My name is Mohamed Al Rosan, but everyone calls me Hamada. I was born on 1st January 2003, at the Al Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Damascus, Syria. My grandparents were among the first Palestinians to settle in the camp when they had to leave their homeland of Palestine. Mama’s name is Lina and Baba is Iyad. I have two older brothers, Yamen and Mulham. Yamen was in his 3rd year at university studying English Literature and Mulham was training as a medical equipment technician. I was in Junior 4 at the Al Yarmouk School. I loved school and had many friends. Our life was happy and peaceful.
My family’s ‘journey of hope’ started in Damascus in October 2012.
Timeline of ‘My Journey of Hope’ from Syria to Germany
Al Yarmouk Junior School, Damascus
The camp was our home and more than 400,000 other Palestinians lived there too. There were no tents at Al Yarmouk, but proper buildings; houses, schools, shops, clinics, supermarkets and barber shops. Baba had a shop selling mobile phones, computers and satellite dishes. It was called Al-Rayed. There were 3 other people working for Baba and they were always busy fixing satellite dishes all over the camp. Baba really enjoyed his work. When I didn’t have school, I used to go and help him in the shop.
Life at Al Yarmouk was perfect but then the war started. Everything changed then.
Our living room at our home in Al Yarmouk
My bedroom when we left Al Yarmouk
Our peaceful home became a terrifying place. To escape the missiles, we hid in the bathroom, all five of us huddled together, shaking with fear. The fighting became worse with every passing day. It continued in the streets even during the day. I couldn’t go to school anymore. My brothers couldn’t go to university either. Baba had to close his shop. We were terrified to walk in the street. Snipers were on the roofs of most of the buildings, ready to shoot at any moment. All day long we heard the noise of gunfire and rockets. Every time we stepped out of our home, we didn’t know if we would come back home alive or die like thousands of others in Syria. For days and nights we had no electricity and had to use candles. There was no water in the taps and we couldn’t wash. Baba couldn’t use his car anymore because there was no petrol. Children didn’t play outside like before and no one walked in the street. I used to love it when our relatives came to visit us at home. I missed playing with my favourite cousin, Bayan. No one came to our house anymore.
Every time I looked at Mama she was crying. Whenever I looked at Baba, he would try to smile but his smile was different now. He looked worried and afraid and didn’t say much. I could tell that he was thinking about something but I didn’t ask. That was the beginning.
Our happy lives were gone. Baba told us that we had to leave our home.
Leaving Al Yarmouk
First we went to my grandparents’ (Baba’s parents) home. For a few days it was safe there but the fighting got worse. There was always a bad smell in the streets. Mama told me it was from gunfire. Every day we saw aircraft firing missiles and dropping bombs. It was like a film but it was real.
We couldn’t sleep anymore. We didn’t feel like eating Mama’s delicious cooking either. We were so afraid all the time and didn’t know what was going to happen next. I remember one night I had a bad stomachache but because of the fighting my parents couldn’t take me to the hospital. They gave me medicine and my tummy got better but I still felt sick with fear.
We had to move again, this time to my other grandparent’s home. A few days later the fighting reached that part of Damascus too. It was then that Baba said we must leave Syria.
Some of our friends had stayed on at Al Yarmouk. They told us that Baba’s shop was hit by a rocket and the next day, our home was too. I kept thinking of my room and my toys and all the fun I’d had playing with them. Baba said we should only pack a few small bags. I had to leave all my toys, my games and my new computer. Mama wanted to take all our photographs but there were too many. She picked up a few but left the others where they were. Maybe she was hoping we would come back one day and find them all there waiting for us?
Our beautiful camp became a war zone. We saw photographs of houses full of bullet holes and burnt buildings.
Losing everything was a big shock to my family. Baba kept reminding us that we are luckier than other families. We were still all together. Some of my brothers’ friends who used to visit us at home had been kidnapped, others were in prison. Even as a nine year old, I knew that they would probably never come back to their families. I used to listen to the grown ups talking.
