Crises in Lebanon are pushing the poor aboard deadly canoes

Suad Mohammad had hoped for a better life when her husband boarded a dinghy to flee poverty-stricken Lebanon, but he disappeared in the waves before reaching Cyprus.

At her family home in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, Mohammad, 27, said she believed the Syrian father of her two young children, Shady Ramadan, 35, was dead.

“I’m waiting for my husband’s body,” she said, tears streaming down her face as she hugged her baby boy to her lap.

Ramadan is among dozens of Lebanese and Syrians who have tried to illegally cross the sea to European Union member Cyprus in recent weeks, fleeing Lebanon’s worst economic crisis in decades.

His family said he was on a boat that drifted without food or water for a week in the Mediterranean Sea before a United Nations peacekeeping vessel rescued survivors on Monday.

Mohammad recounted how desperation drove her diabetic husband to embark on the dangerous journey to the shores of the island of Cyprus, 160 kilometers away.

“He fled Lebanon because of extreme poverty to try to find money for us,” she told AFP, a lively little girl playing at his feet.

Lebanon’s financial crisis has seen tens of thousands of people lose their jobs or part of their salaries, sparked high inflation and pushed poverty rates up to encompass more than half the population.

Tripoli was one of Lebanon’s poorest cities even before the crisis, which has been worsened in recent months by the novel coronavirus pandemic and a catastrophic explosion in the port of Beirut that killed 190 people.

Before he left, Ramadan had tried selling ice cream from a cart, but was earning no more than 20,000 Lebanese pounds a day (now worth about $2.50 at black market rates).

“A bag of nappies alone costs £33,000, not even considering the rent,” his wife said.

The UNIFIL peacekeeping force on Monday rescued 25 Syrians, eight Lebanese and three others from a boat off the country’s coast, the UN refugee agency said.

UNIFIL also said it recovered the body of a person who died at sea.

But relatives of those on board – which included several other members of Mohammad’s extended family – say at least four others are dead or missing.

Ziad al-Bira, a relative, said two children died of hunger and thirst and their bodies were thrown overboard, while Ramadan and another disappeared at sea.

It all started on September 7, when they got into a dinghy after paying a smuggler five million pounds each (over $660 at market rate), he said.

With the boat grossly overcapacity, the smuggler “stopped them from boarding with their belongings, which included water, food and baby milk,” Bira said.

They found themselves “stranded at sea without a guide, with communications cut off for days, until the UNIFIL ship found them”, he added.

After the two children died, Ramadan swam out to try to find help.

“He left and never came back,” Bira said.

Another young man, 27-year-old Mohammad Mohammad, attempted the same thing and also disappeared.

Sitting outside his home in Tripoli, his father Khaldoun, 54, said his son was unemployed and left with relatives without telling him.

“The smuggler kept reassuring us that the boat had arrived safe and sound, until we discovered three days later that he was lying – by which time we could no longer speak to any of our children,” he said.

Distraught family members filed three complaints against the smuggler, who has since disappeared.

In Tripoli, however, not everyone counts on a passer.

This month, dozens of people have contributed to buy their own boat and spent 40 hours at sea trying to reach Cyprus before being turned away by the Cypriot navy.

Two of them said they would jump at the chance to try again.

Khaled Abdallah, 47, said life was no longer viable working 17 hour days as a school security guard for a daily wage of 25,000 pounds (about $3).

“I’m determined to try again, whatever the cost,” he said.

Mohammed al-Khanji, 37, said he could no longer support his two young children as a street vegetable seller.

“I will do the impossible to feed my children,” he said.

“In the end, we will go. We could get there or we could die right away, but in this country we die a slow death.”


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