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A tragic death didn’t stop this Syrian refugee family’s quest to reach safety

The image of 3-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi lying drowned on a beach became a tragic icon of the Syrian crisis. But Alan’s death was not the end of his extended family’s quest for asylum in the West. William Brangham reports on efforts by The New York Times' Anne Barnard to share the Kurdi family’s desperate journey to safety, one shared by millions of displaced Syrians across the globe.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You have seen the heartbreaking picture of Alan Kurdi. He's the Syrian refugee boy who drowned off the coast of Turkey this summer, but what became of the rest of his family? Their story runs as wide and far as the millions of Syrians who have now fled the war.

    William Brangham reports.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    It was one image that devastated onlookers across the world, a 3 year-old Syrian refugee, drowned and lifeless, lying face down on the beach.

    Alan Kurdi was just one of hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled the Middle East last year, and one of many children who've drowned on the perilous sea voyage, but his death seemed to cut deeper. From front pages the world over, the picture hammered a global conscience. International actions were staged in response. And artists around the world responded with their own touching imagery.

  • ANNE BARNARD, The New York Times:

    I remember seeing it and thinking that this is a really heartbreaking one. It's hard to say exactly why that one is the one that went so viral. But it did.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    New York Times Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard set out to tell the deeper story behind this image. What she found was an ocean of stories of a boy and his extended family, stories that spanned multiple continents, and told of horrible violence and struggles.

  • ANNE BARNARD:

    The Kurdis, like many, many Syrians, had essentially, as a family, accepted the deal that existed under Syria's police state. You have a relatively decent modest living in exchange for staying out of politics.

    And like many other millions, that's what they were doing. They raised six children in Damascus. They — barbering was the family business. And they were just living their life there, when the war and conflict began.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    After protests against President Bashar al-Assad led to civil war within the country, the Kurdis found themselves caught in harm's way.

  • ANNE BARNARD:

    Their neighborhood was so close to the government artillery bases, that the outgoing blasts put cracks in some of the walls of the family houses. At the same time, police were increasingly stopping people on the streets. One child in the family witnessed the death of the schoolmate who was killed by security forces while at a protest outside of school.

    There was a suicide bomb that went off near the same kid randomly, a very frightening experience. And there were people that they knew who were arrested just for no reason and disappeared. So, conflict was getting closer.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Aware of the dangers they faced, Alan's family members were determined to find a new home and a new life, even if it meant leaving Syria. One of Alan's aunts tried three times to cross the sea from Turkey.

  • ANNE BARNARD:

    Each attempt was scarier than the last, and they all failed. And the last one ended with them getting scooped up out of the water by the Turkish coast guard. And Hivrun said: "I'm not doing it again. I'm not risking my kids."

    And she had a big fight with her husband, because he insisted on going on to Germany, and she stayed in Istanbul with the kids, who were angry and wanted to actually keep trying. Well, a week later or so, Abdullah's family died, and they said, OK, we did the right thing. Thank God we didn't go.

    They felt really horrible for Abdullah. But guess what? Within a few weeks, they tried again.

  • FATIMA KURDI, Alan’s Aunt:

    You own your house. You live your life, happy, peaceful.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Alan's aunt Fatima, Tima for short, has lived in Canada for more than 20 years, where she continued the family business, opening a hair salon near Vancouver. She maintained contact with her brother, Alan's father, as they undertook their fateful voyage.

    She said that, like most Syrian families, the Kurdis were aware of the grave dangers of the journey, but they ultimately decided they had no choice.

  • FATIMA KURDI:

    All of a sudden, whatever you have in your life, for your own family, in one day, you have to leave everything behind and flee. There is nobody who would like to do this just by choice.

  • ANNE BARNARD:

    The thing is, a million people have gone to Europe, 800,000 of them this year on boats. And in a strange way, it can be a rational choice when you consider what people are running from.

    MOHAMMAD KURDI, Alan's Uncle (through interpreter): Can you imagine, as a father, seeing your child die before your eyes?

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Mohammad Kurdi is an uncle of Alan's, and he saw his share of horrors in Syria. After fleeing Damascus for the northern city of Kobani, he and his son were trapped and threatened by ISIS fighters. Mohammad was beaten. His son Shergo, 15 years old, was given a gun and instructed to shoot his father. Luckily, they both escaped, but Mohammad decided it was time for his family to leave Syria.

    MOHAMMAD KURDI (through interpreter): Imagine the buildings being blown up, the corpses of children and women. They are all innocent.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Abdullah Kurdi, Mohammad's brother and the father of 3-year-old Alan, lost his entire family at sea. He became a symbol of the plight of refugees across the Middle East. He returned to his homeland, Kobani, where he laid his wife and children to rest.

    ABDULLAH KURDI, Alan's Father (through interpreter): My entire family passed away. They are martyrs now, but I hope they can help those who are still in need. Enough with this war. I don't know what more to say. I am so tired. Just leave me alone, for the Koran's sake.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Today, he lives alone in Iraqi Kurdistan, his extended family now spread throughout the world. But, fortunately,

    the Kurdis' story doesn't end there. Alan's uncle Mohammad finally arrived in Canada with his wife and five children as some of the 10,000 refugees welcomed by the Canadian government last year. It was a bittersweet arrival.

    HEVEEN KURDI, Alan's Cousin (through interpreter): I am very happy and excited, but, at the same time, I'm very sad about my cousins.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    During their trip, the family had been separated from their father, Mohammad. They met in Germany in December, just before flying west. It was the first time he met his 5-month-old son, Sherwan.

    MOHAMMAD KURDI (through interpreter): There were days I thought I would never see my family again, but thank God the nightmare is over.

  • FATIMA KURDI:

    It was a beautiful moment that those kids, they are going to begin a new life and going to school, rebuild their life.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Now Mohammad and his family are staying with his sister Tima. He is working in her hair salon, the family business, and his children are quickly learning English.

  • CHILD:

    Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.

    MOHAMMAD KURDI (through interpreter): Thank God that I have arrived here with my family, after this long journey and great tragedy. My children and I are just starting to feel safe. There is a life here for us.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    For Anne Barnard, who spent months reporting on the Kurdi family, this family saga is a reminder that the Syrian civil war is about more than just Assad, the Islamic State, and American interests in the region. It's about millions of real families left with nowhere to turn who are looking for a better future.

  • ANNE BARNARD:

    This story reminds us that each one of these stories is an individual tale and each — even this one family. That incredibly tragic picture of Alan on the beach was only a tiny piece of what they had been through.

    What happened to Alan was just a fraction of what happened to them. And what happened to them is just one story out of many millions of stories. Half of the Syrian population has been displaced in this conflict. So I think we just have to remember that each one of these stories is a real person with a real family, with family dynamics like those we have in our own families.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    And for Tima Kurdi, the story is far from over.

  • FATIMA KURDI:

    Of course, the sad part, you always think about the rest of the family, about a million of those refugees. They are still — have a little bit of hope one day they will be somewhere safe.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    After her nephew's tragic death, Tima has become an outspoken activist and advocate for the plight of refugees around the world.

  • FATIMA KURDI:

    People have to open their heart and their door and help them. And that's why I said, if I have a chance to bring my voice to the world, I'm willing to do it. It's not something I choose. I just — it happened. And it's not an easy thing to do, really.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    A dire challenge now faced by the U.S., European and Middle Eastern nations alike.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham.

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