Syrian toddler’s dad: ‘Everything I was dreaming of is gone’

Updated 8:30 PM EDT, Thu September 3, 2015
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Story highlights

Father of Syrian toddler who drowned describes the horror as the boat sank, tells CNN he has nothing to live for

The child was one of 12 people who drowned off Turkey

A haunting image of him has been shared with the tag "Flotsam of Humanity"

(CNN) —  

Two-year-old Aylan Kurdi was born into a country eaten up by war. His parents, Abdullah and Rehen, only wanted a better life for Aylan and his 4-year-old brother, Galip, than they had in Kobani, Syria.

They wanted what anyone does – what hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence, who have flooded Europe, want – a safe home.

Trying to make that simple but treacherous dream a reality, Aylan, his brother and mother drowned. An image of the boy’s body on a Turkish beach shook social media and outraged leaders in Canada, where the family had hoped to wind up, and many others watching the European migrant crisis unfold.

On Thursday, four Syrian citizens were taken into custody, suspected of human trafficking in connection with their deaths and those of nine others whose bodies washed ashore, according to Turkey’s semiofficial Anadolu news agency.

Abdullah, the only Kurdi family member to survive the trip, says he has nothing left to live for.

“I don’t want anything else from this world,” he told CNN on Thursday. “Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.”

Trying to get to Canada

Canadian Member of Parliament Fin Donnelly told CNN partner CTV that Abdullah’s sister Tima Kurdi, who lives in Vancouver, had filed refugee paperwork to obtain permission for the family to live in Canada, but the application had been rejected in June.

But Tima Kurdi, in a later interview Thursday with CTV, said she had actually filed paperwork for her other brother, Mohammed, and that was rejected.

The Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada confirmed Thursday it never received an application for Abdullah.

“An application for Mr. Mohammad Kurdi and his family was received by the department but was returned as it was incomplete as it did not meet regulatory requirements for proof of refugee status recognition,” the agency announced. “There was no record of an application received for Mr. Abdullah Kurdi and his family. Canada did not offer citizenship to Mr. Abdullah Kurdi.”

Tima Kurdi said she was hoping to personally put up the money to sponsor Mohammed and his four children to come to Canada. They are now in Germany.

Meanwhile, she had been sending money to Abdullah. She presumes that Abdullah used those funds to try to get his family to Canada. Tima knew of his plans to take the dangerous voyage, she said, and she recalled a phone call with Abdullah’s wife in which Rehen said she was afraid to travel by water.

I’m so scared of the water,” Tima recalled her sister-in-law saying. “I don’t know how to swim.”

The world learned of Aylan’s death when a photo of the drowned boy was shared widely on social media, many using the hashtag #KıyıyaVuranİnsanlık or “Flotsam of Humanity” in Turkish.

It shows the toddler on his stomach, face down on a beach in Turkey. He looks like he’s sleeping the way so many children his age do, with their bottoms raised and heads gently to the side.

The journalist who shot the photo expressed the outrage, despair and helplessness that it would go on to inspire in many people who saw it.

“There was nothing to do except taking his photograph,” said Nilufer Demir, who works for Turkey’s Dogan News Agency. “There was nothing to do. And that is exactly what I did. I thought this is the only way I can express the scream of his silent body.”

Many are demanding to know what went wrong. Why did this child, his brother and mother have to die? Wasn’t there some way to give them that safer life?

A trip tried several times

Abdullah Kurdi says he boarded a small fiberglass boat in Turkey with 12 people on board. The vessel was manned by two smugglers, a Turk and a Syrian, he said. It was very crowded.

“I told him, ‘Should we empty the boat? Should I get off with my wife and child?’”

One of the smugglers replied, “‘No, no, it is good,’” Abdullah recounted.

Large waves began crashing against the boat soon after the refugees set out.

Kurdi again raised his concern but the smuggler insisted, “It is guaranteed. Guaranteed.”

Shortly afterward, the smuggler jumped overboard and swam toward shore as the waves pounded harder and higher.

Kurdi tried to take control of the boat but it capsized in the rough waters.

“I tried to reach for my wife and children,” he said. “I was in the water for 20 minutes. One person after another was dying.”

Turkish rescue teams were able to save some people aboard the boats, Turkey’s governor’s office said. Two men and a child who were traveling in the group are missing.

Originally from Syria’s capital, Damascus, Abdullah said he was trying to get to Sweden by way of Greece.

“I don’t want anything from anyone anymore,” he said. “I will sit by my wife and children and read them Quran until I die, God willing.”

