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Migrant dad trying to help his ill child is one of many presume dead in ship sinking

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We've been gathering the stories of people on the crowded smuggler ship that sank off the coast of Greece earlier this month. Several hundred migrants were on board. Only about a hundred were saved, with around 80 found dead so far. And among the presumed dead is a Syrian father of four who lived in a refugee camp in Jordan. He was trying to help his ill child. Local journalist Jenan AlNakshabndy interviewed his widow for NPR in Jordan, and NPR's Ruth Sherlock tells the story.

KHALED ALRAHAL: (Non-English language spoken).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Three-year-old Khaled Alrahal is curled up in a hospital armchair under a blue blanket. He's having chemotherapy through a tube attached to a cannula in his left hand.

NARMEEN ALZAMEL: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: His mother, Narmeen Alzamel, is beside him, as she has been all these months he's battled leukemia.

ALZAMEL: (Through interpreter) It's been a full year now. My son's cancer is among the most serious cases.

SHERLOCK: They're Syrian and live in a refugee camp in Jordan. So when Khaled was diagnosed, Alzamal says she and her husband appealed to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, to help fund the treatment. But they were told there was nothing UNHCR could do.

ALZAMEL: (Through interpreter) Because they said it's expensive. Not even the first biopsy they are willing to pay for.

SHERLOCK: Khaled might soon need an expensive bone marrow transplant. Other donors have stepped in to pay for some chemotherapy but only intermittently.

ALZAMEL: (Through interpreter) This terrified my husband. What would happen when the treatment stopped? God only knows. We lost whatever nerves we had left. He decided he had to go.

SHERLOCK: He contacted friends who'd made the dangerous trip in smugglers' boats across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. In some of his last voice notes, sent to friends and relatives in the days before he sailed and later shared with NPR, Thaer Alrahal makes clear why he's making the journey.

THAER ALRAHAL: (Through interpreter) We don't want money, and we're not just trying to live comfortably. The most important thing in the world is for my son to get cured.

SHERLOCK: He asks friends for advice on which cities in Germany quickly process requests for family reunification.

T ALRAHAL: (Through interpreter) Please send me the name of two or three cities that would have good treatment so I know where to head to if I make it.

SHERLOCK: Last week, his wife learned the terrible news - the boat had sunk off the coast of Greece on June 14. Her husband was not among the 104 survivors. When NPR contacted UNHCR to ask why they can't help more with Khaled's treatment, they said they couldn't discuss individual cases. But in a statement, they said access to health care for refugees has been cut back as funding has dropped. The statement called for Mediterranean countries to do more for refugees and migrants.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Now alone, Alzamel has to make the difficult journey almost every week to the hospital. UNHCR staff drove her a few times, but she usually has to find other transport. This means sometimes traveling through the night in shared vans and carrying her weak son long distances.

ALZAMEL: (Through interpreter) The hospital is far. It's exhausting, and it's so hard for Khaled.

SHERLOCK: This time, our local journalist, Jenan AlNakshabndy, gives them a ride back to the camp so they can talk more.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

SHERLOCK: In the car, Khaled watches on repeat a video of his father hugging one of his siblings as he leaves the house for the last time before he set out to try to reach Europe. A prayer overlays the sound in the video.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

KHALED: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "Mama, is Daddy coming back?" Khaled asks. Gently, tearing up, Alzamel replies, "he's not coming, baby. Didn't I tell you Dad is going to heaven?"

KHALED: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "To heaven," Khaled repeats to himself. Alzamel says her other three children's spirits are destroyed. They imagined leaving the dusty refugee camp and their poverty behind for a life where they could study and their brother could be cured. Now, she says, their father and their hopes for the future are gone. And she and her children are alone.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.

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