We spent most of the time in one room and I heard things I didn’t want to hear. I became so afraid of many things. The thought of Yamen and Mulham never coming back was one of them. I tried to block these fears out of my mind, but I couldn’t.
Like many of our relatives and friends, we had to leave. Life had died in Syria. Our hearts were so heavy as we said goodbye to our beloved Syria. It was October.
Our home was hit by a missile
Carrying a few small bags, we started our journey of hope out of Syria. Baba told us the plan was to go to Lebanon, then Egypt and then onto Libya. He heard that he could find work in Libya and that my brothers and I could continue our studies there.
We travelled from Syria to Lebanon by road and then onto Egypt. We entered Egypt without any problems. The problem was when we wanted to leave Egypt to go to Libya. The Egyptians didn’t let us leave. I asked Baba why and he told me it was because we were Palestinian. I looked around and noticed that all the other Syrian families travelling with us had left to go to Libya. We were the only family that remained at the border. It was night time.
I remember seeing Mama, crying and telling the officer; “is it not enough that we had rockets fired at our home and had to run to save our lives, yet you still discriminate against us? We were born in Syria and lived there all our lives and these travel documents were issued by Syria.” But there was no use.
There were a few hotels in the area but there were no rooms. We had to sleep on the pavement by the sea. We were hungry, cold and tired. We used our bags as pillows, but had nothing to cover ourselves with. The ground was hard and the air was damp.
In the morning, a man that Baba got to know offered to drive us to Libya. He was a people smuggler. Baba paid him and we got into the back of his truck. He told us to lie down, covered us with blankets and drove off with us. When we arrived at the border, the officer told us that we didn’t have an exit stamp and we had to go back to Egypt to get our travel documents stamped. We went back to Egypt where my parents decided to stay. Baba started looking for work. But there were no jobs. Baba went to the local school to ask if I could join but they said no. After spending a month in Egypt, we left to Benghazi to try to start our life again.
On the bus from Egypt to Libya
Baba found us a house to live in and my brothers started working so they could help with the rent. Life in Benghazi wasn’t easy; food was expensive and there was fighting on the streets. We were always very frightened.
I went to the local school but I wasn’t happy. I looked and spoke differently to the other children and they laughed at me. I was the only boy with blonde hair and blue eyes. I used to really enjoy school in Syria, but not anymore. Many mornings I woke up with pain in my tummy. Mama promised me that if I did well in my exams, she’d buy me an iPad. I studied hard and passed all my exams at the end of the year. Mama kept her promise, like always. I was so happy with my new iPad. I played games on it and watched cartoons. Even my parents used it to call our relatives in Syria and Sweden. That was the best present ever!
In Benghazi we met many kind Libyans who became our friends. They helped us and made us feel welcome, treating us like family. But life there became difficult and my parents decided to pack up and leave. It was October.
Baba heard that there were boats taking migrants from the Libyan coast to Italy. We spoke to our relatives in Sweden and they kept telling us to make the journey. They said Sweden welcomed Palestinian refugees and how life there was safe and good. We were really missing our family and being with other Palestinians. Baba told us the journey would be our chance to start our lives again. We were all afraid of the sea because we’d heard stories of many people drowning on their way to Europe. Baba was told the journey was easy and safe. He bought some lifejackets and packed them in one of the bags.
Baba got to know about someone in Benghazi who could help us leave by boat. The man explained that the boat we would sail on was a big one, “like the Titanic” he said. Baba said the man had promised him that we would have plenty of food and water, private cabins, lifejackets, lifeboats, divers and there would even be a doctor on board. Baba borrowed money from relatives to pay for our journey. But there wasn’t enough money for all five of us to travel. One of us had to stay in Libya. Yamen, decided that since he’s the eldest, he would stay on. We said our goodbyes. We were all crying and feeling so sad.
Later Mama told me, “leaving Yamen behind, I am also leaving part of my heart in Libya”. She told me she wasn’t sure if she would ever see him again.
We got on an aeroplane from Benghazi. There were other families with us. When we arrived at the airport in Tripoli, we got on buses and were taken to the town where we would get on the boat to Europe. After driving for a few hours, we arrived in Zwara. A man called Khaled met us. He promised Baba that the boat will leave the next day.
