In 2015, nearly half a million Syrians attempted the crossing in the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.
Among them were Noura Shikhany and her family, who were rescued from a wooden boat on a cold night in January 2016.
Since the conflict in Syria started 5 years ago, an estimated 11 million Syrians have left their homes.
Less than 700,000 of them have found shelter in Europe.
For the majority, reaching Europe has meant having to cross the sea in desperate, unfavourable conditions.
Noura Shikhany had a happy childhood growing up with her twin brother, Basel, and her parents Hassan and Faten, in Moadamiah, a town in the countryside suburbs of Damascus.
From her new house in Saarbrücken, a town in West Germany, the 27-year-old English teacher recalls the ordeal of having to leave her whole life behind.
Noura arrived in Germany in February 2016, having survived the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece along with her 64-year-old father, her 56-year-old mother and her sister in law, Zanzon.
Since 2012, Moadamiah has been under siege by the pro-Assad regime which has constantly used starvation as its weapon to force opposition groups to surrender.
In August 2013, Moadamiah was hit by one of the most devastating chemical attacks carried out by the Assad regime.
It is estimated that more than 1000 civilians were killed in the attack.
Over the last four years Moadamiah has undergone regular bombardment and artillery fire. The besieged population lives in desperate conditions, without regular access to food, clean water and medicines. This led the Shikhany family to move to Damascus in 2012.
“I don’t know what happened to my house, I left everything. All my life is there”, says Noura.
Leaving Syria was the most difficult decision her family has ever made.
“I felt all the responsibility on my shoulders. My parents did not want to make the journey, they were aware of the risks it entailed. I was very stubborn. I didn’t see any future for us in Damascus. And above all, I missed my twin brother.”
Her brother Basel, a graduate of microbiology from the University of Damascus, had already left Syria a year earlier and was living in Germany, where he was granted asylum. When he first arrived in Germany, he applied for family reunification the first chance he got, but German law stipulated that his family wouldn't be able to join him until November 2017.
On the morning of January 5th 2015, Noura, along with her parents and sister-in-law, left their house in Damascus for the last time. “That morning my mom went to her office for the last time. Then she went to see her close friends and her family. She knew that it might have been the last time she saw them” tells Noura.
They reached Lebanon by bus, and from there they boarded a flight to Izmir, Turkey.
“We knew many people had died. When we heard the news of boats capsizing on TV, no one would say a word”, Noura recalls.
The Shikhany family attempted the crossing three times. During the first two attempts, they were found by the Turkish Coast Guard and taken back. Each time they were arrested for a few hours before being released again.
On the night of 15 January 2016, they attempted the crossing for a third time.
It was 7pm when the smugglers picked them up from the hotel in Izmir. They had paid $750 each for a space on a boat to Greece. They board a van with 17 other people.
“It was crowded. Everyone was tense, there was silence, we could hardly breathe. Once on the coast, we walked on the rocks in silence. It was cold, pitch black, you could see the waves were quite high. It was obvious that the weather was not favourable for crossing. The smugglers didn’t want to hear our complaints. They pushed everyone onto the small wooden boat”.
At 9pm, the boat left the Turkish shore with 48 people crammed onto it. The driver was a boy who had experience of helming a boat. They were given a GPS from the smugglers, who said they would follow them.
“We were lost at sea. No light around us. Just water and water and dark”, recalls Noura.
Everyone on the boat started to panic. Then, in an irrational attempt to swim to land, three men decide to jump into the freezing cold water.
Noura texted Basel their coordinates along with a message: ‘Our driver cannot manoeuvre the boat. We are lost. The waves were lashing us’.
Around 11pm she lost her signal and lost communication with her brother.
It was the middle of the night when the MOAS photographer Jason – who was on assignment with the search-and-rescue ship Responder – received a text message from Sky News correspondent Mark Stone. Basel, who he had met and interviewed a few months earlier in Germany, had contacted him. He was desperately trying to find a way to help his family adrift in the Aegean Sea.
He explained to Mark that his twin sister Noura, his parents and his fiancé had left the Turkish shore that evening and that he had since lost contact with them.
At that same moment, the MOAS Responder was patrolling the seas off the coast of the Greek island of Nera when the crew spotted three men in the water, crying for help.
Messages from Basel to Mark Stone relaying Noura’s coordinates and situation at sea.
“they are here now, 37.444013, 27.116358, they start to face problems.”
“37.470869, 27.053641, now they are here. They ask me to bring help.”
“37.478250, 27.040952, the last location. the water level it is raised and they afraid from fuel running out.”
“3 persons now in the sea want to swim because afraid of extra weight.”
“They said no driver in the boat now.”
“all the persons in the boat feeling afraid. No control.”
Having received the latest coordinates from Mark, but unaware that the three men just rescued had been from Noura’s boat, our photographer ran up to the ship’s bridge to alert the crew’s coordinator that another boat might be in trouble.
Having not received any alerts that there were other boats in the area, the priority for the MOAS crew was to rescue the boat from which the three men had jumped, and then search for any other possible contacts.
Meanwhile, our photographer wrote back to Mark asking for Basel’s to send a list of his family’s names. Once the rescue was over, the MOAS crew began to speak to the group in the recovery room, asking whether they had heard of any other boats having set out at the same time as theirs; but no one had.
They then started to call out the names Basel had forwarded.
To their utter relief and surprise, when the first name was called out, a hand shot up with a reply: "I am Noura Shikhany!".
As all the names on the list were called out, each family member raised their hand. The crew couldn’t believe that MOAS had just rescued the family Mark Stone had alerted them about.
A New Life
Noura and her family first travelled to Athens by ship, then caught several buses and trains to get through Eastern Europe in order to reach Basel in Germany.
Basel himself had arrived in Germany in September 2015, after a 4-month journey across Europe. After 8 months of separation and uncertainty, the Shikhany family was reunited in February 2016 at the Saarbrücken train station.
Noura was the first one off the train in search of her brother. When they spotted each other, they both broke into a run. After months of determination, and despite the great risks they had faced, they were finally together once again.
The Shikhany family have been granted asylum by the German authorities. Noura and her brother are both reading for their Masters degrees, in English and Molecular Human Biology respectively. She is building a new life in Germany, but will never stop dreaming of the day when she will return to Syria.
This is the story of just one Syrian family among the millions who have fled their homes and have been separated due to the civil war. MOAS continues to call for the creation of safe and legal routes, so that families and individuals alike are not forced to risk their lives at sea in search of a safe place to call home.
MOAS would like to thank the Shikhany family, and Noura in particular, for agreeing to share their story with us and the world.
We would also like to thank Christian Werner for his help with building this platform, as well as AFPTV/Will Vassilopoulos, Jason Florio, Sky News, Mark Stone and Paul Fraser for sharing with us their footage, material and personal experiences relating to the Shikhany family reunion.
©2016 MOAS.eu - all rights reserved.