Ottawa Writers Festival: Tima Kurdi’s memoir opens a window on people living inside the Syrian war

Tima Kurdi looks at a refugee camp for Syrians near Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq.

Tima Kurdi’s happiest memories are full of the smell of jasmine and big family dinners in her parents’ Damascus home. These pleasant images are from a time before war devastated her birth country and before a photograph of the body of her tiny nephew, Alan, lying on a Turkish beach thrust her personal sorrow into a global spotlight.

Kurdi was trained to be a hairdresser but now she is on a different mission to cut through the fog of war and raise awareness about the plight of her people and her family. Part of the mission is a memoir about her family and her efforts to help them find safe haven from the fighting.

“There are so many reasons (writing a book) was in my mind,” she said in an interview. “The beginning was just after the tragedy when the picture of the boy on the beach went around the world. People started to open their hearts and wake up to what was going on in the Syrian war.

Two weeks after the tragedy, she was in Erbil, Kurdistan consoling her brother Abdullah, who had lost his sons Alan and Ghalib and and his wife Rehanna to the Mediterranean Sea.

“It was really the worst time in our lives.” Abdullah had been invited to come to Erbil by Kurdish authorities and had been provided with shelter.

“Everybody came to offer him condolences about what had happened. I was sitting with my brother and we were talking. We could see what was going on and it was heartbreaking.”


Tima Kurdi

The book deals with all this and more. It opens up a window on the real lives of real people living in fear of being killed in their homes or on the run to safety. It also describes the frustrations of trying to help from far away with limited means.

After the photograph, the Kurdis beseiged by the global media and there were early stories that misspelled Alan’s name, along with other errors that can happen when dealing with the press.

“I said to Abdullah, ‘How about we write a book.’ There was nobody else who could really tell the truth behind the picture, about what it means to be a refugee … about what it means when your country is devastated by war.”

On the 12-hour journey home to Vancouver, Kurdi says she just started writing and writing. The words erupted out of her.

“I felt my life had changed. I became an advocate. If I couldn’t save my own family, let’s save the others.”

The memoir begins in Damascus, one of the oldest city’s in the world. Kurdi describes a happy extended family living in relative comfort in a family compound surrounded by a mixed community of Christians and Muslims living in relative harmony.

She left Syria as a young bride and came to Canada to begin a new life. She writes that she had wanted to see more of the world. After she left home, however, the world changed for Syria.

Through it all, she has never lost her connection to her family. The bond is a tight one even though her siblings are scattered to Germany, Turkey and Kurdistan … except for Kurdi’s father. Her mother has passed away but he remains in Damascus.

“He always tells us not to worry about him. He believes that God will determine his time. He believes he has to stay in his home and he also believes the war will end and everything will return to the way it was. People will start to rebuild.”


Abdullah Kurdi with Alan and Ghalib in better days.

While her father stayed, her brothers and sisters took their children and left as war swept around them. At one point Abdullah was taken by ISIS and tortured. They pulled the teeth out of his head.

“What can you do when war starts and you don’t know if you will wake up the next day. You don’t know if your kids go school if they will come back.

“In 2012, the tension became more intense. That’s when many started to panic.”

Families started sending their teenaged sons out of the country because they didn’t want them recruited by various factions even fighting against each other.

“That’s why, at the beginning, it was mainly young men coming into Europe,” she said.

The memories of a happier time always come up in her phone calls overseas.

“Every time we talk, we cry. And we always return to our happy memories. It’s very healing for me to bring my thoughts to those times and to have some hope that that memory will eventually come back.”

In Vancouver, before the war, people would ask Kurdi where she was from and they would have no where Syria was.

“I want to give people the sense that we are not different. We celebrate holidays and birthdays. We go to school. Maybe we speak a different language, maybe we practice a different religion, but we are like everybody else. That is why I put my voice out there and advocate for human beings who are suffering. All they want to do is protect their families.”

That is the purpose of a foundation that she and Abdullah are trying to get started. It has been a slow and frustrating process.

“I wish it was further along,” she said adding the idea is still waiting for charitable tax status.

The foundation would be a way to honour the boy on the beach, a way to help other children affected by the war in Syria first and then globally, she says.

“We need help and support,” she says. “We are nobody. I don’t know how to run a foundation but there are a lot of good hearted people and we hope they will come and help us.”

It’s not surprising that she is focussed 100 per cent on Syria.

“It’s time for a peaceful solution to the war not for blame. Blame will not bring peace to Syria and the Syrian people. It will never end what is happening there.”

It’s also hard to tell what is really happening there. The facts on the ground are being filtered through various agendas, she says.

“For us, who are 10,000 miles away from what is going on there, we can’t judge . To do that we need to know what is going on on the ground and in private.”

Out of this Kurdi has formed some definite opinions.

“I against regime change. I am not defending President (Bashar) Assad. But my experience from many visits to refugee camps and from being in Turkey and talking to people, I know there are two sides to the story..”

As a result, she says, “I don’t support any side, I am with the people who suffer the most.”

She opposes a possible military strike by the Trump administration in retaliation for what is believed to be a chemical weapons attack on civilians.

“Whatever the Americans are trying to do right now is a big mistake. Are they trying to add fuel to the fire now or are they actually trying to bring peace to Syria.

“After seven years, what is left of Syria? How much more can we bomb?

She even wonders if there is any real evidence that can prove the use of chemical weapons.

“It’s horrible to use chemical weapons. It is evil. This is unacceptable, of course. But you can’t blame one side only. … Politics doesn’t take us anywhere. I like to stay out of politics.

“If Trump bombs, we’ll see more bloodshed. More people will flee and where will they go. When you take action in Syria you will be creating more refugees but at the same time you close your borders. Why do you want to wage war and then refuse to take responsibility for what happens? It’s all about greed and power.

“We have had enough war.”

Kurdi believes that Canada could do more. The country should take in more refugees, she says, and not just Syrians but any refugees who are affected by war. She believes the people who come here will benefit the country eventually.

The book contains Arabic words. Kurdi did this deliberately.

“This is how we talk, when we talk on the phone. … People who read this book can learn a little bit about my language. … I want to open eyes and hearts to what is going on on the the other side of the world. I want them to help more.”

These days she is doing a lot of speaking engagements.

“I’m really proud of what I have done. When I go bed at night I feel that I have moved people to do something to help others. It really gives me comfort, even though my own family still struggles. Nothing has changed about our family.

“I still have dark days. I wouldn’t wish my life on anybody in the world. But our story is not finished yet. There is hope. We need to keep looking for a brighter future.”

Part of Kurdi’s burden is the guilt that she carries. She left before the war and hasn’t been able to help her siblings as much as she would like.

She also feels guilt because she gave her brother the money to pay the smuggler that put his family on an overcrowded boat in rough seas.

“If I hadn’t sent them the money they may not have had the accident. This is the guilt I feel.”

Writing that book has been a way to heal herself, she says.

“Hopefully it will bring awareness and people will take the book and plant a seed in their hearts and spread it further.”

As for her brother Abdullah. he is frustrated by the slow progress of getting the foundation off the ground.

“He was counting on getting the foundation going. He loves to deliver things to children in the camps so he can see them smiling. He also can’t find work as a barber.” So she still sends him money and the story goes on.

The Boy on the Beach by Tima Kurdi (Simon & Schuster) will be available April 17. The author will be in Ottawa on April 19 at 7 p.m. at Centretown United Church, 507 Bank St. Tickets and more information:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.