Alan Kurdi's aunt reflects on Syria, refugees and her hopes for her family

PORT COQUITLAM, B.C. -- It looks like any other hair salon.

Shiny hydraulic swivel chairs sit in front of mirrored work stations.

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Hair-dryer seats line the far wall. Brightly coloured gels and shampoos festoon various shelves. Sweets fill a bowl beside the cash register.

But for owner Tima Kurdi, the aunt of a toddler whose horrific death beamed a spotlight on a refugee crisis and forever altered the lives of countless Syrian migrants, this space represents her extended family's future.

"I'm calling it Kurdi Hair Design," says Kurdi about the salon, nestled between a children's reading centre and an optometry clinic in a nondescript strip mall in Port Coquitlam, B.C.

"It's a family business."

On Sept. 2, the lifeless body of her nephew Alan Kurdi was discovered face down on a Turkish beach. He died alongside his mother and five-year-old brother who, like so many Syrian refugees before and since, were driven by desperation to attempt the dangerous boat crossing from Turkey to Greece.

Within hours, the chilling image had raced across the globe, eliciting shock and horror, and prompting countries to open their doors, at least temporarily, to thousands fleeing their wartorn home.

After working for years to bring her own relatives to Canada, Alan's death thrust Kurdi into the international spotlight as a spokeswoman for the refugees' plight. She travelled to Belgium, Germany and Turkey, helping give a voice to those displaced by the war in Syria.

"I'm nobody, really. I just know the stories and I lived with the suffering for so many years. And now I have the chance to speak on behalf of them. That's why," she says, explaining her advocacy work.

"I'm just a normal person who speaks from the heart."

The federal Liberals' come-from-behind election victory in October soon saw Canada pledge to welcome 25,000 refugees by the end of the year, though that deadline was extended to the beginning of March due in part to security concerns raised in the wake of the attacks in Paris.

While she praises Canada for its efforts -- and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in particular -- Kurdi worries that already the world is beginning to forget the thousands of people still struggling to escape Syria.

"That hurts me even more," she says, tears slowly streaming down her face. "Nobody's paying attention to all the suffering people. There are so many suffering people there. I'm not just talking about my family.

"They're not terrorists. They're human beings. ... They had businesses. They had jobs. They owned a house. They sent their kids to school. They're like every single one of us in the West," Kurdi says, her fingers playing anxiously with the tissue she holds in her lap.

"What do you feel when you wake up one day and you lose everything that you own in your life?" she asks. "You go somewhere. You run to safety because of your kids. You become nobody. And nobody cares. That's not fair."

Despite the pain it causes every time she's confronted with her relatives' deaths, Kurdi says she doesn't want her nephew's tragedy to be forgotten.

"I want the world to remember that picture."

Kurdi says she's humbled by the outpouring of support her family has received, although she has also had to endure an onslaught of negative comments from online trolls.

A simple, black-string necklace hangs around her neck with a small framed photo of Alan, together with his older brother Ghalib, who also died during the treacherous Mediterranean boat crossing.

A woman from New Zealand, touched by the Kurdi family's tragedy, mailed two identical necklaces to Canada -- one for her and the other for her brother Abdullah Kurdi, Alan's father.

"It was the most beautiful gift I've ever received."

"I phoned my brother and I told him about it and he was in tears. He said, 'How beautiful people in the world are. It had to be my kids to wake up the world."'

But the Kurdi family's fortunes seem to be turning.

Her other brother, Mohammad Kurdi, is scheduled to arrive into Vancouver with his wife and five kids on Monday.

After an initial rejection by Canadian immigration authorities because of document complications, Tima Kurdi was invited in the fall to re-apply for approval -- along with many other hopeful Canadian sponsors -- and this time she was given the green light to bring her brother's family in as refugees.

Mohammad Kurdi has been in Germany since leaving his wife and four kids seven months ago to find work. Before flying on to Canada, the family will reunite in Frankfurt, where he'll meet his fifth and youngest child for the first time.

"It still has not hit me yet, the excitement," says Kurdi about her relatives' pending arrival. "We are still hurt. We always think about the nephews, the mother, about my brother.

"Maybe that will change a little bit when I see their smiles and they are safe," she says, referring to Mohammad's family.

Sitting in the middle of her new shop, where the storefront sign was installed just a day earlier, she talks about pain, but also about resilience.

"When something breaks, it doesn't matter how you twist it around. The part that's broken, it's always going to show, forever," Kurdi says. "But it will get better."

For her, the business is a new beginning.

Mohammad, who ran a barber shop in Syria, will soon arrive and she's hopeful their brother Abdullah, who left Turkey after his family's deaths and now lives in Kurdistan, will eventually join them.

"We're going to make it. We're going to work hard together," she says, eyes flashing. "I know we can do it."


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