I could not protect her: A dad mourns his child killed in the Channel

Seven-year-old Sara suffocated as people pushed on to a boat heading across the English Channel

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Seven-year-old Sara suffocated as people pushed on to a boat heading across the English Channel
Seven-year-old Sara suffocated as people pushed on to a boat heading across the English Channel

Amira Al-Jassim stood on the beach, her cries echoing against the retreating waves. She beat her chest, surrendering to the overwhelming grief, rage, and guilt that consumed her.

“I couldn’t protect her. I’ll never forgive myself. But the sea was the only choice I had,” she sobbed.

A week earlier, before dawn, on the same stretch of coastline south of Calais, the 41-year-old had found herself crammed inside an inflatable boat, screaming for help. She lashed out at the bodies around her, begging people to move, to give her space, to let her reach down and rescue her seven-year-old daughter, Layla, from the suffocating darkness where she had been crushed.

“I just wanted him to move so I could pull my baby up,” Amira explained, referring to the young Sudanese man who had joined the larger group that crowded onto the boat at the last moment, as it drifted away from the shore. But the man had ignored her, then threatened her.

“That time was like death itself. We saw people dying. I saw how those men were behaving. They didn’t care whom they were stepping on – a child, or someone’s head, young or old. People started to suffocate,” said Amira, bitterness lacing her words.

Although Amira is Iraqi, her daughter had never even visited the country. Layla was born in Belgium and had spent most of her short life in Sweden.

In total, five people died in the same incident, victims of what must have felt like an agonizing, slow-motion stampede.

I had been on the beach with a crew, filming the chaos as the smugglers, escorting their passengers towards a small boat, used fireworks and sticks to ward off a group of French police who had tried, and failed, to stop the group from boarding.

The overcrowded inflatable boat heads out to sea in the English Channel
The overcrowded inflatable boat heads out to sea in the English Channel

“Help!”

As the boat drifted further out to sea, we heard someone shouting faintly from on board. But in the pre-dawn gloom, it was impossible to tell what was happening. As dawn broke, the police were already moving away from the shore, along with one suspected smuggler and some of the migrants who had failed to board.

Amira later confirmed that the voice calling for help was hers, as she desperately pleaded with those around her to save Layla’s life. Amira’s husband, Khalid, and their two other children, 13-year-old Rania and 8-year-old Hussam, were also trapped in the boat, but still able to breathe.

“I’m strong, I’m a construction worker. But I couldn’t pull my leg out. No wonder my little girl couldn’t either. She was under our feet,” said Amira.

This had been the family’s fourth attempt at a crossing since they had arrived in the area two months earlier. Twice, the police had caught them on the beach as they struggled to keep up with the other migrants sprinting towards a smuggler’s boat. Amira said the smugglers – who charged 1,500 euros (£1,280) per adult, and half that for each child – had promised her that only 40 people, mostly Iraqis, would get on their boat, but a separate group of Sudanese migrants had appeared and insisted on joining.

Layla had been calm at first, holding her father’s hand as they walked from the train station in Wimereux the evening before. They had then hidden in the dunes north of town overnight. Sometime before 6 a.m., the group had inflated their boat, and the smugglers had ordered them to carry it down to the beach and run with it towards the sea before the police could stop them.

Suddenly, Amira said, a police tear gas canister had exploded near them, and Layla had begun screaming. Once they had boarded the boat, Amira had kept Layla on her shoulders for a minute or so, but then had taken her down to help her other daughter, Rania, get on board, which is when she lost sight of Layla.

It was only later, when French rescuers reached them at sea and offloaded some of the more than 100 people crammed on the boat, that Amira was finally able to reach her daughter’s body.

“I saw her head in the corner of the boat. She was all blue. She was dead when we pulled her out. She wasn’t breathing,” she explained, between sobs.

In the days since, the family has been cared for by the French authorities as they wait to bury Layla’s body. Amira said she is aware of the strong criticism she has faced on social media, with people accusing her of putting her family at unnecessary risk. She appears torn between accepting and rejecting such blame.

“I will never forgive myself. But the sea was the only choice I had. Everything that happened was against my will. I ran out of options. People blame me and say, ‘How could I risk my daughters?’ But I’ve spent 14 years in Europe and have been rejected,” said Amira, detailing years of failed attempts to secure residency in the EU after fleeing Iraq following threats from militia groups.

Sara's last picture of her family before they made their fourth attempt to reach England
Sara’s last picture of her family before they made their fourth attempt to reach England

Belgium reportedly denied her asylum by arguing that her hometown of Basra in Iraq was classified as a safe area. She said her children had spent the last seven years staying with a relative in Sweden, but that they had recently been informed they would be deported, with her, to Iraq.

“If I knew there was a 1% chance I could keep the kids in Belgium, France, Sweden, or Finland, I would. All I wanted was for my kids to go to school. I didn’t want any assistance. My husband and I can work. I just wanted to protect them and their childhoods and their dignity,” she continued.

“If people were in my place, what would they do? Those who criticize me haven’t suffered what I’ve suffered. This was my last option,” she said, appealing to the British government for sympathy and support.

Layla’s teacher in Uddevalla, Sweden, described the seven-year-old as “kind and nice” in a video message.

“She had a lot of friends in the school. They played together all the time… In February, we heard she would be deported, and that it would happen quickly. We had two days’ notice,” the teacher said.

After learning of her death, the class gathered in a circle and held a minute of silence.

“It’s very unfortunate that it happens to such a nice family. I have taught [other] children in that family, and I was really shocked about the deportation,” the teacher said. “We have Layla’s picture in front of us still, and we will keep it there as long as the children want.

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