Khaled took us to a small house. There were two rooms for about 125 people. Baba and Mulham and all the other men were in one room. Mama and I were in another room with the women and children. All these people had to share one bathroom. We had to take it in turns to use the bathroom. Sometimes we had to wait for half an hour. There were no beds to sleep on and no hot water for washing. We had to sleep sitting down, on hard plastic chairs. It was cold at night and there were no blankets. People started getting sick and everyone was sneezing and coughing. Whenever we spoke we had to whisper. We couldn’t open any windows. Mama said it was as if we were in prison. Everyone was so upset and angry. Baba asked Khaled to let us leave and to give back our money, but he kept telling us that we would soon leave. I played with the other children and we became good friends. Some of the families were also from Al Yarmouk. We were all escaping the war in Syria and happy to be going to Europe.
After 8 days, Khaled told us we would leave. At first he had said that children would travel for free. But just as we were getting ready to go to the boat, he changed his mind and said each child had to pay $500. Some families had three or four children and that was a lot of money for them to pay. But no one wanted to leave their child behind, so they paid. Someone asked Khaled if there will be life jackets on the boat. He said, “yes, of course” and promised us that we’ll have also have water and food.
We climbed into small rubber dinghies and were taken to the boat, Khaled shouting at us all the time. I didn’t know why he was so angry and nervous. Sometimes it’s difficult being a child and trying to understand things.
When we arrived at the boat, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The boat was small, old and broken, not like how the man in Benghazi had described it. Baba tried to calm us down but from his face I could tell that even he was so afraid. There were so many people on the boat, not just the ones sharing the house with us. We sat cramped together, with no space to stretch our legs. Baba said there were about 350 people onboard a boat which was only made for 100 people.
After sailing for about two hours, a small boat shining a strong light came next to our boat. The men in the small boat were shouting at the captain, telling him to turn back to Zwara. At first, Baba said the men in the patrol boat were from the Libyan coastguard. After hearing them shouting, he told us that they were other smugglers who had fought with Khaled over money. They wanted to get as much money out of us. The families onboard had brought whatever money they had with them, so there was a lot of money on the boat.
Our captain refused to turn back and after a lot of shouting, we heard shots being fired from the small boat. Soon shots came at us from all directions. With each shot I felt that my heart stopped. I was shaking and my tummy started hurting. All the children were screaming and holding onto their parents. By now, our boat was full of bullet holes. Water started coming into the lower deck where there were many families. The boat started taking on water. Baba told us the water pump was damaged by the bullets and wasn’t working anymore. The men on the small boat were so angry. They even tried to make our boat sink by tying a rope around it, and making a lot of waves so that our boat would sink.
All the people on the boat were screaming and telling the men that we were all refugees from Syria, escaping the war. I have never been so frightened in my life, not even as the bombs were falling in Al Yarmouk. Mama said we escaped the war in Syria but it had followed us into the middle of the sea. I remember Baba throwing himself on top of us so the bullets wouldn’t hit us. Some people were shot and were bleeding. Travelling with us were a few Syrian doctors. They helped the injured people. We could hear a woman screaming. I thought it was because she was afraid like everyone else. Mama told me that she was having a baby. We couldn’t see anything, but after a few minutes, we heard a baby crying. A baby boy had been born on the boat in the middle of the sea.
After what seemed like hours, the smaller boat turned back and left. Baba explained that we had entered territorial waters. At that point, the captain announced that we were lost. I thought a captain always knew where he was going but not this one. By now, our boat was filling up with water and it started losing its balance. The engine stopped and it felt like our hearts did too. The captain tried to call the Italian coastguards for help. He then called Khaled in Zwara to ask him to call the International Red Cross. Nothing happened and we were slowly losing all hope of being rescued. We waited and prayed that we wouldn’t die.
