"I don't want to come to Canada or anywhere in the world, I was coming only for the kids, I am staying in Kobani," he said

By Diane Herbst
Updated September 06, 2015 09:00 AM
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Credit: Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/AP

One day last week, at around 2:30 in the morning, Syrian refugee Abdullah Kurdi sent his sister in Canada a text message about a boat voyage he was about to take with his wife and two young sons, a voyage to a better life the sister, Tima Kurdi, had helped pay for.

“‘I’m getting in the boat right now,’ ” he wrote from the shores of a beach in Turkey, the country where he and his family had taken refuge, Tima tells PEOPLE, crying. “‘It takes a half an hour to cross the water and when I get to the Greek island I will text you,’ ” Tima says he told her.

“I told my family in Syria and Turkey and said, ‘Pray for him, he’s leaving now,’ ” she says.

For two days, Tima and other family members didn’t hear from Abdullah. At 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, she woke up to 100 missed phone calls. A sister-in-law broke the news that the boat had flipped and Abdullah, 40, lost his wife, Rehanna, 29, and two sons, Alan, 3, and Ghalib, 5.

“She was crying and yelling and I said, ‘Tell me really fast what happened’ and she said that Abdullah called her for two minutes and he said, ‘I am in the hospital and standing in the front of three bodies, my wife and two kids drowned.’ ”

Tima and her husband had frantically searched the Internet for news of drownings in the area. And that is how she discovered the heartbreaking image of Alan (warning: graphic content) lying face-down on the sand of a Turkish beach.

“I look at this boy and say, ‘This is Alan,’ and [my husband] says, ‘Are you sure?’ and I say, ‘No I am not sure but 80 percent it’s Alan and I forward it to my sister-in law in Turkey and say, ‘Can you tell me who that boy is’ and she screams and says, ‘This is Alan.’ ”

The images of Alan made international news and quickly became a symbol of the ongoing migrant crisis.

Tima, a hairdresser in Vancouver who moved from Syria to Canada in 1992, had hoped to sponsor Abdullah and his family, and have them live with her and her husband, Rocco Logozzo. Abdullah’s family had fled their home in Kobani, Syria, for Turkey a year ago, but struggled terribly there, she says.

Tima had tried to sponsor another brother, Mohammed, 48, and his family, but the application was rejected by the Canadian government in June. Mohammed fled to Germany while his family remains in Turkey, she says.

Two weeks ago, Tima bought a hair salon so that all three siblings, all of them hairdressers and barbers, could work together.

Now, Abdullah only wishes to remain in Kobani, near the fresh graves of his family recently buried there.

“I said to Abdullah, ‘I’m still going to bring you here’ and he said ‘I don’t want to come to Canada or anywhere in the world, I was coming only for the kids, I am staying in Kobani’ and I said, ‘That’s okay for now but you are coming here and we are all going to work together in the hair salon I bought.’ I am going to bring them all here.”

For more on Alan and his family’s story, pick up the upcoming issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday