At the time he was 26 years old, with jet-black hair, a receding hairline, and a dark stubbly beard on his round cheeks. In Damascus, where he lived before the civil war, he had worked as a self-taught computer technician, the neighborhood IT guy who could help with a system crash. In the summer, he used to rent a car with his friends and younger brother, Abd, and make the four-hour drive to the coastal province of Latakia to lounge on the beaches and swim in the blue Mediterranean waters.
But that was a distant memory. The uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, and a little over a year later, Musaab and Abd were arrested under suspicion of supporting the opposition. Abd says they were tortured both physically and psychologically, and after a month and a half in captivity they were cleared and released. They fled to Gaziantep, just across the Turkish border, and sought to build some semblance of a normal life. Musaab worked briefly at a radio station that supported the Syrian opposition. When that fell through, he and Abd moved on to Istanbul, where he found a job at a garment factory. It went bankrupt and closed within a year. His new life wasn't all darkness—he married and had a son—but he couldn't seem to get his bearings.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people had been fleeing Syria to Libya, where they would pay a smuggler somewhere between $500 and $2,000 for a spot on a boat that would carry them on an illicit journey to southern Italy. From there, most people continued north to other European countries, like Germany and Sweden, with stronger economies and better support systems for asylum seekers. Musaab knew people who had already made the journey, and he decided to follow them.
When Musaab reached the beach, he found the boat packed with more than 500 men, women, and children—and no life jackets to be seen.
The plan was for Musaab to go first, and later, once he was given status as a refugee, his wife and son would join him through the United Nations' family reunification program. In early August 2014, he boarded a flight to Algeria (which, at the time, was still granting visas on arrival to Syrians with passports); from there smugglers helped him sneak across the Tunisian desert and into Libya, where he headed to Zuwara, a city known to be the starting point for clandestine crossings to Italy. The smugglers Musaab paid to make arrangements for the trip to Europe promised there would be life jackets. They also promised that there would be no more than 150 people on the boat.
When Musaab reached the beach the night the boat was leaving, he found it packed with more than 500 men, women, and children—and no life jackets to be seen. A handful of people tried to back out. This was not what they had agreed to. But the smugglers were armed and threatened to kill anyone who didn't get on board.
That was how Musaab's voyage began, and it ended as he tumbled into the sea with hundreds of other passengers frantically clawing the water to stay afloat, their arms and legs and bodies tangling together. Italian rescuers pulled 24 dead bodies from the water that day, along with 352 survivors. The remaining hundred-some passengers were unaccounted for. Within days, Abd heard that a cousin who was also on the boat had gotten in touch with his relatives. The cousin had been on the deck, like Musaab, but they were separated in all of the chaos. After the boat flipped, the cousin lost track of Musaab and couldn't find him among the survivors in Italy. Rumors swirled among refugees that some of the passengers were being detained by Italian authorities. Maybe Musaab was with them, or his cousin had somehow overlooked him in the confusion following the wreck. Nobody knew. Like thousands of others who have fled their homes over the past two years and joined the greatest mass migration in human history, Musaab had gone missing.