The family of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian 'boy on the beach,' is coming to Canada

The family of Alan Kurdi, the tiny Syrian boy whose drowning in September pricked the world's conscience over refugees, is on a fast track to come to Canada, the fifth estate reports.

WARNING: This story contains a photograph of a young boy who died, an image viewers may find disturbing

A lost soul - 'Most of him is dead,' his sister-in-law says - Abdullah Kurdi sits in the apartment in Istanbul, his family's last residence before his wife and two children, Alan and Ghaleb, were drowned while trying to make it to Greece. (Nil Koksal/CBC)

The photo of his tiny, soaked sneakers and red T-shirt embedded in the sand sparked international outrage and promises of change for refugees desperate to escape Syria's vicious conflict.

Now, CBC's the fifth estate has learned that some of Alan Kurdi's surviving family members are being fast-tracked to Canada as part of Ottawa's new refugee settlement strategy.

In interviews with the fifth estate, Alan's Canadian aunt, Tima Kurdi, says an email from Immigration Canada on November 10 "confirms the approval" of their application. Alan's Uncle Mohammed, Aunt Ghousoun and their five children will soon call Vancouver home.

"It will happen...they will bring them," Tima Kurdi, says from her home in Port Coquitlam, just east of Vancouver.

She's busy preparing for the family of seven refugees to arrive.

But there are no more dreams of Canada for Alan's father, Abdullah Kurdi. He told the fifth estate he's chosen not to come here. But he is not bitter.

"I was angry at their government but now … my hard feelings are gone."

Turkish police stand near by the washed-up body of Alan Kurdi, who drowned during a failed attempt by his family to sail to the Greek island of Kos in September and whose fate reignited the world's compassion towards refugees. (Dogan News Agency/EPA)

Abdullah takes solace in the fact his son's death helped changed global perceptions. "It is a message from God sent to the world," he says.

"Losing my family opened the door to many other families, and I'm not angry at the Canadian people."

  • The exclusive interview with Alan Kurdi's father will air tonight on the fifth estate

Ottawa rejected Tima Kurdi's first sponsorship application last June. The plan was to bring Mohammed's family to Canada first, then Abdullah's young family after that.

In September, believing they would never be able to come to Canada, Abdullah decided to try Europe, starting with what should have been a 40-minute boat ride from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos.

That attempt cost him his wife, Rehana, and their two children, Ghaleb, 5, and Alan, just a few months shy of his third birthday.

'The children, the children'

Abdullah says he still remembers his wife screaming "the children, the children!"

"I told her leave the children alone, I can take care of them, you save yourself."

But their children drowned in the panic, and Alan's body washed up on that Turkish beach not long after.

Abdullah's face, hardened by sadness, softens in the company of his nieces and nephews.

Unable to go to school, Ranem Kurdi, 10, and her brother, Rezan, 9, occupy themselves with English colouring books while in Istanbul. The books were sent by their Aunt Tima in B.C. (Nil Koksal/CBC)

He's sitting in the same room in Istanbul where his own sons played not long before they died. A yellow teddy bear sitting nearby was Alan's.

He gets joy from other people's children now. Abdullah now lives in Erbil, in Northern Iraq, taken in, he says, by the government there.

He hopes to build a school and hospital there in Alan's name.

"I lost my family, and the poor and the needy are my family now."

Leaving home

Ghousoun Dukuri's eyes fill with tears, thinking about her brother-in-law Abdullah and his loss.

"I can't show him the smile on my lips anymore because he … a part of him, most of him is dead," she says.

No one in this fractured family ever wanted any of this.

"We were living the best life in Damascus, we didn't need anything we didn't need anyone to give us money or to sympathize with us," Ghousoun says.

Being a refugee, "it means you're not a person, it means you don't exist," she says.

The brothers were barbers. They owned homes and businesses. But the fighting kept hitting closer and closer to home.

Her 15-year-old son witnessed a suicide bombing.

Fifteen-year-old Chergo Kurdi witnessed a suicide bombing while the family was in Syria. The war there just kept getting closer, his mother said. (CBC)

"We saw body parts and bits of flesh fly everywhere. There were severed legs on the ground … my friends were hit by shrapnel," Chergo Kurdi says.

The fighting forced the family out of Syria.

Despite having family in Canada, their initial application was rejected this summer, the Kurdis say, because Ottawa was demanding things most refugees don't have, including a valid passport and proof of legal entry into Turkey.

After the tragedy, after Alan became "the boy on the beach," his family says Citizenship and Immigration asked them to submit their application again, and just over two weeks ago the family was told they'd all been approved.

Still, none of the Kurdis feel entirely sure their Canadian dreams will actually come true.

The Paris attacks earlier this month only fuel their suspicions that something could go wrong. They worry the backlash against refugees could somehow shift their fortunes again.

"They're innocent people," Ghousoun says of the Paris victims, adding that those attacks should also make the world understand what refugees like her have been living through.

Ghouson Dukuri, Alan's aunt, comforts her youngest, five-month-old Sherwan, in the family's basement apartment in Istanbul as they get ready to immigrate to Canada. (Nil Koksal/CBC)

"Originally, Canadians and Americans are people who were immigrants, they should relate to refugees," she says. "The Syrian people are not terrorists, the Syrian people have been victimized by terrorism."

A new life

After more than a year in the limbo of a temporary life in Istanbul, the family's small suitcases are always at the ready in their apartment's only bedroom. There is little left to pack.

Ghousoun and her children are among the more than two million refugees in Istanbul, in their case, living in a basement apartment on the outskirts of the city.

Her husband, Mohammed, is in Germany and hasn't yet seen their newest son, just five months old.

Her older son, Chergo, and and 17-year-old daughter can't go to school because they are the main breadwinners for the family. They leave their temporary home early every morning to sew and iron for hours at a textile workshop.

"If I go to Canada, I can live my life there and study, I miss school so much, I miss it the most," Chergo Kurdi says.

Tima Kurdi said she had hoped to build a life with her two brothers in Canada. Now she is about to welcome one of them, along with his wife and five children. (CBC)

In their Aunt Tima's home, there are plans for their new bedrooms. Toys and a playpen for the baby are waiting in boxes in a spacious family room.

"I was fighting to bring them to safety. But I wish we don't have to go through all this," Tima says.

She takes some comfort in the change her family's tragedy helped bring. "We saved lots of lives. That's what I'm proud of."


Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey in 2018.