How you can help in the migrant crisis

’No humanity’

Some said they hoped the images of the boy lying on the beach and his limp body being scooped up by a rescue worker could be a turning point in the debate over how to handle the surge of people heading toward Europe.

Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, described the pictures as “haunting.”

“Biggest indictment of collective failure,” he wrote.

“Shame on the world!” Burhan Akman tweeted from Turkey, adding in another post, “I see human but no humanity.”

Thousands of migrants have died

The family’s story isn’t that different from those of migrants who have taken huge gambles, traveling by boat or train, shoving into buses or walking for days, sometimes months, trying to reach safe haven. Europe is struggling to establish a unified policy and provide practical help to them.

French President Francois Hollande said Thursday that the photo of the boy called upon Europe’s conscience.

“An image goes around the world and brings out emotion. It is shared,” he said. “Europe is a group of principles, of values which oblige us to welcome those who are pushed out and look for refuge because they are persecuted.” He said some of the 4 million displaced people in Syria have been “welcomed by neighboring countries that are themselves suffering.”

Hollande said he had spoken to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the crisis.

More than 2,600 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe this year alone, making the area the most deadly migrant crossing point in the world, according to the International Organization for Migration, which warned last month that the number of deaths was soaring.

In one case, 71 bodies – mostly people who had fled Syria – were found in August in an abandoned truck in Austria. Their alleged smugglers were arrested in Hungary and Italy.

“We are talking about human trafficking, homicide, even murder,” said Johann Fuchs, state prosecutor of Eisenstadt, Austria.

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s migrant deaths this year have occurred in the Mediterranean, according to the organization. And the number of deaths in the region so far this year – 2,643 – is nearly 20% higher than last year’s 2,223.

Some have drowned. Others have been crushed in stampedes. And some have been asphyxiated by boat engine fumes.

“In the last few weeks we have seen many deaths,” Federico Soda, the International Organization for Migration’s director for the Mediterranean region, said last week. “We think that this may be explained by the fact that the smugglers are becoming increasingly violent and cruel.”

Things to know about the migrant crisis

Crisis spurs varied responses

More than 350,000 people have arrived in Europe so far this year, seeking sanctuary from war or persecution or poverty, or just seeking a better life.

On Thursday trains packed with Syrian refugees stopped at a station just outside the Hungarian capital, Budapest. A CNN crew on board saw police on the side of the tracks, and passengers refusing to get off despite suffocating heat and limited food and water.

Some youths and men were holding onto the handles of train cars in case police attempted to board and remove them forcibly. Parents fanned their crying children in an attempt to cool them down.

Across Europe, there’s been a wildly different response from governments and citizens, some wanting to take people in, others shutting them out.

Foreign Ministers Paolo Gentiloni of Italy, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany and Laurent Fabius of France have presented the European Union with a joint document calling for a revision of asylum rules and a fairer distribution of refugees, according to the Italian Foreign Ministry.

“I react with terrible frustration,” Antonio Guterres, U.N. high commissioner for refugees, told CNN on Wednesday when asked about his response to the image of the toddler on the Turkish beach.

“These people are forced to go on boats, they pay 4,000 or 5,000 euros and they die in these desperate circumstances. This doesn’t make sense,” he said. “We need to have a coherent response to this situation, and in my opinion, only Europe as a whole, based on solidarity, can give that response.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was to meet Thursday with other members of the European Union to try to figure out how to cope with the emergency. His nation – a transit point for migrants trying to make their way north – has responded by erecting a fence along its border with Serbia.

In Germany, the interior minister will address parliament after a planned asylum center was burned down.

The EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, urged “united” action Wednesday and said the issue will be part of the next EU foreign ministers’ meeting on Friday and Saturday.

Czech authorities said Wednesday they’ve started to remove migrants traveling without documentation from trains. In some instances, Czech police have been marking and numbering the migrants with washable ink.

“We cannot let people without any documents and identification travel through the Czech territory. We have to question them. It’s our legal obligation,” said Katerina Rendlova, a Czech immigration official. “I know other states are not doing it, letting them pass freely to the next country, but we have laws that don’t allow us to do it.”

Caught in the middle are the desperate men and women, many with children in tow, who are fleeing in overcrowded, sometimes deadly voyages by land and by sea.

See the latest from CNN teams in the field

CNN’s Rachel Clarke, Hala Gorani, Ed Payne, Gul Tuysuz, Laura Perez Maestro, Ivana Kottasova and Raja Razek in Beirut contributed to this report.