Rescue at Sea One family's Journey from turkey to greece by sea


The message pinged on my phone at just before eleven thirty at night. Unusually late, I thought, for a Facebook direct message. The modern equivalent of a late night phone call? Something urgent? As I picked up the phone, I guessed who it might be from.

"Hello Mark - my family 3 hours lost in the sea"

It was a message I had worried I might receive. The sender was Bassel Shekhany, a 26-year-old Syrian man who I first met in Budapest, Hungary last autumn.

"Here was the last position before 1 hour - 37°34'06.2"N 27°01'39.0"E"

I quickly copied and pasted the coordinates into google maps on my phone. The pin dropped onto a blue screen.

I zoomed out. The last known location of Bassel's family was a spot in the Aegean Sea south of the Greek island of Samos.

It was the middle of the night. The boat was likely to be carrying about 50 people. What chances do they have of survival, I thought?

The background first.

Last Autumn, I was in Budapest reporting on that leg of the migrant crisis. The Hungarian capital had become a bottle neck in the migrant route from Greece to Northern Europe.

In that throng of people, with hundreds waiting on the concourse, I met Bassel Shekhany.

He offered up his language skills to us. His English was good and he could see that we were struggling to interview another Syrian refugee.

We offered him fifty euros for his help. We always pay our official translators and despite the fact that he wasn't officially a translator but one of the thousands who had escaped Syria, it was the right thing to do.

He turned the money down but we exchanged Whatsapp and Facebook details and we stayed in touch.

He reached Germany by October and we met up again. We filmed a story around him - you can watch by clicking the box below.

He is a graduate of Damascus University's biology department where he secured a degree in micro-biology.

He was half way though his masters in medial physics at Syria's Atomic Energy Commission last year when his family collectively decided the war was so bad that he would escape to Europe and, in time, pave the way for his family to join him.

Bassel was married in March 2015 to Zanzon. The couple speak daily on a poor Skype connection between Germany and Syria.

He told me how they share memories of home and discuss the dreams ahead.

By December, the German authorities had given Bassel permission to stay; his asylum application had been granted. But new German rules stipulated that his family wouldn't be able to join him until November 2017.

Just before Christmas, I received another message from him.

"Hello how are you Mr Mark... Now in Syria is very dangerous so my wife does not have any choice only come by boat... I wish for you and for your family all the best and all success in the new year. 'Frohe weinachten' that meaning in German language merry Christmas."

I didn't hear any more from Bassel until this week when I received another message from him, written, it seemed, in a hurry.

"Hello Mr Stone how are you I hope to be good and your family. I'm sorry I lost your number. Today my family, father and mother and my sister and my wife have been in Izmer in Turkey planned to cross the sea by small boat but unfortunately the Turkish Coast Guard catch them and putted them in small prison near Izmer without any food or water and now no body know what will happen with them. Here is location for them 38.944375, 26.946423."

He included some photographs.

They showed what looked like a police cell with men, women and children inside. This was the reality of a policy, requested by the European Union and half heartedly implemented by Turkey, to stop people from making the journey across the Aegean.

A day later, the family had been released and headed straight for the beach to make another crossing attempt. Bassel told me that they had paid their $750 each and the traffickers were telling them the weather was good.

Then I received the late night Facebook message.

"Hello Mark - my family 3 hours lost in the sea. I call the Turkish coast guard and he told me to talk with Greece caost guard but nobody want to send ship to search them. Here was the last position before 1 hour 37°34'06.2"N 27°01'39.0"E"

In December I was in Samos reporting on the work of the Samos Divers Association: volunteers who risk their lives daily to rescue and recover the refugees who attempt the crossing.

I send the coordinates to my contacts at the Samos Divers Association and to a Sky News team who were filming in Samos with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS).

Quickly, the coordinates were distributed to the right people. I forward Bassel a message I had received from Samos: "OK I texted one of the guys... he is contacting the captain... all in hand".

The following morning, the news for Bassel was good - his family had all been rescued. But they had been rescued by the Turkish coastguard which meant the they had been returned to Turkey. They had not made it to Europe.

Bassel's emotions were mixed:

"Yes I am happy because they are alive but now they are in the prison and my mother health it is very bad that make me sad."

Astonishingly, three days later, and despite this near death experience, the family prepared to try again. They are not unique. Hundreds of families are making these same choices every day. They know how dangerous it is and yet they seem compelled to do it.

On Friday night I received another message from Bassel:

"Hello Mr stone now my family in this location 37.397737, 27.209677. Do you have information about the weather there."

I knew the weather was bad because I had just seen my colleague Lisa Holland reporting live from Samos.

"Force ten winds predicted... Poor souls. Tell them not to go." Lisa said to me in an email.

But they had already left. Their trafficker, who organises their transport and hotels while they wait for the crossing but doesn't come with them, had told them the weather was good.

Over the next few hours I received a string of increasingly desperate messages from Bassel.

He was in Germany and receiving messages from his wife on the boat in Greece and then relaying them to me in Belgium.


"they are here now, 37.444013, 27.116358, they start to face problems."


"37.470869, 27.053641, now they are here. They ask me to bring help."


"37.478250, 27.040952, the last location. the water level it is raised and they afraid from fuel running out"


"3 persons now in the sea want to swim because afraid of extra weight"


"They said no driver in the boat now"


"all the persons in the boat felling afraid. No control."

As I had done a few days earlier, I sent the coordinates to my contacts in Samos. There were about 50 people in peril on two boats including eight members of Bassel's family.

A rescue had already been mounted; the team from MOAS was en-route to the location. I sent through refreshed coordinates.

The MOAS crew asked me to ask Bassel for a list of his family's names. I emailed it to them:

  • Noura Shakani
  • Faten Homsi
  • Zain Alsabah Hadeed
  • Hassan Shakani
  • Omar Alrefai
  • Aya al Refai
  • Mariam Darkhabani
  • Abduallah Alrefai

For 15 minutes, I heard nothing and had no news for Bassel.

Then an email dropped in my inbox:

Another followed shortly after from one of the MOAS crew:

The photos which confirmed the safe rescue followed:

Bassel's wife with the MOAS photographer, Jason Florio
Bassel's sister with the MOAS photographer, Jason Florio
Bassel's mother, father and sister

Bassel's family were among 50 people rescued last night. So many more are right now contemplating the same desperate choice and for many it ends in tragedy.


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