SORAN, Iraq — Maryam Nuri had never been on a plane before she boarded a flight from Iraq in early November with a visa from Italy. She had never seen the ocean before she set out on a flimsy boat from France into the English Channel last week.
“She knew only small rivers here,” said her cousin, Iman Hassan, at Ms. Nuri’s family home in this mountain town in the Kurdistan 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 Wednesday when a flimsy inflatable boat she was on with other migrants sank in the treacherous and frigid waters of the English Channel.
The 24-year-old woman had been trying to reach Britain to join her fiancé, a Kurdish Iraqi who has been living in England for the past 14 years.
On Saturday, Ms. Hassan, her cousin, spoke in the kitchen of the Nuri family home while Ms. Nuri’s mother, sisters and female relatives sobbed in the living room — the same room where Ms. Nuri celebrated her engagement in January. “She was supposed to be a new bride,” one of her seven sisters cried, beating her chest in anguish.
Ms. Hassan and Ms. Nuri were the same age and had been best friends since childhood. When Ms. Nouri and her fiancé, Karzan Assad, were dating during 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, like Romeo and Juliet.”
Mr. Assad, 41, is a barber who lives in Portsmouth, England, according to his family, and Ms. Nuri dreamed of joining him there and opening her own hair and nail salon.
Ms. Hassan, an engineering student, works part time in a flower shop in the Kurdish capital Erbil, the city from which Ms. Nuri left by plane to begin her fateful journey, a two-hour drive from her hometown, Soran. On Valentine’s Day, she said, Mr. Assad visited, and bought an armful of roses to take to Ms. Nuri.
Ms. Nuri finished high school but did not go on to college. In late October, Ms. Nuri called her best friend and told her to come to her house, where she told her she was ready to join Mr. Assad in England and would leave soon.
“She told me, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going the safest way,’” and said she would avoid the sea crossing, Ms. Hassan said.
Mr. Assad had procured an Italian-issued tourist visa that allowed Ms. Nuri to travel to the European Union, paying $20,000 to someone on the street outside the Italian consulate, according to Mr. Assad’s brother, Nihad.
“Some people in Erbil get visas — they are just like smugglers,” said Nihad Assad, who is a butcher in Erbil, referring to the people selling visas in the city.
The Italian consul could not be reached for comment.
Ms. Nuri’s uncle, the father of Ms. Hassan, worked at the airport in Erbil and talked her through how to find boarding gates and seat numbers on the plane. Ms. Nuri spoke Turkish but no English, and Ms. Nuri tried to teach her a few words.
She traveled to Turkey, and then to Italy, Germany and France. But she had been twice rejected for a visa to Britain that would allow her to join her fiancé, and when she got to France she found herself stuck. Making matters worse, the uncle who took care of her at the airport, died of a heart attack as she transited through Europe.
“In my opinion she got tired and she was grieving alone there for her uncle — my dad,” said Ms. Hassan. She said her cousin was desperate to be reunited with her fiancé.
She met up in Germany with the wife of an Iraqi friend of her fiancé who was also trying to get to England, her relatives said. Later, in France, the couple “told her, ‘It’s just a few hours, why don’t you come with us?’ on the channel crossing, and she agreed, Ms. Hassan said. Migrants who made the crossing that same day said the boats were charging more than $3,000 per passenger.
“When she was in Germany I told her: ‘Don’t take the inflatable boat,’” said Mr. Assad, her fiancé’s brother, who said he saw her off 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 Ms. Nuri sent from the boat when it was in the middle of the channel. She called her fiancé, saying it was taking on water and that they were trying to bail it out with pots. She said they were waiting for the coast guard for help.
But the rescue never happened, and Ms. Nuri drowned along with the wife of her fiancé’s friend. Her husband, who was in a second boat that turned back when the first one began sinking, survived to identify both their bodies in hospital.
Ms. Nuri’s death has devastated her close-knit family of seven sisters and a brother.
“My sister was adorable,” said her brother, Mohammad Nuri, 21. “Anyone who met her even once never forgot her because she had a very kind heart.”
In England, a friend who answered Mr. 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 the many hardships faced by Iraqi Kurds after they broke away from Saddam Hussein’s control in 1991, thanks to the efforts of their Pesh Merga fighters and with the help of U.S.-led air support. For decades, Kurds from Iraq and three surrounding 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 biggest ethnic group without a state.
As relatives came to mourn with Ms. Nuri’s family on Saturday, her father, Nuri Mohammad, 67, a retired Pesh Merga fighter, stood ramrod straight at the entrance of the street to greet them.
“I want other countries to give a little bit of respect to the Kurds,” said Mr. Mohammad, in between accepting condolences. “I ask the world, especially the United States, not to block the path for our young people — don’t leave them to the hands of traitors and killers and mafias.”
Kurdish officials said the Kurdish and Iraqi government were trying to retrieve all the bodies of Iraqis who died Wednesday to send them back for burial.
“We just want her body to come and rest in peace with our family,” said Ms. Hassan, Ms. Nuri’s cousin.
Sangar Khaleel contributed reporting from Soran.