26 October 2020 - Cyprus, Lebanon

Eight Nights Stranded at Sea

A little before sunrise on the eighth day, they lost their mother. By ten o’clock, they were rescued. It was too late, their hopes were already lost at sea.

How can one survive such a treacherous journey? Under the scorching sun, with no water or food? What could possibly drive families, adults and even children to take such a grave risk?

In a country plunged deep in serial disasters, from a collapsed economy to political unrest, COVID-19 upsurges and the devastation wrought by the Beirut explosion. To some, the only way out seemed to take to the sea.

As unemployment and poverty rates skyrocketed across its ten thousand square kilometres, Lebanon’s currency lost almost 80% of its value. The country that relies on imports in US dollars for almost everything, from wheat and car parts to corn chips and strawberry jam, is now in an unprecedented financial meltdown that has rendered many people hopeless. Lebanese and refugees alike are desperate in their attempts to survive. 

For Hiba*’s family, it was the thirst for a decent education and a better future.

Hiba recalls the day her mother came back after her siblings were rejected from enrolment at school, “She was livid, she kept yelling about how she couldn’t register my siblings at school. She was angry and terrified about whether or not they will get any education.”

Already living in horrendous conditions and below the poverty line, as the father lost his job due to the COVID-19 pandemic, for the mother of seven, having her children’s education at stake was the last straw. That’s when the idea of leaving the country appealed to them, especially after finding out their cousin had reached asylum in Europe safely.

After selling their furniture and belongings, they set sail from the North coast on a boat that barely accommodates 20 people. Carrying nothing but 4 gallons of water, simple precious belongings and sitting in crowded seats, they set sail with 49 others, young and old, all fleeing a country plagued with crises. Cyprus was their destination.

The first few hours were filled with a desire to reach their promised land. Although the trepidation of the unknown was evident, the promise of what was to come surpassed all.

Then the worst nightmare imaginable came to life when the leader of the boat uttered three words, ‘we are lost’.

“In that first hour, I allowed myself to build dreams and imagine a future for myself,” says Hiba, 19 years old. “Only to have them shatter in front of my eyes during those eight days. I lost the most precious person in life, my mother.”

What started as counting days to be rescued, became a countdown to death. Hunger and thirst overtook everything. To quench the thirst, they would filter the salty water with their clothes or baby diapers, the sea water unbearable. Food on the other hand ran out on day two.

Among the 49 passengers were about 12 children, two passed away due to dehydration and drinking sea water.

“After the child died, we started to lose hope” Hiba recalls.

Hiba, who studied nursing, witnessed dehydration symptoms on one of the children and tried to care for him.

“I tried to soothe him by reading Quran verses to him, but I knew deep down, he will not make it, and I didn’t have the heart to wake his mother. So I kept rocking him gently in my arms until his last breath.”

Being diabetic and having to endure thirst and hunger, led to severe health complications for Hiba’s mother. The mother of seven passed away on the final day, mere hours before they were rescued.

“On that final day, I lost all hope. My mother, may her soul rest in peace, is now gone. What else is left for me?”

It terrifies Hiba that she is now responsible for her six siblings. She seems adamant to the fact that now she has no future, that she can’t continue her education.

“I thought this was my ticket out, I can finally focus on my education and get my degrees. Now, I don’t know anything, I’m terrified. Absolutely terrified, that I won’t ever see my dreams come true. I have to take care of my six siblings, but who will take care of me?” 

It is vital that families and children like Hiba get the support that they need to survive, learn and be protected. Save the Children is calling for the Lebanese government to prioritise vulnerable children and their families with financial support packages. It also calls on Cypriot authorities to put the interest of child arrivals first and to offer them access to asylum and protection in accordance with international law.

Save the Children is supporting this family by providing case management and emergency cash assistance, as well as support to the three young children in accessing education. Save the Children is also supporting the family with mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) services, including regular follow-ups and have referred the youngest child to a psychologist for further support.

Read more about our Beirut response here or abour our coronavirus repsonse here.

*Names changed to protect identities. 

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