During the rescue of April, 28, 2017 among all the others, an entire Syrian family – composed by three sisters, their respective husbands and seven children – came on board.
The following statement was given by three Syrian sisters, who wanted to tell their story together. We are sitting in the corner of the big room called “Shelter,” set up specifically for women and children.
I look at the three sisters. They are beautiful, strong women, full of life and energy in spite of the extreme conditions in which they were forced to live in and in spite of the journey at sea.
The three women speak Syrian and Arabic; their English is not fluent but sufficient to allow mutual understanding.
Often, they look for the English words on their phones to be better understood, travelling through their memories back to Syria and to the very difficult life in Libya.
While we talk the children are curled up next to their moms: some sleep, some play and others cry and get nursed.
The first sister is 26, and has two boys, 6 and 3 years old; the second sister is 29, she has three children: a daughter who is 6 and two sons who are 4 years and 4 months old. The third sister is 36 and has 2 children, a 17-year-old girl and a 23-year-old son.
They left Syria in 2011, soon before Gheddafi’s death. Life in Syria was very hard, they keep on repeating: “No work, no money, no house, no freedom, life was very dangerous”.
They recall the moment the soldiers entered their home with guns. The soldiers took away all they had and drove away the car of the husband of one of the sisters and destroyed the place he worked in as a mechanic.
The first two sisters left for Libya in 2011. The journey through the desert lasted one week.
At the first checkpoint they were robbed of all their money and at the following their husbands got beaten up since they no longer had money to give. They weren’t killed as apparently families with children are spared.
One of the sisters says: “The days in the desert have been horrible, terrifying, we could see dead bodies in the sand and we were scared we would die as well. The children were very small and they would cry as they were hungry and thirsty, after a while they wouldn’t even cry anymore as they were too weak”.
Once in Libya they had to work a lot to give back the money borrowed.
The eldest sister tells me that she left with her husband and children to Libya one year after her sisters. They crossed the desert in 2012 and soon after their arrival their son has been beaten up, threatened and forced to go to Quranic school for a year, if he would have refused they would have killed him.
A Libyan militia kidnapped her husband to turn him into a soldier. After two weeks he came back home but lived in fear of being found and life for him became very dangerous.
One of the women comes close to my ear and whispers: “We are not Muslim, we are
Christian, and in Libya Christians get killed. Libyans stop you and in order to verify that you are Muslim they ask you to repeat bits of the Koran. My son knows it now by heart and this is how he saved himself. They kill you for nothing. In Libya you die without having done anything wrong. We would walk around veiled all the time, face covered and we would barely leave the house. Our brother has been taken as well and forced to go to Quranic school. He managed to escape and now he deals with Human rights. Everybody knows our story over there and we have been threatened many times because of our religion. While she tells me this she whispers and looks around to make sure no one can hear her.
They tell me: “We are eight sisters and one brother, four sisters still live in Syria. They don’t have the money to leave, the streets are blocked and our parents are too old to go through such a dangerous and long journey”.
I ask them when they first started thinking about coming to Europe and what they are hoping to find: “Two years ago we decided we were going to leave Libya, we couldn’t live there any longer, we couldn’t go back to our country and it took us a long time to gather the money for the journey. We didn’t know anything about Europe but everybody kept saying that there is freedom and a safe life over there”.
One of them gets closer and tells me shyly: “I was so scared of the sea, I didn’t want to get on the boat but I wanted to be with my sisters and anyhow I didn’t really have a choice. Sooner or later I would have died in Libya. Another one of our sisters was supposed to come with us but two days before leaving she was kidnapped by a group of armed men and put into a car. We don’t know what has happened to her and we are very worried”.
They left Syria thinking they would have found a better life in Libya. Now they are leaving Libya thinking to find a better life in Europe.
Author: Francesca Vallarino Gancia
Photos: Francesca Vallarino Gancia
Editing: Natalia Lupi