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Rights + Justice

Tima Kurdi: The Relentless Mission of the Aunt of the ‘Boy on the Beach’

Her pain and purpose began the day her brother’s family drowned.

Olamide Olaniyan 30 Apr

Olamide Olaniyan is The Tyee’s editorial assistant.

Tima Kurdi will talk to anybody who will listen. “I’ve been doing this for three years,” she says. “Same talk, same story.”

When the story broke in September of 2015, it shocked the world and in Canada may have spurred a change in governments. Yet for Kurdi the story is but one of millions, and far from finished.

Her brother Abdullah lost his entire family — his wife and two sons — when their raft sank while trying to make the dangerous journey, as Syrian refugees, from Turkey to Greece. Suddenly it seemed everywhere was a photograph of the body of Abdullah’s two-year-old son Alan Kurdi washed up onto a Turkish beach.

Tima, who was born in Damascus, Syria, and came to this country in 1992, had tried to convince the Canadian government to allow the families of two of her brothers to settle here as well. (She was sponsoring the family of her brother Mohammed and planned to apply for Abdullah’s family too once Mohammed’s application was approved.) After no success, she gave Abdullah money to pay a smuggler to transport his family out of Turkey by boat. When she found out what happened, she remembers falling to the floor and wailing. Her family members placed her on a couch in the living room where she continued to sob. Then, she remembers thinking, “I want to talk to the world. I want to scream. I want the world to hear me.”

She usually begins her story by asking listeners to put themselves in the shoes of refugees — to understand the desperate realities of their lives. To bring attention, she wrote a book and started a foundation. She speaks at events. In February, she electrified a crowd of international financial experts gathered for the Global Alliance for Banking Values Summit in Vancouver hosted by Vancity. (Video excerpts from that talk are folded into our interview below.)

The tragedy of the Kurdi family helped shift the focus of the 2015 Canadian federal election to immigration and refugee policy. While the Stephen Harper-led Conservatives raised fears about newcomers, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau famously promised to resettle 25,000 refugees from war-torn Syria, and his party went on to win.

It’s another election year, yet this time refugee policy is but a blip on the political radar. In fact, the Liberal government recently proposed asylum law changes that would hollow out protections for refugee claimants.

What Tima Kurdi wants listeners to know is the need to give aid and compassion to refugees has not diminished. As we talk in the living room of her Coquitlam home, she perches on the edge of her seat, leaning forward with her hands folded into each other. “Today,” she says, “people all over the world continue to suffer. And they need your help.”

As we conversed, here is what else she had to say...

On why she shares her story:

“I am nobody. I just follow my heart and talk about our sad story to wake up the world. I do move people and this is what makes me keep going. Because I know every time I finish, people walk up to me and they always say, ‘You planted that seed in my heart and I am going to do something.’”

On what she wanted financiers to hear when she addressed the Global Alliance for Banking on Values summit in Vancouver:

“The main message, it’s very simple. Don’t sit around and feel sorry for the others. Just reach out and whatever you can do, offer your support. They can get involved in any organization that is supporting refugees or struggling people. It’s all about what’s in their community or beyond their community. It’s about standing up for the others and using your power to help.”

Watch: Tima Kurdi addresses the Global Alliance for Banking on Values Summit held in Vancouver in February. Here she recalls seeing her brother and family living under conditions in Turkey that made her desperate to help them escape. Video courtesy Vancity and Tima Kurdi

On ‘the guilt I will take to my grave’:

“After the tragedy, I felt the world is not fair. Why do we have to come to this point, my whole family to drown? And of course I felt guilt. The guilt that I will take to my grave. That I paid the people, the smugglers, money. I gave my family that money and if I didn’t they would be alive maybe now. I know I was trying to help them, and I know they were desperate; I witnessed it with my own eyes. But again, the guilt.

“So I had two choices. Either I stay home and continue to cry and not see anybody. Or I can stand up to the world and be the voice of the others, so this tragedy would be the last.”

On the pain that never goes away, and finding purpose in it:

“I feel I have been chosen. There is a voice inside my heart. Every single day at four a.m. I wake up to that voice. It’s almost like a panic attack. And the only answer I have is, ‘Don’t be silent, the world needs you.’

“I don’t wish it on anybody because it’s very, very painful. I can’t describe it to you. Every single day, I am crying. I am in tears, and I always ask myself why. Why? If I am going to continue, I am really ruining myself physically.

“But when I go and I stand in front of people — it could be in a different country, it could be anybody, from university to business people — when I stand there and I share my pain with them and I see I move them to do something, that’s what heals me.”

On the hate she’s received after going public:

“I see what people say about me and there are lots of nasty people out there. They are the ones that want to crush me down and they have no idea what they’re doing to me. Honestly, I feel sad. I feel they add more pain to my pain, they don’t understand. But at the same time, I say it’s okay because they are struggling in their lives and they have nothing else to do and I wish one day that they can get help.”

