ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Soha stands in a filthy room in Karmouz Police Station. Her eyes are red from days of crying, and a small child gently strokes her hand to console her.
"They died in my arms," she says weakly, tears rolling off her cheeks. "All three of them."
Soha, a Syrian refugee of Palestinian descent, recently fled the horrors of war in Syria to only find further persecution and misery in Egypt. She is one of thousands of Syrian refugees who attempted the deadly two-week-long boat crossing to Europe in search of a better life.
On Oct. 11, Soha, along with around 160 other refugees, boarded rickety boats in the port city of Alexandria. The boats took the group to a bigger vessel bound for Italy's shores. From there, Soha planned to travel to Sweden, which announced it would grant asylum to Syrians who reach the country. She knew it was a dangerous journey: A week earlier, a boat carrying African refugees from Libya sunk off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, claiming over 350 lives.
The nightmare repeated itself on Soha's journey. The refugees were only in the larger vessel for seven minutes before it started to sink. Egyptian media said a dozen people were killed in the incident, though refugees say the number is much higher.
In the sea, enveloped by darkness, Soha gasped for air and held on to her four daughters, ages 3, 5, 6, and 8. She didn't know how to swim, and she hoped the one life preserver she wore would support all five of them. But soon she realized they would all likely drown.
Soha faced an impossible choice. Should she choose one child to save, but let the other three drown? She couldn't. She refused. It went against every motherly instinct in her body.
Waves washed over her, pulling one of her daughters from her desperate grip. The second girl tried to grab Soha's leg, but lost hold. And then a third, overcome by seawater, drowned as her mother held her. Haya, Sama, and Julia were lost to the sea. Only one daughter, the eldest, survived.
For six hours, Soha and her daughter floated in the water. Every so often, another person in the group would succumb to exhaustion and slip into the dark waters below.
Help didn't come until sunrise.
The stranded swimmers were first spotted by fishermen, who alerted the Egyptian Navy. But even the Navy's arrival did not mark the end of the refugees' ordeal: The Navy circled the refugees, filming them as they drowned, according to multiple survivors.
It wasn't only the Navy men who were indifferent to the refugees' suffering. Several women told a visiting doctor at the police station that when they were pulled into rescue boats, the dead still floating in the water, the fishermen harassed them. "Your daughters are beautiful. Can we marry them?" they asked.
It's not hard to see why Syrians would be desperate to leave Egypt: Since the military's ouster of President Mohamed Morsy on July 3, they have become the target of hate campaigns and xenophobic hysteria. One of the new government's first moves was to institute a visa requirement for Syrians, which makes it nearly impossible for many to enter Egypt. Many Syrian refugees already in the country have been accused of participating in Islamist demonstrations and taking up arms, leading to arrests, beatings, and deportations.
But war at home and persecution abroad are not the only trials they face. Survivors from the accident who were interviewed, as well as refugees from other boats intercepted by Egyptian forces off the coast of Alexandria, mention a figure who goes by the alias Abu Ibrahim. He's the man behind the smuggling, they say. He has an office in Alexandria, a fleet of ships, and a booming business promising scores of Syrian refugees the promise of a fresh start in Europe. A single boat ticket can cost around $3,000.
But Abu Ibrahim's promises, survivors say, are a mere illusion. Dozens of refugees from multiple trips arranged by Abu Ibrahim were robbed by hired thugs wielding knives once they boarded the boat. It was a trap. Everything was taken: wedding rings, money, cell phones, even clothing. One Syrian businessman, Samir, said thieves stole $10,500 from his family. He had sold the family's home in the southern Syrian city of Daraa when Bashar al-Assad's regime threatened to kill his children. The Egyptian thieves took every penny.