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He took one of the deadliest migrant routes, hoping to save his cancer-stricken son

AMMAN, Jordan — Thaer al-Rahal knew if he didn’t do something drastic, his 3-year-old son could soon die of leukemia. He was a Syrian refugee in Jordan, but the United Nations refugee agency couldn’t pay for his son’s treatment. Another donor funded some chemotherapy sessions, but only intermittently. He saw no other option but to board a smuggler’s boat to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

“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,” he told a friend in one of his last voice notes, shared with NPR.

He planned to go to Germany and in other voice notes asked Syrians residing there for advice on which city to go to for the quickest family reunification process. “So I know where to head to — if I make it,” he said.

His wife, Narmeen al-Zamel, says he swallowed his shame and asked to borrow thousands of dollars from family and friends to pay the smuggler who promised him passage to Italy. Rahal traveled to Libya, where he waited some four agonizing weeks — always worrying about his son Khaled’s condition — before eventually boarding an old fishing trawler on June 8. It was so packed with people he could hardly move.A few days into the journey, they ran out of food and water on the boat. As they passed Greece, someone on the ship called Alarm Phone, a humanitarian group with a hotline for people in distress in the Mediterranean Sea. The call recorded passengers saying they could not survive the night in the intolerable conditions. They needed help. The Greek coast guard was alerted, and two other nearby vessels donated some supplies to the migrants on the fishing trawler.

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Then, that night, the fishing trawler’s engine cut out. What happened next is still disputed. Some eyewitness accounts have suggested the overloaded boat capsized after the Greek coast guard tied its boat to the vessel — allegations the coast guard denies. Others say the boat destabilized when passengers moved to try to catch bottles of water being donated from another ship. Rights groups say the Greek coast guard could have better supported a rescue operation and could have called for an independent investigation.

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What is known is that at 2:04 a.m. on June 14, Rahal was flung into the dark seawater along with hundreds of other passengers, as the boat rocked violently and flipped on its side.

Accounts by survivors describe children desperately clutching at adults who themselves couldn’t swim. And dozens of people trapped, helpless, in the hold as the fishing trawler sank thousands of feet down to the seabed.

Witness accounts suggest there may have been as many as 750 people on board. There are only 104 known survivors. Rahal is not among them.

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Some of the people on the boat were Syrians fleeing military service for the regime in their country’s civil war. Others were escaping economic destitution in Pakistan and in Egypt. All of them knew that in boarding the boat they might not survive.

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