My dad was never one for boats. He’d avoid them if he could. I have a childhood memory of him walking along the Richmond riverbank, keeping pace with the rest of our family as we rowed chaotically along the Thames in a hired boat. We waved across the river and giggled about his insistence on staying ashore.
On family holidays, he approached any journey that would take us across water – the catamaran to France, the ferry to a Greek island – with a clenched jaw, and face set with reluctant acceptance.
As a landlocked London child, I found these journeys thrilling, and always assumed it was seasickness that put him off. He was, after all, fine in the water, teaching me on Cornish beach trips to “dive into the belly of the wave”, and splashing around when the bell rang to signal the wave machine at Brentford Fountain Leisure Centre on Saturday mornings.
Now, when I’ve looked back on his life since he died in 2018, I’ve wondered if there was a different reason. At the end of August 1976, as civil war gripped Lebanon, he fled his home city of Beirut for Cyprus by smuggling himself on to a small boat loaded with watermelons. He was 21, a mechanical engineering student at the American University of Beirut.
War meant the schools and universities had closed, and his future was on hold. Day-to-day life was fraught with danger. A neighbour in his family’s apartment block was killed by a stray bullet flying through the window and ricocheting off the wall into his head. Barricades and police lines criss-crossed the city. My dad and his friend had been jailed and beaten when they were caught breaking curfew to drive to the Lebanese mountains, in a car “borrowed” from the friend’s parents, for a sliver of fun.
He left his parents, his childhood and the city where he was born for an uncertain future in Europe, travelling from Cyprus, again by boat, to Greece, where he stayed with his sister, who had settled in Athens.
The youngest of four, he was the last of his parents’ children to leave. As the poem by Warsan Shire, popularised on placards at recent pro-refugee protests, goes: “No one puts their children in a boat/Unless the water is safer than the land.”
I thought of my dad’s journey, and spoke about it on the New Statesman Podcast, after 27 people drowned trying to cross the Channel from Calais on 24 November. They are believed to have been mainly Kurdish people from Iraq and Iran. They boarded an inflatable dinghy to sail across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes for a chance at life in the UK.
Kurds, one of the most persecuted minorities in the Middle East, have a proverb for their repeated betrayal by the world: “No friends but the mountains.” The grim consequences of that betrayal have now washed up on European shores: desperation, misplaced trust, thwarted hope.
Fewer than 3 per cent of refugees in Europe seek sanctuary in the UK, according to the charity Care4Calais. But many of those who do have their hearts set on British shores have existing ties to the country. They may have family connections there, or already speak English.
As he sailed among the watermelons, my dad also had Britain in his sights. He would be able to meet up with his brother, who had already relocated there, he spoke English, and he admired the UK. Growing up, he had become a Liverpool FC fan (chosen due to his love of the Beatles), and his natural reserve and dry sense of humour meant his friends nicknamed him “The Englishman” – a moniker that…