Syrian refugee child dies trying to reach Greece, says B.C. volunteer

A Coquitlam, B.C., man volunteering on the Greek Island of Lesbos says a 3-year-old Syrian refugee boy died of hypothermia Wednesday trying to make the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea.

Coquitlam resident David Ang describes scene of "grief and horror" as parents told of 3-year-old's death

Volunteer David Ang took this photo of a group of refugees arriving on Lesbos on Jan. 20 before realizing that one of the passengers, a 3-year-old Syrian boy, died of hypothermia. (David Ang)

A Coquitlam, B.C., man volunteering on the Greek Island of Lesbos says a three-year-old Syrian refugee died of hypothermia Wednesday trying to make the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea. 

"The boat they were in was badly overloaded and had taken on a lot of water off the northern coast of Lesbos," said David Ang in an email to CBC.

The passengers were picked up by a rescue vessel, and the child was then brought to hospital in the southern city of Mytilini. 

Coquitlam resident David Ang is on his second stint volunteering helping refugees and migrants arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos. (Facebook)

Ang, who is working with the Starfish Foundation to care for migrants and refugees arriving in Lesbos, says he was beside the family when medics informed them that their child had died. 

"I will never forget the explosive outpouring of collective grief, disbelief and horror that followed," he said. 

Along with another volunteer, Ang drove the grieving parents to the hospital. 

Ang says the other volunteer held and comforted the mother during the journey, until she eventually fell asleep. 

"The father was in shock the whole time. He didn't say anything the whole time," Ang said. 

"Incredibly desperate situation"

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) confirmed that two people, a three-year-old Syrian boy and a 43-year-old Syrian woman, died Wednesday of suspected hypothermia, after being pulled from rubber dinghies off the coast of Lesbos.  

"We are deeply concerned because hundreds of refugees and migrants are continuing to arrive despite the winter cold," ​said Boris Cheshirkov, the UNHCR spokesperson on Lesbos.

Cheshirkov said that in the first three weeks of 2016, more than 20,000 people have arrived after crossing the Mediterranean, more than the total numbers of arrivals for the first five months of 2015. 

"It's an incredibly desperate situation. Yesterday alone, on January 20, we saw about 40 boats, overloaded rubber dinghies, amid ice cold winds, with snow and rough seas, coming through this perilous journey from Turkey to Greece to seek safety," Cheshirkov said. 

A Syrian refugee child, moments after arriving on a raft with other Syrian refugees on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos, January 4, 2016. (Giorgos Moutafis/Reuters)

The UNHCR says 94 people have died or gone missing attempting to cross the Mediterranean since Jan. 1. 

Ang says the three-year-old and his family were from Aleppo, a region where Russian air strikes have targeted civilians, according to Amnesty International. 

Residents in one Syrian town are being deliberately starved while under siege by government forces, a situation described as a "war crime" by the United Nations. 

Ang, who has also volunteered on relief efforts in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 and in Indonesia and Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, said the situation in Lesbos has affected him very personally.

"The fact that people desperately fleeing the worst conflicts in the world like that Syrian child are still dying within grasping distance of a better life and the safety, comfort and stability that most of us take for granted (myself included) makes this tragedy even more horrific and beyond outrageous," he said. 

About the Author

Catherine Rolfsen

'Finding Refuge' story producer

Catherine Rolfsen is a story producer with The Early Edition at CBC Radio Vancouver, currently following stories of Syrian refugees in B.C. Catherine's work has been recognized with regional and national awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association. Reach her at catherine.rolfsen@cbc.ca or @crolfsen

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