BOURJ HAMMOUD, Lebanon — Jihad Michlawi struggled to make ends meet as a chef in crisis-ridden Beirut. The Palestinian had never considered making a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe until friends persuaded him to try it.
Now he is one of dozens of survivors of a capsized migrant boat that left Tripoli, Lebanon last week and was bound for Italy with about 150 Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians.
“Some people who arrived told me that life in a European refugee camp was better than life in central Beirut, and that even the food was better,” Michlawi told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The overcrowded boat capsized off the coast of Tartus, Syria, on September 21, just over a day after leaving Lebanon. At least 94 people were killed, including at least 24 children. Twenty people survived, the rest are missing.
It was one of the deadliest shipwrecks in the eastern Mediterranean in recent years, as growing numbers of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians try to flee ailing Lebanon to Europe to find work and stability. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says risky sea migration attempts from Lebanon have risen by 73% in the past year.
The Lebanese economy has been in a spiral for a third year, with three quarters of the population plunged into poverty and the Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value against the dollar.
Michlawi, 31, said he scraped together thousands of dollars and handed the money to a smuggler he described as a “monster.” The Lebanese military has since arrested the smuggler.
Michlawi left the Lebanese capital for Tripoli at night, and a car with tinted windows took him and five others to an orange grove, where he and dozens of others were crammed into pickup trucks covered with tarps.
After reaching shore and seeing the small boat that would carry them, many began to wonder. “At that point we just thought we might as well go since we got there, but we probably should have considered the danger we’re putting ourselves in,” he said.
The boat’s engine cut out intermittently, but when it stalled completely the next day, the tide began to shake the overcrowded ship as the anxious passengers panicked, Michlawi said.
Michlawi and the others tried to move around the boat to keep it from overturning. The big waves hit Michlawi several times against the wall and on the floor. Shards of glass pierced his left foot.
Then a large wave threw dozens of people off the boat and into the water, where they drowned. Michlawi recalled seeing the body of an infant he said was no more than two months old. At this point, he and the others decided that they should risk swimming for hours to get to shore.
Michlawi couldn’t hold back his tears after recounting his unsuccessful attempt to rescue a 22-year-old Syrian man named Ayman Kabbani who was having trouble swimming.
“He would hold me while he was trying to swim with me and when he was tired I would hold him and try to swim with one hand,” Michlawi said. “With all that salt water in our eyes and the heat of the sun, we could barely see.”
The young Syrian tried to cheer up Michlawi’s morale by promising to treat him to lunch, buy new clothes, and use the leftover money to get him a new phone once they reached Tripoli. But the Palestinian struggled to keep going.
Kabbani tried to swim alone but couldn’t keep up with Michlawi. “I heard him calling me, but I turned around and didn’t see him,” Michlawi said. “At that point I came to terms with the fact that I was going to die and meet my maker, but then I saw my father’s image.”
Michlawi miraculously reached the coast of Tartus in Syria, where an elderly woman and man saw him. “I screamed ‘please don’t leave me’ and fell on the sand,” he said. “She gave me water and I heard the man next to her say I was coughing up blood and then I passed out and woke up in the hospital in Tartus.” He woke up covered in sores and bruises.
Though safely back in Lebanon, Michlawi now faces an additional hurdle as he attempts to find work because he is Palestinian.
Lebanon is home to tens of thousands of descendants of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes in the 1948 Middle East war over the founding of Israel. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon cannot legally work in dozens of occupations or own property. According to UNICEF, they are “effectively deprived of most civil and socioeconomic rights” in Lebanon, where many live in appalling conditions in refugee camps that now resemble urban slums.
Several of Michlawi’s family have college degrees but have to work other jobs for far less money, including a cousin with a mechanical engineering degree who works as a bus driver.
Despite this, he says he would not attempt to migrate by sea again.
“We’re not asking about villas or becoming generals or ministers in the government,” Michlawi said. “We just want our basic rights as the Palestinian people to preserve us – that’s all.”
At the moment he is trying to heal.
Michlawi says he hasn’t slept in days and is still haunted by the “crying children” in his head. He has trouble eating and avoids going near shore.
“I used to love the sea, but now I avoid it,” he said. “I don’t even want to have coffee on the beach anymore.”