‘I am dead here’: Lebanese join Mideast migrants to Europe

Dec 9, 2021, 11:40 PM | Updated: 11:49 pm
Ziad Khaled Hilweh, 23, who tried to migrate to Europe with his family, speaks during an interview ...

Ziad Khaled Hilweh, 23, who tried to migrate to Europe with his family, speaks during an interview as he sits with his wife Alaa Khodr, 22, his daughter Jana 2 year-old and his son Karim 3 months, at his parents house in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Monday, Dec. 6, 2021. Lebanese are setting off from the port city of Tripoli to attempt the perilous journey by boat to Cyprus and beyond in the hopes of reaching Europe. They are joining Iraqis, Afghans and Sudanese in leaving their homeland after Lebanon's economic collapse has thrown two-thirds of the population into poverty in just over a year. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

(AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — Ziad Hilweh knew his family might die on the way. But the risk was worth it, he said, to reach the shores of Europe for a new start with his wife and three kids, away from the daily humiliation of life in Lebanon.

The country’s economic meltdown had destroyed him. The currency crash meant that the value of his salary from working at a private security company fell from $650 a month to about $50 after the Lebanese pound lost more than 90% of its value in less than two years. It reached the point the 22-year-old could no longer afford milk and diapers for his children.

But the young father’s hopes of a better future were shattered last month, when the boat they were on board headed to Italy broke down in the Mediterranean Sea, hours after they set off from the outskirts of Lebanon’s port city of Tripoli. Along with dozens of other would-be migrants on the boat, they were towed back to shore by the navy after a terrifying attempt at escaping.

For years, Lebanon has been a host for refugees, mainly from Syria, but now it is a departure point. Hundreds of Lebanese have tried to reach Europe this year on boats from their country’s shores, spurred by a devastating economic crisis that has thrown two thirds of the population into poverty since October 2019.

It is not a route on the scale of the main sea path from Turkey to Greece used by many refugees and migrants. But it is a startling shift as Lebanese join Iraqis, Afghans, Sudanese and other Middle Eastern nationalities in leaving their homelands.

Sea departures from Lebanon have increased starting in 2020, compared to previous years, said Lisa Abou Khaled, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency. According to UNHCR figures, more than 1,570 people embarked or attempted to embark from Lebanon between January and November, most heading for Cyprus. The majority have been Syrians, but Abou Khaled said a notable number of Lebanese have joined them.

“It is evident that these are desperate journeys undertaken by people who see no way of survival in Lebanon,” said Abou Khaled.

The country is witnessing a frightening convergence of multiple crises, including political instability, the coronavirus pandemic and a massive explosion at the capital’s main port in August last year that have all added to the financial unravelling of the country.


Hilweh had been growing more desperate with each day. For months, he asked relatives and friends to help him financially. Chatting with friends one night, he heard that smugglers were taking people to Europe, and that some have already made it there.

He and a close friend, Bilal Moussa, decided to give it a try. Hilweh decided to take his wife and children, while Moussa planned to go alone and apply for family reunification once he settles in Europe.

They were told it would cost $4,000 for each adult and $2,000 for a child. Hilweh sold his apartment and his car and borrowed some from relatives. He was still short, but the smuggler gave him a discount and took the $10,000 Hilweh had, instead of $14,000.

“I am dead here and might die on the way. But if I reach the destination, I can live a decent life,” Moussa said.

The smuggler told them to meet at a location near Tripoli’s Abu Ali river shortly before midnight on Friday, Nov. 19, and that 70 people would be on the boat. At the location, they were put into a covered produce truck and driven to Qalamoun, just south of Tripoli.

There, at an abandoned resort, they boarded the wooden boat with their belongings. Around midnight, as they left shore, the smuggler began reading the names of people on board.

There were 92, instead of 70, including about two dozen Syrian and Palestinian refugees.


They quickly ran into trouble. A Lebanese navy ship approached the boat, ordering them through loudspeakers to turn back. The captain ignored their calls and kept moving west.

The navy ship circled them, causing waves that shook the boat and threw water inside. The shaking grew more violent as the ship drew closer, filling it with more water that pushed it down. The screaming passengers spread out around the boat to balance it and threw bags into the sea to keep it afloat.

Hilweh’s wife and children were sitting near the engine, and when the boat flooded with water, thick smoke poured out. His 3-month-old son Karim stopped breathing and almost suffocated, he said.

“He lived and died in front of me,” he said, recalling the panic before Karim was breathing again.

“I started reciting the shahada,” said Hilweh’s wife, Alaa Khodor, 22, referring to the profession of faith in Islam that Muslims recite when close to death.

Eventually, the boat stabilized, and they kept moving west while the navy chased them. Looking at a screen, the boat’s captain shouted that they had left Lebanon’s territorial waters. Immediately, the navy ship turned back.

