SORAN, Iraq — Maryam Nuri had never been on a plane before boarding a flight from Iraq in early November with a visa from Italy. She had never seen the ocean before sailing up the English Channel on a thin boat from France last week.
“She only knew small rivers here,” said her cousin, Iman Hassan, at Ms. Nuri’s home in this mountain town in the Kurdish region of Iraq. “We don’t even know what big waves are.”
Ms Nuri, known to her friends and family as Baran, drowned along with 26 other people on Wednesday when a flimsy inflatable boat she was sitting on sank with other migrants in the treacherous and icy waters of the English Channel.
The 24-year-old woman tried to reach Britain to join her fiancé, a Kurdish Iraqi who has lived in England for 14 years.
On Saturday, Mrs. Hassan, her niece, spoke in the kitchen of the Nuri family’s home, while Mrs. Nuri’s mother, sisters and female relatives sobbed in the living room – the same room where Mrs. Nuri celebrated her engagement in January. “She was going to be a new bride,” cried one of her seven sisters, patting her chest in fear.
Mrs. Hassan and Mrs. Nuri were the same age and had been best friends since childhood. When Ms. Nouri and her fiancé, Karzan Assad, were dating on one of his trips home, Ms. Hassan was their chaperone.
“They would come to my house when they had a date and they would talk,” she said. “They were in love, just like Romeo and Juliet.”
Mr Assad, 41, is a hairdresser who, according to his family, lives in Portsmouth, England, and Mrs Nuri dreamed of joining him and opening her own hair and nail salon.
Ms. Hassan, a technical student, works part-time in a flower shop in the Kurdish capital Erbil, the city from which Ms. Nuri took off by plane to begin her ill-fated journey, a two-hour drive from her hometown of Soran. On Valentine’s Day, she said, Mr. Assad came by and bought an armful of roses to take to Mrs. Nuri.
Mrs. Nuri finished high school but did not go to university. At the end of October, Mrs. Nuri her best friend and told her to come to her house where she told her she was ready to join Assad in England and would leave soon.
“She said to me, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going the safest way,'” and said she would avoid the crossing, Ms Hassan said.
According to Mr Assad’s brother Nihad, Mr Assad had obtained an Italy-issued tourist visa that allowed Ms Nuri to travel to the European Union and paid $20,000 to someone from outside the Italian Consulate.
“Some people in Erbil get visas – they’re like smugglers,” said Nihad Assad, who is a butcher in Erbil, referring to the people who sell visas in the city.
The Italian consul could not be reached for comment.
Ms. Nuri’s uncle, Ms. Hassan’s father, worked at the airport in Erbil and told her how to find boarding gates and seat numbers on the plane. Mrs. Nuri spoke Turkish but no English, and Mrs. Hassan tried to teach her a few words.
She traveled to Turkey and then to Italy, Germany and France. But she was twice rejected for a visa to Britain that would allow her to join her fiancé, and when she arrived in France, she got stuck. To make matters worse, the uncle who took care of her at the airport died of a heart attack while traveling through Europe.
“In my opinion, she got tired and mourned there only for her uncle – my father,” said Ms. Hassan. She said her cousin was desperate to reunite with her fiancé.
In Germany, she met the wife of an Iraqi friend of her fiancé who was also trying to come to England, her relatives said. Later, in France, the couple told her, “It’s only a few hours, why don’t you come with us?” at the channel crossing, and she agreed, Mrs. Hassan said. Migrants who made the crossing the same day said the boats were charging more than $3,000 per passenger.
“When she was in Germany, I said to her, ‘Don’t take the inflatable boat,'” said Mr Assad, her fiancé’s brother, who said he waved her goodbye at the airport in Erbil. “She told me, ‘Even if I have to swim, I have to reach Karzan.’ She was very much in love with him.”
Mr Assad has a screenshot of a map and location pin that Ms Nuri sent from the boat when it was in the middle of the canal. She called her fiancé and said the water was soaking up and they were trying to save it with pots. She said they were waiting for the Coast Guard for help.
But rescue did not come and Mrs. Nuri drowned along with the wife of her betrothed’s friend. Her husband, who was in a second boat that overturned when the first began to sink, survived to identify both their bodies at the hospital.
Mrs. Nuri’s death has devastated her close-knit family of seven sisters and one brother.
“My sister was adorable,” said her brother, Mohammad Nuri, 21. “Anyone who has met her even once has never forgotten her because she had a very good heart.”
In England, a friend who answered Assad’s phone said he had been taken to hospital from the shock of losing the woman he loved.
The tragedy is just one of many hardships faced by the Iraqi Kurds after they broke away from Saddam Hussein’s control in 1991, thanks to the efforts of their Pesh Merga fighters and the help of US-led air support. For decades, Kurds from Iraq and three neighboring countries have fled persecution and settled in Europe. The 50 million Kurds spread across contiguous territory in the Middle East and Turkey are known as the world’s largest stateless ethnic group.
When relatives came to mourn with Ms Nuri’s family on Saturday, her father, Nuri Mohammad, 67, a retired Pesh Merga hunter, stood right at the street entrance to greet them.
“I want other countries to show some respect for the Kurds,” said Mr Mohammad, offering condolences in between. “I ask the world, especially the United States, not to block the path for our young people – don’t leave them to traitors and murderers and mafia.”
Kurdish officials said the Kurdish and Iraqi governments were trying to collect all the bodies of the Iraqis who died on Wednesday and send them back for burial.
“We just want her body to rest in peace with our family,” said Ms. Hassan, Ms. Nuri’s niece.
Sangar Khaleel contributed reporting from Soran.