The boat tilted to one side and everyone started to panic. Some people had life jackets but most of them didn’t. They believed Khaled when he said that there were life jackets on the boat for everyone. Baba opened the bag and took out our life jackets. He told us to put them on and to get ready to jump in the sea. Before getting onto the boat, Mama had strapped my iPad around my waist so I wouldn’t lose it. As I was putting on my life jacket, she told me to take off the top I was wearing and to remove my iPad too. It was hard for me to let go of it, but I did as Mama told me.
By now, there were many people in the water with us. Most of them struggling as they couldn’t swim. Mulham tried to help some people to stay afloat using a wooden plank that had broken off the boat. At one point I saw the captain trying to take Baba’s life jacket but Mulham stopped him. Every minute that passed felt like a year. I looked around me and saw Baba and Mulham in the sea, but I couldn’t see Mama anywhere. I shouted ‘Mama, Mama’, so many times. My throat and eyes were burning with all the salty water and the tears. Suddenly, I could see Mama waving at me, her bright blue eyes shining. At that moment I knew that everything would be ok.
All of a sudden, we heard a noise and looked up. It was a helicopter circling above us. We all screamed for help. Someone in the helicopter told us to wait and that help was twenty minutes away. I looked up at the helicopter. I saw a red and white flag. Baba told us we were being rescued by the Maltese navy coast guard. They slowly lowered life jackets into the water. Soon dinghies started to arrive. First they picked up the women and children and took them to a larger naval boat and then the men.
I turned round for one last look at the boat we had travelled on from Zwara. It had capsized completely. I knew that there were still be people trapped inside. They were afraid of jumping in the water. I also saw many floating bodies in the water. I knew that some of those bodies were people we knew and children I had played with in Zwara. I had never felt so sad in my life. This picture will stay with me forever. I know it will.
Arriving on land and feeling safe is a feeling I will never forget. Mama said it felt like we were given a new life. We were the lucky ones. We were cold, thirsty and hungry. We hadn’t eaten for almost three days, but we were so happy to be alive.
Being rescued by the Maltese Navy – 11th October 2013
There were many people waiting for us at the harbour in Valletta. We saw soldiers, doctors, nurses, journalists and photographers taking our pictures. I didn’t realise our horrible experience would make me famous! During the next few days our photograph was in many newspapers in Malta and all over the world.
Soldiers took us to a big hospital for check-ups and we were given something to eat. Then we were taken to a refugee camp which became our home for the next two months. The Hal Far Open Centre wasn’t anything like Al Yarmouk camp but we were happy to be out of the sea and safe.
Every day people came to visit us bringing clothes, food, toys and even mobile phones. People used the phones to call their families in Syria. Some of the parents were crying because their children were missing or had drowned. Baba and Mama tried to help the other families. One of the men used to cry so much. I wasn’t used to seeing men cry. Mama told me that his pregnant wife had drowned and one of his twin daughters had also drowned. The other daughter was with us at the camp. They told her that her mother was in hospital. There was another man and his wife whose three children had drowned. Baba and the other men went to the mosque for the funeral of two of their children. But the body of the third one who was only one year old, was still in the sea. These were some of the children that became my friends while we were in Zwara.
People in Malta speak Maltese which is like Arabic, so we could talk to the people who visited us at the camp. Every day many photographers and journalists came to interview us. Some also brought photographs of children to show the parents who were still looking for their missing children. Some of the children had been taken to a hospital in Lampedusa, but many of them had drowned.
One of the first people who visited us in Hal Far was Joanna Muscat. Joanna organized many activities and outings for the children and even parties. While we were with Joanna and her friends, we had so much fun. They helped us to forget what had happened to us on the boat.
On the second day, a lady visited us. She spoke Arabic and English. Her name was Samira Jamil. She was Libyan and told us that she had lived in Malta since she was ten. I was ten too. I used to call her ‘Samira il-amira and she soon became a special friend to our family. We used to look forward to her visit. Samira tried to find us a house but it was not easy. People were afraid of refugees.
St Michael School
One day Samira came to the camp and told us that the headmistress of the school where her children went, was giving me a full scholarship to her school. My parents and I were so happy! But I had so many questions going round in my head;
how will I talk to the children?; will the teachers be nice?; will I make friends quickly?
