Why a mother entrusted her family to people smugglers

Why a mother entrusted her family to people smugglers
Salma, a Syrian mother of six, checks her phone at her home in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on November 15, 2015.

What drives a woman to get herself deep in debt so she can send her family away? Love, fear and life in a society where the future is bleak at best.

Salma is Syrian, married to a Palestinian with a Lebanese passport and living in Libya, a country torn apart by the 2011 revolution and its aftermath.

Had her home country not been embroiled in a bitter civil war, the petite 42-year-old mother of six would have considered sending the family to Syria.

Why? Because her husband Salim is ill and Salma is now the family breadwinner.

Salma finds it hard to hold back the tears as she tells her story, sitting in a three-room flat in Tripoli with just a mobile phone for company.

She came to Libya in the 1990s, looking for work.

Salma met and married Salim, and their four boys and two girls aged between seven and 20 were all born there.

Her mechanic husband had a successful garage before he got Parkinson's disease.

In itself that would have eventually robbed him of his livelihood, but Salim then had a stroke.

"It was in 2000 that I became the head of the family, not out of choice," she told AFP.

"My husband's illness was getting worse and it was up to me to take care of the family.

"That meant working in an environment dominated by men, not easy for a woman in Libya, especially a foreigner. I also had to be a mother and wife.

"I was barely 27," she said, cupping cardamom-scented coffee in tired hands.

Her son Ayman, 17, was abducted twice by neighbourhood thugs and begged his mother to send him to Europe.

"I managed to scrape together $1,000 (around 930 euros) and decided to let him risk it," she said. That was in September last year.

"He now goes to school and a charity is looking after him." Two months later, Salma spent another $1,000 so her oldest boy, 19-year-old Hadi, could join him.

"They both left from Zwara (around 160 kilometres/100 miles) west of Tripoli and were picked up by the Italian navy," she said.

In Sicily, the authorities gave them 75 euros ($80) so they could get to Milan by train, and then they went to Germany.

The worsening situation in Libya led Salma to risk everything.

"My husband, my daughters May (20) and Mona (16) and sons Omar (12) and Manar (7) left from Zwara in April this year," she said.

"The girls had to get out of Libya. It would have been too risky to keep them here, where they were always being harassed, and not just because they're beautiful," she said.

"Because they were 'foreigners' and their father was sick they were very vulnerable." They had to move house more than once after armed men tried to abduct the girls.

"We became resigned to keeping them hidden away in the house rather than risk spoiling their future," she said.

Before departing on their perilous trip the girls kept changing their minds, not wanting to leave their mother, friends and the only life they had known.

Her youngest Manar would have stayed, but "seeing his tears at the thought of being separated from his father" she gave in.

"It was like having my heart ripped out," she said.

Then came the waiting, not knowing their fate.

"I would have gone too, but I had to stay here so I could pay back the $4,000 I borrowed to pay for their trip." She does menial jobs that hardly cover the rent, let alone her debt to the people smugglers.

In Germany, Salim and their children are learning the language, and he has access to proper medical care. They hope to be given refugee status.

But even there the family is separated. The two boys who went first are in Munich and Dusseldorf, while the others are in Frankfurt with their father.

Salma is able to keep in touch, though, thanks to Skype and Viber.

"Mona and May call me when Omar won't get up to go to school," she said, smiling. "Thousands of kilometres away, and it's still me who has to get him out of bed.

"If it wasn't for the war in Syria I'd have gone there with my family.

"Life here is meaningless without them, but what keeps me going is knowing they are well and have a future.

"That makes everything worth it." Salma too wants to cross the sea, but the children are telling her to wait until they are properly settled before the family reunion.

"It was the worst experience of our lives," May and Mona told their mother of the voyage north.


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