Abdullah's two sons Alan and Ghalib Kurdi laughing together. They both drowned, along with their mother, while making the dangerous journey from Turkey to Greece. Photo courtesy of Tima Kurdi.

On suddenly becoming a full-time advocate:

“Since that day, and till now, yes, I have been an advocate. I’ve been speaking all over the world, to bring awareness I wrote the book, The Boy on the Beach, to show the world that there are thousands of people continuing to suffer, and it’s getting worse, not any better.

“That’s why I do what I do. I have so many days and times that I really want to close myself off from the world and stop right there. But I am the person who my father always told: ‘Keep going.’ There is no going back. You can’t bring your family back, you can’t change the world, but the world needs you.

“I was just a hairdresser, loved fashion, loved life, travelling. You know, I lived my life like everybody else. All of a sudden, that life doesn’t mean anything to me, not even going to a grocery shop or cooking a meal for my family.

“I am not myself, I am not this person anymore. But I just ignore it. I go. I take that road, and I just follow my heart and speak. Okay, if that is going to change you and somebody else to help the others, I am willing to swallow that pain. I don’t even think about it. I just do it.”

On how she came to help start a foundation for refugees:

“Right after the tragedy, I went to visit my brother, the father Abdullah who lost his entire family, in Arabic Kurdistan, where he is until now. He and I, the first time we visited a refugee camp, we stood there and saw the children, the way they live, how happy they are, because children, they don’t know anything, right?

“Abdullah and I watched those children in the field, playing soccer with not actually a soccer ball. It was a t-shirt. They wrapped it around and they taped it, and they were playing in the sand. And we walked up to them. They were laughing, giggling, so happy. We said to them, ‘What do you want? How do you feel living in this situation?’ They said, ‘Oh we are very happy. We’d love to go to school.’ So to me, those innocent children, they deserve better.

“And when we start talking to the parents — and of course, parents, every family, they have their own painful story — all they talked about were the children. They point at their children, playing and happy, and they are in tears, asking me: ‘Why do my children have to be born in this camp, growing up in this camp, not knowing anything beyond that fence? Not knowing what the other side of the world has for them for their future?’

“My brother turned to me and he said, ‘If there is anything in the world to keep me alive and continue, I want to help in any way I can those children to have whatever they need.’ And I said to him, ‘We should honour your kids and have a Kurdi foundation.’

“A year later I visited again. Abdullah said, ‘Did you think about it?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know how to even run a foundation. I don’t know how to do it.’

“But I see him crying, and of course he is really traumatized. I am really in pain, but I want to take his pain out from him. I said to him, ‘Let’s do something today. What do you want to do?’ He said, ‘I’m still thinking about those children. How can I help them?’ And I said to him, ‘You know what, I can give you 500 dollars. Let’s go to the camp. What will you take to them?’ And his eye brightened up, and he said to me, ‘Can we buy diapers for the children?’

“‘Why diapers?’ I asked. He said, ‘Because when Alan was alive’ in Turkey, ‘as a father I was working but it was not enough money. I barely could bring every day the basic food, but I couldn’t buy diapers for him.’ And Alan always had rashes because they used a cloth and a plastic bag. Abdullah said, ‘I know it was painful as a father watching my children like this. If you can help me to buy diapers for children at the camp, they won’t have that pain.’

“I took that money from my pocket and we bought diapers. We went to the camp and we started giving them to those babies there. So that’s when I started the Kurdi Foundation, with my own 500 dollars.”

Watch: ‘I said if I could not save my own family, let’s save the others.’ Tima Kurdi recalls the anguish she shared with her grieving brother, and the purpose they found together. Video courtesy Vancity and Tima Kurdi

On the billions of dollars question:

“When I came back here I contacted the media and through some interviews and Facebook I said I want to open the Kurdi Foundation and I need your help. A local lawyer, Richard Rainey in Coquitlam, offered to do the paperwork to register it as a charity (a process not yet completed). In 2016 probably we made 500 dollars a year. SFU did a fundraising event in 2017 bringing in 1,000 dollars.

“When I published my book in 2018, that’s when the donations came. It’s not enough – maybe 5,000 dollars a year, but it is still going. And soon I will take some money and go back to Erbil (the capital city of Kurdistan) and help pay for school uniforms for children there. I can’t even cover the whole school, but anything is better than nothing.

“I promise God — this is between me and God — that for the Kurdi foundation, every single penny is going to go 100 per cent to the children, because when I go there with 500 dollars, I have at least 500 kids smiling. Five hundred kids. So when you compare it to the billions of dollars spent by nations and yet you go there and they have nothing, you have to ask — where are those billions of dollars?”

On the price of hope:

“When you watch the news, it’s really not the same as when you are actually on the ground and talking to the real people, the people who have so much pain, who have scars in their hearts. But they have one thing: hope. And the hope that you and I and everybody can give them, sometimes it doesn’t cost us so much.”  [Tyee]

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