covered in fluids of all kinds: vomit and urine paved the decks and made them sticky and smell fantastically rotten.

All passengers were organized in such great density that proper breathing, let alone bodily movement was all but impossible. Children and infants were bawling uncontrollably as their parents attempted to gather in groups and pray as a sign of hope and solace. The sky was turning grey and storm clouds preceded the arrival of cold winds whose howling edges were as biting as sharp knives slicing into flesh. As the first drops of rain began to pour onto the heads of Amira and the others, the boat began to jerk and tilt slightly to its right. As the rocking intensified, sea water began to penetrate the wooden deck of the ship’s interior. Its movement and course became increasingly irregular and unpredictable; most everyone on board knew the consequences.

In hindsight, all that Amira remembers were the screams of the passengers and the panic that instantly ensued on the vessel; the smugglers had failed to provide them with lifejackets or other safety paraphernalia. The lower two levels were the first to succumb to the clutches of the icy sea water insidiously caressing the boat’s outsides. Infants and the elderly had little strength to grab on to the ship’s railing or make their way to higher ground. Amira clearly recalls grabbing hold of a small boy no older than four years and tightly embracing him: “Where are your parents? “ she asked. He, however, was too frightened to make a sound and tightly squeezed her hand; he had tears in his eyes and was shaking from the terror of the situation and days of malnourishment. As the boat continued its descent into its own demise, she pushed the boy and herself into the water and dragged themselves away from the doomed vessel. Her long dress and the young boy’s clothes made it difficult for her to keep both of them afloat. She was having terrible cramps and swallowed much sea water. They both saw their beacon of hope disappear into the dark abyss of the sea, taking hundreds of lives with it. The choir of pleas for help, sounds of anguish and prayer conglomerated into symbols of broken dreams. Ferocious waves were further pulling Amira down to the ocean floor; her frantic and increasingly infrequent pants for air became ever more difficult to sustain. The boy she was still holding on to also struggled to withhold the need to breathe but soon was overcome with such weakness that he could not help but be carried away by the will of the sea. She tightly clung on to his body, pushing him to the sea’s surface as if he were still alive and waited for rescue. It would be four hours until help arrived…

Amira was the only one who survived the incident. She is now in Italy, away from the war in her home country.

“We thought being in Europe is a dream come true…”