“I felt very happy. I am out of Lebanon. I have crossed the line of humiliation,” Hilweh recounted. He celebrated by hugging his wife and two daughters, Rana, 3, and Jana, 2.


Their relief was short-lived. Shortly before sunrise, the water-logged engine gave out completely. Stalled in the darkness and silence, the frightened passengers frantically called relatives in Lebanon to tell the military they needed help.

Hours later, the Lebanese navy finally arrived and towed the boat back.

“Once the boat stopped, I felt everything go dark, I felt devastated,” Hilweh said. “When we arrived back I had tears in my eyes.”

Back in Tripoli, the men were separated from the women and children and questioned for hours. The smuggler is still in detention, Hilweh said.

Tripoli is Lebanon’s most impoverished city. Its mayor, Riad Yamak, said that last year, several people drowned off the coast of Tripoli while trying to reach Europe.

Last year, a boat taking migrants to Cyprus ran out of diesel and was stranded for eight days, during which at least six persons died. The U.N. peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, rescued the rest and handed them over to Lebanese authorities after giving them first aid.

“This is suicide when someone takes his family by sea,” Yamak said.

Hilweh and his wife disagree. They have already lost their apartment, their car and Hilweh’s job. They said they will keep trying until they make it to Europe even if this means putting their lives and those of their kids in danger again.

“I will take any danger to get out of here. There is nothing here,” Khodor said.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


FILE - Italy's Matteo Berrettini wears a mask at the end of the third set during the men's singles ...
Associated Press

COVID-19 at Wimbledon: 3 top-20 men out after positive tests

WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Reigning Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic famously decided not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — which prevented him from playing at the Australian Open in January following a legal saga that ended with his deportation from that country, and, as things currently stand, will prevent him from entering the United States to […]
10 hours ago
FILE - Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson smiles as Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., arr...
Associated Press

Jackson sworn in, becomes 1st Black woman on Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ketanji Brown Jackson has been sworn in to the Supreme Court, shattering a glass ceiling as the first Black woman on the nation’s highest court. The 51-year-old Jackson is the court’s 116th justice and she took the place Thursday of the justice she once worked for. Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement took effect […]
10 hours ago
This undated photo provided by the U.S. Marshals Service shows Kaitlin Marie Armstrong. Police were...
Associated Press

Texas woman accused in cyclist death arrested in Costa Rica

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas woman suspected in the fatal shooting of professional cyclist Anna Moriah Wilson at an Austin home has been arrested in Costa Rica, the U.S. Marshals Service said Thursday. Kaitlin Marie Armstrong, 34, was arrested Wednesday at a hostel on Santa Teresa Beach in Provincia de Puntarenas, the Marshals Service […]
10 hours ago
Associated Press

Qatar donates $60 million to Lebanon’s army during crisis

BEIRUT (AP) — Qatar has donated $60 million to the Lebanese army, hard hit by the Mediterranean nation’s unprecedented economic meltdown, Qatar News Agency reported Thursday. The announcement came shortly after Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani arrived in Beirut, where he is expected to meet senior Lebanese officials. Lebanon’s nearly three-year crisis […]
10 hours ago
FILE - A Northwell Health registered nurse fills a syringe with a COVID-19 vaccine at a pop up vacc...
Associated Press

Tweaked COVID boosters in US must target newer omicron types

U.S. regulators told COVID-19 vaccine makers Thursday that any booster shots tweaked for the fall will have to add protection against the newest omicron relatives. The Food and Drug Administration said the original vaccines would be used for anyone still getting their first series of shots. But with immunity waning and the super-contagious omicron family […]
10 hours ago
FILE - A man from Nicaragua sits at a shelter for migrants, April 21, 2022, in Tijuana, Mexico. The...
Associated Press

Supreme Court: Biden properly ended Trump-era asylum policy

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the Biden administration properly ended a Trump-era policy forcing some U.S. asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico. The justices’ 5-4 decision for the administration came in a case about the “Remain in Mexico” policy under President Donald Trump. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the decision and […]
10 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Update your child’s vaccines before kindergarten

So, your little one starts kindergarten soon. How exciting! You still have a few months before the school year starts, so now’s the time to make sure students-to-be have the vaccines needed to stay safe as they head into a new chapter of life.
Christina O’Haver

BE FAST to spot a stroke

Every 40 seconds—that’s how often someone has a stroke in the United States. It’s the fifth leading cause of death among Americans, with someone dying of a stroke every 3.5 minutes.
Arizona Division of Problem Gambling

Arizona Division of Problem Gambling provides exclusion solution for young sports bettors

Sports betting in Arizona opened a new world to young adults, one where putting down money on games was as easy as sending a text message.
‘I am dead here’: Lebanese join Mideast migrants to Europe