BRITISH COLUMBIA

Syrian Family Did Not Apply For Asylum, Says Ottawa

09/03/2015 11:09 EDT | Updated 09/03/2016 05:59 EDT

Like countless others around the world, Tima Kurdi and Rocco Logozzo had seen the horrifying image — that of a little boy, his body limp and lifeless, face down on a Turkish beach. Their hearts sank.

The phone in the couple's Coquitlam, B.C., home rang hours later to deliver the grim news: Kurdi's sister-in-law and her two little boys were dead, drowning as they tried to reach Europe after paying smugglers with the money Kurdi had personally sent to the family from Canada.

The dead boy on the beach was her three-year-old nephew, Alan. The harrowing photo has since become a heartbreaking symbol of the plight of Syrian refugees.

Kurdi, who came from Syria to Canada more than two decades ago, says she'd hoped to bring her brothers and their families here to escape the horrors of a vicious regime.

"The love of my life is gone and nobody in the world can bring them back,'' Tima told The Canadian Press, sobbing into her hands as she sat on her living-room couch on Thursday. "My heart is bleeding right now.''

The boys' father, Abdullah Kurdi, described the journey to The Associated Press.

He said the family piled into an overloaded boat in Bodrum, Turkey headed for the Greek island of Kos.

The boat's captain panicked due to high waves and jumped into the sea, Abdullah Kurdi said, leaving him in control of the small craft with his family and other migrants aboard.

"I took over and started steering. The waves were so high and the boat flipped. I took my wife and my kids in my arms and I realized they were all dead,'' he said. "All I want is to be with my children at the moment.''

The small boat was overloaded with 12 migrants and the Turkish captain, he added. It was only at sea for four minutes when the captain abandoned the craft, Kurdi said.

"My kids were the most beautiful children in the world, wonderful, they wake me up every morning to play with them. They are all gone now,'' he said.

aylan and galip kurdi

Alan and Galib Kurdi, pictured in a handout photo from their aunt, Tima Kurdi.

In Canada, his sister, Tima, burst into tears with her family and friends by her side as she scrolled through photographs of her nephews.

"I want to give my brother Abdullah's message to the world,'' said Tima. "He said, 'It has to be my kids so the world will wake up.'''

Abdullah is en route back to Syria to bury his wife and two children in the same city they attempted to escape, she added.

"He doesn't care,'' she said. "He said, 'I have three coffins with me so if something happens to me they can bury me beside them and then we'll be four.'''

The family's agonizing ordeal dominated Canada's election campaign on Thursday, especially when Rocco Logozzo, Kurdi's husband, told The Canadian Press that the family had put in a private sponsorship request for the boys and their parents but was turned down in June.

He assailed Canada's refugee system as ineffectual, adding his family had money and plenty of room to house the Kurdi boys and their parents in Coquitlam, B.C.

Underscores desperation of refugee claimants

Within hours, however, Citizenship and Immigration Canada said it received no refugee application from the father of the two drowned boys.

It did, however, receive an application for Abdullah Kurdi's brother, Mohammed, but said it was incomplete and did not meet regulatory requirements for proof of refugee status recognition.

Tima Kurdi confirmed later in the day that her family had only made an official request for Mohammed Kurdi, explaining she and her husband could only afford to sponsor one brother. They planned to apply for Mohammed first and subsequently bring Abdullah and his family to Canada.

Her distraught recounting of her attempts to bring her family members to Canada underscored the desperation and difficulties that confront would-be refugee claimants and their families.

She said it was impossible to secure all the necessary documents for her brother, Mohammed, given the dire situation in Syria.

"How would you feel when people are running from the border and the Turkish border guards are shooting in the air? What would you do?'' she said.

tima kurdi

Tima Kurdi looks at pictures of her nephews on Sept. 3, 2015. (Photo: Darryl Dyck/CP)

Because she suspected an application for Abdullah would have been rejected on similar grounds, Tima said she decided to send money to bring the family across the Mediterranean by boat.

"I'm not asking the government to spend money on them,'' said Kurdi. "I sent him the money to cross the water.''

She added a B.C. politician personally delivered a letter to Chris Alexander, the citizenship and immigration minister, asking for help.

The NDP candidate, Fin Donnelly, said the letter to Alexander reflected the family's attempts to bring both Abdullah and Mohammed Kurdi's families to Canada. He said he delivered the letter to Alexander in March, but denied telling media organizations that the federal government had turned down the family's sponsorship request.

Logozzo, meantime, said the Kurdis were desperate.

"When they heard (the refugee application) failed, they lost all hope, and in a desperate situation, you make all these wrong decisions,'' Logozzo said as he explained why his relatives opted to get on the boat to try to get to Europe.

The Kurdi boys and their mother were among at least 12 migrants, including five children, who drowned Wednesday when two boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized.

Alexander, who suspended his campaign to return to Ottawa to deal with the crisis, said he was "deeply saddened'' by the image of the drowned boy.

He added Prime Minister Stephen Harper has set a target for Canada to accept 23,000 Iraqis refugees and 11,300 Syrians.

"Of that number Canada has already resettled nearly 22,000 Iraqis and 2,300 Syrians,'' Alexander said.

When asked about Kurdi's letter, Alexander said that he passed it on to his department, where it was "treated expeditiously, and in the same way that any other correspondence and application would be treated.''

"Let's be clear, the application was for Mohammed Kurdi and his family...it was not rejected or turned down, it was returned to the applicant with a request for additional documentation.''

'It brings tears to your eye.'

Harper, for his part, was emotional in Surrey, B.C., when he recalled seeing the photo of Alan Kurdi's lifeless body on a sunny seashore.

"The first thing that crossed our mind was remembering our own son Ben at that age running around,'' Harper said, his voice breaking. "It brings tears to your eye.''

About 250,000 people have been killed and more than one million wounded in Syria since March 2011, according to UN officials. More than half the country's population has been displaced, including more than four million who have fled Syria.

The route between the Turkish community of Bodrum and Kos — just a few kilometres — is one of the shortest from Turkey to the Greek islands, but remains dangerous. Hundreds of migrants a day attempt the perilous sea crossing despite the risks.

A UN panel reported Thursday that more than 2,000 Syrians have drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe since 2011 and said there's no end in sight to Syria's civil war.

With files from The Associated Press

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Editor's Note: The boys' aunt told The Canadian Press the boys’ names are Alan, and not Aylan, and Galib, not Galip, as originally released by the Turkish government.

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