I was so excited to start school again and for my life to become like any ten year old’s.
Mama, Samira and I went to visit St Michael Junior School and we met Miss Annemarie, the headmistress. We sat in her big office and she asked me some questions. I forgot a lot of the English I had learnt at school but Samira translated for us and filled in some papers.
From the minute I stepped into St Michael’s, I felt so welcomed; it was as if I had been a student there all my life. Miss Annemarie took me up to my classroom where I met my new teacher, Miss Sue. Miss Sue was smiling but I noticed that she was also crying. I knew that she had heard about our story.
My new school was beautiful, the classrooms were so bright and cheerful and there was a big playground where I could see some children playing football. I really wanted to play too. As I stood in the playground, I could see the Mediterranean Sea close by. I was happy and sad. That was the sea where some of my friends had drowned, but it was also the sea that brought me to Malta, to a place which was to become our home for the next twelve months.
I had to wear a smart uniform for school, including a dark red blazer and a striped tie. At first I didn’t know how to tie it but then I got used to it and it became easy. I felt so smart in my uniform. Every morning a red van used to pick me up and take me to school. All the children on the van and in my class became my friends.
At the end of my first week at school, Miss Sue and all the children gave me a present. We all sat round in a circle and everyone was so excited! When I unwrapped the present, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was an iPad, just like the one that I had lost at sea! That was one of the happiest days of my life.
Baba couldn’t find a job. Many people who had heard our story helped. Miss Sue had bake sales at school to help us pay our rent. Miss Sue was the one who found us our home where we lived for 8 months. My parents loved her and whenever she came to visit us in our home, Mama used to make her Arabic coffee and Syrian sweets. Miss Sue was more than a teacher. She was always ready to help us. She also worked very hard to get Baba a job. To us she was an angel.
One day when Samira came to visit us at home, I told her that I really wanted to learn to swim. I was so afraid of the sea. I used to wake up in the middle of the night screaming, imagining that I was drowning. I was so happy when a swimming club called Inspire gave me free swimming lessons. Every Saturday morning, Mama and I took the bus to the pool. It was an indoor pool so we could even swim when it was cold and raining. At first I was so afraid of jumping in the water but after the third lesson my fears stopped and I became a good swimmer. That summer was my best summer ever and the sea became a friend. Almost every day I used to go to a place called Sliema Pitch. Many of my friends from St Michael’s went there and we had so much fun together. By now I could speak English really well and some Maltese too.
One day when I came home from school, Mama told me that my brother Yamen left Libya by boat and arrived in Lampedusa. We were so happy that he was safe! Yamen was taken to a camp in Germany. It was a year since we last saw him. I missed my brother so much.
After exactly a year in Malta, my parents decided to join Yamen in Germany. Baba couldn’t find a job in Malta and my brothers wanted to go back to university. My parents wanted us to be together again as a family. I did too, but I didn’t want to leave all my friends and school behind.
As I said goodbye to all my friends, the teachers and Miss Annemarie, I felt really sad. I loved this school and I didn’t want to leave. We took lots of photos together. My favourite one is of my friends and I in the playground with the sea behind us.
At the airport there was a group of people who had come to say goodbye to us; my best friend Megan and her mum, Miss Sue, Samira, and Joanna. These were the people who had helped us so much while we were in Malta and it was difficult to say goodbye to them. We were all crying. Once again we were leaving to an unknown country to start all over again. It was October.
Leaving Malta to a new life in Germany
We arrived in Berlin. It was a big city full of people and lots of cars. There were tall buildings everywhere. I missed my friends and school in Malta so much, but I was happy to be with Yamen again. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed him. Mama cried when she saw him, but I knew that it was because she was so happy to see him again. We had so much to talk about. A lot had happened while we were in Malta. I told Yamen about my school, my friends, how much I loved swimming now and how good my English had become.
