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A couple’s dream of reuniting in England is dashed in a channel disaster

The 24-year-old woman had been trying to reach Britain to join her fiancé, a Kurdish Iraqi who has been living in England for the past 14 years.

By: New York Times | Iraq |
November 28, 2021 11:56:41 am
Relatives gather in Soran, in the Kurdish region of Iraq, on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, to mourn with the family of Maryam Nuri, who drowned with in the English Channel this week. Nuri, died with 26 others after making a desperate attempt to join her fiancé by crossing the English Channel from France on an inflatable boat.(Hawre Khalid/The New York Times).

Written by Jane Arraf

Maryam Nuri had never been on a plane before she boarded a flight from Iraq in early November with a visa from Italy. She had never seen the ocean before she set out on a flimsy boat from France into the English Channel last week.

“She knew only small rivers here,” her cousin, Iman Hassan, said at Nuri’s family home in Soran, a mountain town in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. “We don’t even know what big waves are.”

Nuri, known to her friends and family as Baran, drowned along with 26 other people Wednesday when a flimsy inflatable boat she was on with other migrants sank in the treacherous and frigid waters of the English Channel.

The 24-year-old woman had been trying to reach Britain to join her fiancé, a Kurdish Iraqi who has been living in England for the past 14 years.

On Saturday, Hassan, her cousin, spoke in the kitchen of the Nuri family home while Nuri’s mother, sisters and female relatives sobbed in the living room — the same room where Nuri celebrated her engagement in January. “She was supposed to be a new bride,” one of her seven sisters said, beating her chest in anguish.

Hassan and Nuri were the same age and had been best friends since childhood. When Nuri and her fiancé, Karzan Assad, were dating during one of his trips home, Hassan was their chaperone.

“They would come to my house when they had a date, and they would talk,” she said. “They were in love, like Romeo and Juliet.”

Assad, 41, is a barber who lives in Portsmouth, England, according to his family, and Nuri dreamed of joining him there and opening her own hair and nail salon.

Hassan, an engineering student, works part time in a flower shop in the Kurdish capital, Irbil, the city from which Nuri left by plane to begin her fateful journey, a two-hour drive from her hometown, Soran. On Valentine’s Day, Hassan said, Assad visited and bought an armful of roses to take to Nuri.

Nuri finished high school but did not go to college. In late October, Nuri called her best friend and told her to come to her house, where she told her she was ready to join Assad in England and would leave soon.

“She told me, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going the safest way,’” and said she would avoid the sea crossing, Hassan said.

Assad had procured an Italian-issued tourist visa that allowed Nuri to travel to the European Union, paying $20,000 to someone on the street outside the Italian Consulate, according to Assad’s brother, Nihad.

“Some people in Irbil get visas; they are just like smugglers,” said Nihad Assad, who is a butcher in Irbil, referring to the people selling visas in the city.

The Italian consul could not be reached for comment.

Nuri’s uncle, the father of Hassan, worked at the airport in Irbil and talked her through how to find boarding gates and seat numbers on the plane. Nuri spoke Turkish but no English, and Hassan tried to teach her a few words.

She traveled to Turkey, and then to Italy, Germany and France. But she had been twice rejected for a visa to Britain that would allow her to join her fiancé, and when she got to France she found herself stuck. Making matters worse, the uncle who took care of her at the airport died of a heart attack as she traveled through Europe.

“In my opinion, she got tired and she was grieving alone there for her uncle — my dad,” Hassan said. She said her cousin was desperate to be reunited with her fiancé.

She met up in Germany with the wife of an Iraqi friend of her fiancé who was also trying to get to England, her relatives said. Later, in France, the couple “told her, ‘It’s just a few hours, why don’t you come with us?’ on the channel crossing, and she agreed, Hassan said. Migrants who made the crossing that same day said the boats were charging more than $3,000 per passenger.

“When she was in Germany, I told her: ‘Don’t take the inflatable boat,’ ” said Nihad Assad, her fiancé’s brother, who said he saw her off at the airport in Irbil. “She told me: ‘Even if I have to swim, I have to reach Karzan.’ She was very much in love with him.”

Assad has a screenshot of a map and location pin Nuri sent from the boat when it was in the middle of the channel. She called her fiancé, saying that it was taking on water and that they were trying to bail it out with pots. She said they were waiting for the coast guard for help.

But the rescue never happened, and Nuri drowned along with the wife of her fiancé’s friend. That woman’s husband, who was in a second boat that turned back when the first one began sinking, survived to identify both their bodies in a hospital.

Nuri’s death has devastated her close-knit family of seven sisters and a brother.

“My sister was adorable,” said her brother, Mohammad Nuri, 21. “Anyone who met her even once never forgot her because she had a very kind heart.”

In England, a friend who answered Karzan Assad’s phone said he had been taken to a hospital from the shock of losing the woman he loved.

The tragedy is just one of the many hardships faced by Iraqi Kurds after they broke away from Saddam Hussein’s control in 1991, thanks to the efforts of their peshmerga fighters and with the help of U.S.-led air support. For decades, Kurds from Iraq and three surrounding countries have fled persecution and settled in Europe. The 50 million Kurds spread across contiguous territory in the Middle East and Turkey are known as the world’s biggest ethnic group without a state.

As relatives came to mourn with Nuri’s family Saturday, her father, Nuri Mohammad, 67, a retired peshmerga fighter, stood ramrod straight at the entrance of the street to greet them.

“I want other countries to give a little bit of respect to the Kurds,” Mohammad said while accepting condolences. “I ask the world, especially the United States, not to block the path for our young people. Don’t leave them to the hands of traitors and killers and mafias.”

Kurdish officials said the Kurdish and Iraqi governments were trying to retrieve all the bodies of Iraqis who died Wednesday to send them back for burial.

“We just want her body to come and rest in peace with our family,” said Hassan, Nuri’s cousin.

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