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‘Don’t leave me’: A survivor recounts the sinking of a boat in Lebanon

BOURJ HAMMOUD, Lebanon — Jihad Michlawi, 31, has struggled to make ends meet as a leader in crisis-ridden Beirut. The Palestinian had never considered taking the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe until friends who had successfully done it convinced him.

Today, he is among dozens of survivors of a capsized migrant boat that left Tripoli, Lebanon, last week for Italy, carrying some 150 Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians.

“Some people who arrived told me that life in a camp for displaced Europeans was better than life in central Beirut, and even the food was better,” Michlawi told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

The crowded boat capsized last Wednesday off Tartous, Syria, just over a day after leaving Lebanon. At least 94 people were killed, including at least 24 children. Twenty people survived and the others are missing.

The tragic incident in the Mediterranean Sea was the deadliest in the past two years as growing numbers of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians attempted to flee cash-strapped Lebanon to Europe to find jobs and stability. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said risky maritime migration attempts from Lebanon over the past year had increased by 73%.

The Lebanese economy is spiraling for a third year, with three quarters of the population plunged into poverty and the Lebanese pound losing 90% of its value against the dollar.

Michlawi said he spent thousands of dollars he raised to put his life in the hands of a smuggler, whom he describes as a “monster”. The Lebanese army has since arrested the smuggler.

Michlawi left the Lebanese capital for Tripoli overnight, and a car with tinted windows drove him and five others to an orange grove, where he and dozens of others were packed into pick-up trucks covered in a tarp.

After reaching the coast and seeing the small boat that would carry them, many began to have doubts. “At this point we just thought we might as well go since we got there, but we probably should have considered the danger we put ourselves in,” he said.

The boat’s engine began to stall intermittently, but when it stopped completely the next day, the tide began to rock the crowded vessel, as anxious passengers began to panic, Michlawi said.

The 31-year-old and the others tried to move around the boat to prevent it from tipping over. The big waves threw Michlawi against the wall and on the ground several times. Part of the broken glass pierced his left foot.

Then, a big wave knocked dozens of people off the boat, killing them. Michlawi recalled seeing the body of a baby “no older than a month or two”. At that point, he and the others decided they had to risk swimming for hours to reach shore.

Michlawi could not hold back tears after recounting her failed attempt to save a 22-year-old Syrian man named Ayman Kabbani who was struggling to swim.

“He held me while he tried to swim with me, and whenever he got tired I would hold him and try to swim with one hand,” Michlawi said. “With all the salt water in our eyes and the heat of the sun, we could barely see.”

The young Syrian tried to cheer Michlawi up, promising to buy him lunch, buy him new clothes and buy him a new phone with the money he had left over once he arrived in Tripoli. But the Palestinian struggled to continue.

Kabbani tried to swim on his own but couldn’t keep up with Michlawi. “I heard him calling me, but I turned around and didn’t see him,” Michlawi said. “At this point I accepted 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 Tartous, Syria, where an elderly woman and man saw him. “I shouted ‘please don’t leave me’ and fell on the sand,” he said. “She gave me some 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 Tartous.” He woke up covered in cuts and bruises.

Although he is safely back in Lebanon, Michlawi now faces an additional hurdle as he tries to find work because he is Palestinian.

Lebanon hosts 192,000 Palestinian refugees who cannot legally work in dozens of professions or own property. According to UNICEF, they are “effectively excluded from the enjoyment of most civil and socio-economic rights” in Lebanon, where many live in appalling conditions in refugee camps that now resemble urban slums.

Several members of Michlawi’s family have college degrees but must work other jobs for much less money, including a cousin with a degree in mechanical engineering who works as a bus driver.

Despite this, he says he would not try to migrate by sea again.

“We are not asking for mansions or to become generals or government ministers,” Michlawi said. “We just want our basic rights as the Palestinian people to hold us together, that’s all.”

For now, he is trying to heal.

Michlawi says he hasn’t slept in days and is still haunted by the “voices of children screaming” in his head. He finds it difficult to eat and avoids being near the coast.

“I used to love the sea, but now I avoid it,” he said. “I don’t even want to have coffee at the beach anymore.”

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