BOURJ HAMMOUD, Lebanon (AP) — Jihad Michlawi, 31, has struggled to make ends meet as a chef in crisis-hit Beirut. The Palestinians never considered the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe until friends who had successfully done so persuaded him.
He is now one of dozens of survivors of a capsized migrant boat that left Tripoli, Lebanon, for Italy last week, carrying some 150 Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians.
“I was told by some who arrived that life in the camps for displaced persons in Europe was better than life in central Beirut, and even the food was better,” Mihravi told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Last Wednesday, the crowded boat capsized off the coast of Tartus, Syria, more than a day after leaving Lebanon. At least 94 people were killed, including at least 24 children. Twenty survived, the rest are still missing.
The tragic events in the Mediterranean are the deadliest in the past two years, as more Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians try to flee cash-strapped Lebanon to Europe in search of jobs and stability. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says there has been a 73% surge in dangerous sea migration attempts from Lebanon in the past year.
Lebanon’s economy has been spiraling for the third year in a row, three-quarters of the population has fallen into poverty, and the Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar.
Michlawi said he spent thousands of dollars in the money he collected and put his life in the hands of a smuggler, whom he described as a “monster.” The Lebanese military has since arrested the smugglers.
Michlawi left the Lebanese capital for Tripoli at night when a car with tinted windows took him and five others to an orangery, where he and dozens of others were stuffed into a tarp-covered pickup truck.
When they got to the coast and saw a boat that could carry them, many began to reconsider. “At this point, we just think we can go now that we’re there, but we should probably consider that we’re putting ourselves at risk,” he said.
Michlawi said the boat’s engines began to stall intermittently, but when it came to a complete stop the next day, the tide began to shake the crowded boat and anxious passengers began to panic.
The 31-year-old and others tried to move around the boat to keep it from tipping. The waves knocked Michlawi against the wall and the floor several times. Some shattered glass pierced his left foot.
A huge wave then knocked dozens of people off the boat, killing them. Michlawi recalled seeing the baby’s body “no more than a month or two old.” That’s when he and the others decided they should risk swimming for hours to get ashore.
Michlawi broke down in tears after recounting his failed attempt to rescue Ayman Kabbani, a 22-year-old Syrian who was struggling to swim.
“When he tried to swim with me, he hugged me, and whenever he got tired, I would hug him and try to swim with one hand,” Michlawi said. “With what we see as salty water and the heat of the sun, we can barely see anything.”
The young Syrians tried to boost Michlawi’s morale, promising to treat him to lunch when they arrived in Tripoli, buy new clothes and use the money he had left to buy him a new mobile phone. But the Palestinians struggled to keep going.
Cabani tried to swim on his own, but couldn’t keep up with Miklavy. “I heard him calling me, but I would turn around and not see him,” Michlawi said. “At this point, I accepted the fact that I was going to die to meet my creator, but then I saw the image of my father.”
Michlawi miraculously reached the coast of Tartus, Syria, where an old woman and man saw him. “I screamed, ‘Please don’t leave me’ and fell on the beach,” he said. “She gave me water and I heard the man next to her say I was coughing up blood, then I passed out and woke up in Hospital in Tartus.” He woke up with cuts and bruises.
Although safely back in Lebanon, Michlawi now faces additional hurdles in finding work because he is Palestinian.
Lebanon hosts 192,000 Palestinian refugees who are unable to legally practice dozens of occupations or own property. According to UNICEF, they are “effectively excluded from the enjoyment of most civil and socioeconomic rights” in Lebanon, where many live in dire conditions now resembling urban slums in refugee camps.
Several of Michlawi’s family members hold college degrees but must take other jobs for much less money, including a cousin with a degree in mechanical engineering who is a bus driver.
Still, he said he would not attempt to relocate by sea again.
“We’re not looking for mansions or being generals or ministers in the government,” Michlawi said. “We just want our basic rights as the Palestinian people to hold themselves — that’s all.”
Currently, he is working hard to heal.
Michlawi said he hadn’t slept for days and was still haunted by “the sounds of screaming children” in his head. He made an effort to eat and avoid anywhere near the coast.
“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.”