Yamen had to work hard while he was in Libya to have enough money to buy his ticket to get on the boat. Their boat was a safe one. While he was in Tripoli, Yamen met a girl. Her name was Reem. She and her sisters were on the same boat from Libya and they became friends. My parents were friends of Reem’s family from Al Yarmouk. Yamen told us when he finishes university he wants to marry Reem. Mama said that when we get our papers in Germany, we’ll go to visit Reem and her family in Sweden where they are living.
We stayed with Baba’s cousin for a few days then we went to a camp for refugees. I didn’t feel like staying at another camp, but Baba explained that we needed to go there to apply for our papers in Germany and to wait for a house. The camp wasn’t a nice place to be in but Baba said we have to be patient. We lived there for a month.
One day the manager at the camp came to tell us that she had found us a house for us in a town called Müllheim. We were so happy to move out of the camp. We loved our new house especially after we cleaned it and put our things in it.
One of the people who used to visit us at the camp was Eleonor. Every time she came, she brought things for us. After a few visits, she asked if she could be my German grandma and I said yes! Eleanor takes me to the cinema and to visit other towns, she helps me with my homework and tells me lots of stories.
Our home in Müllheim, Germany
As soon as we moved into our home, I started going to school. My school is called Blanckenhorn Schule and it’s near our house so I walk to school. I have a really nice teacher, her name is Miss Modrack and she helps me a lot. At first, I found German really difficult. I was in a special class for children who don’t know German. My friends are from all over the world, we play and laugh and never fight. I find it strange that in Syria, all the people are the same but they fight. Mama explained it to me but I still don’t understand why.
Two months after we arrived in Germany, Miss Sue surprised us with a visit to Müllheim. I heard the doorbell ring and when I opened the door she was there! I couldn’t believe my eyes. She came to celebrate my birthday with us. It was the best birthday present ever! We had so much fun together, we went to a theme park and played in the snow and we even built a snowman in our garden. That was the first snowman I had ever built in my life. We wrapped a keffiyeh (a traditional Palestinian scarf) around his neck. Many of our relatives in Al Yarmouk used to wear the keffiyeh. Sue gave me many presents for my birthday, one of them was a camera. It was a present from Darrin Zammit-Lupi, the photographer who took that famous photograph of our family. Maybe one day I will be a famous photographer like him!
In April this year I had another surprise. Megan, my best friend from Malta and her mother also came to visit us for a few days. I was so happy to show them around and we had so much fun. I hope more friends from Malta will come to see us. Germany is even nicer when friends visit!
We have been in Germany for one year now. I remember when I arrived I couldn’t speak any German but now I speak it well. I’ve just started studying French at school. It’s a difficult language but I’m sure it will become easy like English and German. Mulham and Yamen are both studying German and Baba and Mama also go to school to learn German. They even have to do homework. Sometimes I help them with it. I also help the new refugees who arrive in Germany and can’t speak German.
It has been three years since we left Syria. Today, Al Yarmouk is a place I don’t recognize. It has become a ghost town. All the houses, schools, shops, supermarket and hospital have been destroyed. Most of the people who were living there have left the camp. Baba told me that many people were killed in the fighting and many died of starvation.
We have nothing to go back to, just beautiful memories of a happier life at the camp. Maybe one day we will all go back, but I think it will be a long time before we do.
Since arriving in Germany we’ve been really happy, we’ve met many kind people who have helped us a lot. Mama keeps telling me; “it seems that wherever we go, we find kindness.” She’s right.
I hope we’ll spend many Octobers in Germany. I want this to be my home for a long time.
I hope you enjoyed my story.
Watch an interview with Hamada on Times of Malta here.
* Samira Jamil was born in Tripoli, Libya, to an English mother and a Libyan father, where she spent the best part of her childhood.
Fluent in English and Arabic, Samira also speaks French, Italian and Maltese. Her passion for languages is coupled with a keen interest in challenging stereotypes and building cultural bridges. She enjoys travelling, photography and feature writing and has had several articles published in local magazines.
Samira lived for several years in Cheshire and Manhattan, but for the past 20 years has made Malta her home with her husband and two children. With degrees in Business Studies & Finance and Arabic, Samira is currently working in management at a private aviation company and volunteers helping refugees in Malta in her spare time.