WATCH: A heart wrenching memorial was held in Vancouver today for a Syrian family whose drowning deaths off the coast of Turkey have become symbolic of the refugee crisis. Jill Bennett reports.
COQUITLAM, B.C. – Dozens of white balloons drifted over Vancouver’s harbour on Saturday, to honour two drowned Syrian boys whose deaths have sparked worldwide outrage about the refugee crisis.
The boys’ aunt, Tima Kurdi, stood looking at the sky after she and other mourners let go of the balloons, which had photos attached of three-year-old Alan and five-year-old Ghalib.
READ MORE: Will this photo help people grasp the desperation of Syrian refugees?
“Those kids, they never, since the day they (were) born, they didn’t have a good life,” she told a memorial service earlier that afternoon.
Kurdi’s two nephews and sister-in-law drowned earlier this month after piling into an overloaded boat in Bodrum, Turkey, headed for the Greek island of Kos. Her brother was among the few survivors.
About 200 people packed a small Vancouver theatre, filled with white roses, balloons and photos, to remember the family. Sounds of sobbing could be heard as poems and prayers were read.
A picture of Alan’s body on a Turkish beach attracted global attention and has sparked debate about the plight of refugees from the region.
“When I saw the picture, this boy, facing down, I said, ‘This is Alan,’” Kurdi recalled. “I have to send that picture to all of my family, and they said, ‘Yes. It’s Alan.’”
When she called her brother Abdullah, she remembered saying, “I’m so sorry. It was my fault.”
READ MORE: ‘I blame myself’: aunt of drowned Syrian boys says she sent the money for smuggler
She has said she feels responsible because she sent him $5,000 to pay smugglers to take them on a boat from Turkey to Greece.
But he has told her not to blame herself, saying to her, “My kids, they drowned, or sacrificed themselves, to wake up the world.”
Kurdi tearfully recalled the last phone call Ghalib ever made to his grandfather, the night before he boarded the boat.
“He said to him, ‘Can you bring your truck here and take me? I don’t want to go with them to the water,’” she said.
Kurdi said his grandfather reassured Ghalib not to worry and that he’d be OK. In the background, he could hear Alan laughing.
“He never cried, Alan. He always laughed. He doesn’t know how to cry.”
Kurdi said she worries about her brother being alone in Kobani, Syria, where he has been sleeping on the ground next to the graves of his sons and wife.
She thanked her supporters before leaving the stage with the words, “I don’t know what to say anymore.”
Her son, Alan Kerim — the namesake for his little cousin — told the crowd the situation is nothing new, but his relatives were the “chosen ones” to finally open the eyes of the world.
“The young boys and mother didn’t deserve what happened to them, just like all the other refugees who face a similar fate,” he said.
“The boys were too young to understand how bad the reality was. They were like any other children who wanted to play with toys and have fun.”
Refugee crisis: What can you do to help?
Two federal politicians seeking reelection attended the service — New Democrat Fin Donnelly and Conservative Kerry-Lynne Findlay, as did a Vancouver woman who went to fight the Islamic State in Syria, Hanna Bohman.
Kurdi has said the family embarked on the risky journey after they lost hope that they could immigrate to Canada. An application for her eldest brother, Mohammad, was rejected because it was incomplete.
She said the trip was the “only option” left for the family to have a better life in a European country, possibly Germany or Sweden.
Friends have set up an online fundraising campaign to help the Kurdi family.