Inside a Sinking Dinghy Crossing the Mediterranean Sea

December 22, 2016
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by Patrice Taddonio Assistant Director of Audience Development

Even before boarding the boat, Hassan had a bad feeling.

He had hoped the inflatable dinghy would safely transport him and a group of other Syrian refugees from Izmir, Turkey to Greece.

That’s what the smugglers who had collected his money promised: “They portray it to you as if you’re going on a five-star yacht,” he says.

But as he waited on shore, the former English teacher from Damascus grew fearful.

“What scared me the most is that they asked one of the refugees … who are gonna go on the boat, they were like ‘Come, we will train you how to operate the engine,'” Hassan says in the below scene. “I was like, oh my God. ‘Cause this is someone who has no idea, he has never done this, and they train him in, like, three minutes.”

What follows is one of the most harrowing scenes from Exodus, FRONTLINE’s two-hour documentary premiering Dec. 27 on the global refugee and migrant crisis that’s drawn in part from footage filmed by refugees themselves.

Despite his reservations, Hassan boards the overcrowded dinghy — and keeps filming as, midway through the crossing, it begins filling with water.

“Please, God be with us,” one woman prays out loud. Some begin jumping off the boat to lighten its load, as others try to bail out the deepening water. The children plead for help. Their voices have stayed with Hassan ever since.

“There was a kid who was sitting right in front of me on the boat,” Hassan says. “… He was like, ‘Just do something,’ and he was crying. To witness that is just hard.”

As Exodus recounts, the boat was ultimately rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard. There were no fatalities. But more than 3,700 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in the first 10 months of 2016 alone — and this footage is a vivid, first-hand look at the dangerous journeys being undertaken by millions of people who have fled their homes in Syria and other countries besieged by violence, political instability and crushing poverty.

Hassan’s story is one of several that unfold in Exodus. From Hassan, to Isra’a, a young Syrian girl who fled Aleppo with her family after a missile destroyed their home, to Alaigie, a Gambian man who dreams of lifting his family out of poverty, the documentary is an unforgettable, must-watch look at the choices migrants and refugees face — and at what’s driving Europe’s largest migration crisis since the end of World War II.

“Nobody wants to leave their country and risk dying at the sea,” says Hassan, who fled Damascus after he says he was beaten by government forces. “But when it becomes impossible to live in your own country, people will do desperate things.” 

Exodus premieres Tues., Dec. 27 at 9 p.m. EST/8 p.m. CST on PBS and online. Check your local PBS station for air times.

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