EDITOR'S NOTE (GRAPHIC WARNING): This story contains a photograph of a young boy who died, an image readers may find distressing. The image is lower down in the story.

Canadian relatives of a young Syrian refugee whose drowning has inspired compassion around the world are hoping their family’s tragedy will also be a call to action.

Three-year-old Alan Kurdi died along with his four-year-old brother Ghalib and mother Rehanna when their small boat flipped over during an attempted crossing from Turkey to Greece this week.

The boys’ father Abdullah survived, and eventually got a hold of a phone he could use to recount the terrible story to his sister Tima Kurdi in Coquitlam, B.C.

“They were about 15 minutes, 20 minutes in the water. They were laughing. Alan was telling his dad ‘This is fun ride, daddy,’” Kurdi said before breaking down in tears.

“Ghalib was crying because he was scared of the water.”

Kurdi said the family waited to make the half-hour journey until the water looked calm. But about halfway through, a wave struck the boat, leaving it upside-down.

She described her brother’s frantic struggle to save his children, and the dawning realization that hope was lost.

“He held them in his arms, one in the left, one in the right,” Kurdi said. “But the water kept pushing them down. Finally he went up, he looked in the left arm, the older boy Ghalib, and he saw him as gone so he let him go so he can be strong for the baby.”

That’s when he realized Alan, too, was dead. The father closed the boy’s eyes, said “Rest in peace, my son,” and released him into the water.

“I wish it was a dream,” said Kurdi.

A wakeup call to the world

Images of Alan’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach have put the region’s refugee crisis in the spotlight, and now the family is calling on countries across the globe to step up and answer pleas for asylum.

“My brother said to me, ‘It’s my kids. It has to be the wakeup call to the whole world.’”

Kurdi previously tried to bring her other brother, Mohamed, and his family to Canada but their application was rejected as incomplete in June. She had planned to try bringing Abdullah’s family as well when she could afford it.

Critics have responded to this week’s tragedy by highlighting what they see as a lacking response to the crisis from the Canadian government.

Of the four million people who’ve fled from war and persecution in Syria, Canada has accepted about 2,300.

That’s compared to Germany, which has already relocated more than 100,000 and promised to accept at least 800,000, and Sweden, a country with a third of Canada’s population, which has taken in tens of thousands.

“To compare us to Sweden or Germany, it’s pretty embarrassing,” immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman told CTV News.

On Thursday, Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander defended the government’s record on refugees, issuing a statement that Canada has “one of the most generous per capita immigration and refugee resettlement programs in the world.”

A report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees earlier this year painted a less flattering picture of Canada’s recent record on refugees, however.

According to the UNHCR Asylum Trends report, Canada dropped from fifth place in 2010 to 15th place last year in a ranking of refugee-receiving counties.

“This can potentially be the result of reforms of law and asylum policies and the introduction of visa requirements for some nationalities,” the report reads.

On top of the 2,300 Syrian refugees, Canada has resettled 22,000 refugees from Iraq, after promising to bring in 23,000 Iraqis and 11,300 Syrians over several years.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also said his government will bring in 10,000 more refugees from the Middle East over the next four years if re-elected, while NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has called on Ottawa to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees immediately.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also challenged the government to take in 25,000 Syrians immediately.

With files from CTV Vancouver’s Scott Roberts and Maria Weisgarber