A Syrian boy who risked his life to cross the sea

Mahmoud was so desperate to make friends and attend school that he risked his life at sea. Captured and sent back to Egypt, the young refugee from Syria is now making a fresh start in Sweden.

Syrian refugee, Mahmoud, aged nine, looks out of the window of his family's rented apartment in 6th of October City, part of greater Cairo, Egypt.  © UNHCR/S.Baldwin

GENEVA, 17 April (UNHCR) Mahmoud is just a boy. He loves playing with friends, going to school and reading to his little sister. His mother and father, like any parents, simply want the best for him. But Mahmoud's story is far from ordinary.

His epic journey began on an autumn day in 2012, when the nine-year-old and his family fled their hometown of Aleppo, Syria. Seeking shelter from a war that has killed thousands, they settled in Egypt, renting a small, sparsely furnished apartment in a sand-swept suburb of Cairo. But daily life was far from easy and, with a change in government in June 2013, it was about to get much harder.

Public opinion soon turned against the 300,000 Syrians seeking refuge in Egypt. Local boys began bullying Mahmoud, at one point even physically attacking him. Afraid for his life and unable to attend to school, he refused to leave the apartment, and instead chose to help his father, Mohamed, who was struggling to make ends meet by selling bread to neighbours.

"I wanted to leave because there is no school here and I don't have friends," Mahmoud told UNHCR in 2013, his words punctuated with tears. "Here, they hit me all the time."

Mohamed, too, saw no future for his son in Egypt. Eventually, he took the decision no father should ever have to consider: he put his son on an illegal boat bound for Italy - alone. "No one sends their son out into the world alone unless they live in real fear," Mohamed explained. "Our lives are too difficult here."

But escape proved difficult, too. The vessel Mahmoud boarded was fired upon at sea before it left Egyptian waters. The boy spent five traumatic days in a detention centre before he was able to see his family again.

Back in Cairo, the bullying resumed. When UNHCR interviewed Mahmoud, he could barely hold back the tears. And with no future, no education and no friends to play with in Egypt, he told them he was not afraid to take the boat again. "I have a dream that one day we will have a new house in a better place," he said, resolutely. "I will go to school and make new friends."

All the boy wanted was the chance to live in peace. What happened next would turn his luck around.

UNHCR presented Mahmoud's case to the Swedish government, which had started accepting Syrian refugees as part of a resettlement programme. In December 2013, three months after Mahmoud boarded the boat, his family was accepted.

They were to live in the municipality of Torsby, a small town in central Sweden with a history of helping vulnerable refugees. Before they left, young Mahmoud was both excited and apprehensive. He wanted to know when he would start school? What their house would be like? Whether he'd have friends, and if his father would find work? At last, he was eager to restart his life.

In January, the family flew to Sweden, touching down at a local airport and continuing on into Torsby by car. "When I first heard I was going to travel, I was so happy," said Mahmoud, wrapped in a scarf, as the car sped through the freezing, Swedish landscape. "I have travelled twice before in my life, but the last two times we travelled we were escaping. And this time I am going to live a new life."

Over the next few days, the family received their Swedish identity cards, met local social services and dealt with basic needs, like finding suitable clothing for the freezing temperatures. Mahmoud, his eyes sparkling, took the transition in his stride. Finally, he was able to run outside and play without fear - even partaking in his first snowball fight. Not only that, but for the first time in two years he had the opportunity to learn.

"I was so happy when I saw the school," he said, smiling, after his first day in class. "And I was happy I made some new friends." Although he was shy to start, his eagerness to learn shone through and today he is able to introduce himself in simple Swedish.

Although he will never forget his past - in Syria, in Egypt and during his terrifying?time at sea -Mahmoud exudes a new sense of confidence when he talks. "Now I?just want to live a new life, far from violence, killing and war," he told UNHCR as springtime approached in Torsby. "If a boy asks me about my life before, I will tell him that it was difficult, but it is better now."

By Kate Bond

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Sweden: Mahmoud's Escape

  • Syrian refugee, Mahmoud, aged nine, looks out of the window of his family's rented apartment in 6th of October City, part of greater Cairo, Egypt.
    Syrian refugee, Mahmoud, aged nine, looks out of the window of his family's rented apartment in 6th of October City, part of greater Cairo, Egypt.  © UNHCR/S. Baldwin
  • Mahmoud watches as a group of Egyptian children make their way past his home in the Beit Al Aila neighbourhood of 6th of October City, a satellite suburb of Cairo, Egypt. He became the target of bullies when public sentiment turned against Syrians.
    Mahmoud watches as a group of Egyptian children make their way past his home in the Beit Al Aila neighbourhood of 6th of October City, a satellite suburb of Cairo, Egypt. He became the target of bullies when public sentiment turned against Syrians.  © UNHCR/S. Baldwin
  • Mahmoud reads to his two-and-a-half-year old sister, Bisam, in their home in the Beit Al Aila neighbourhood in the 6th of October City.
    Mahmoud reads to his two-and-a-half-year old sister, Bisam, in their home in the Beit Al Aila neighbourhood in the 6th of October City.  © UNHCR/S. Baldwin
  • Mahmoud runs to visit a neighbor in the drab housing estate where his family's apartment was located.
    Mahmoud runs to visit a neighbor in the drab housing estate where his family's apartment was located.  © UNHCR/S. Baldwin
  • Mahmoud plays with his sister in their apartment in the Beit Al Aila neighbourhood. His father says that his son used to play with local children, but they turned against him.
    Mahmoud plays with his sister in their apartment in the Beit Al Aila neighbourhood. His father says that his son used to play with local children, but they turned against him.  © UNHCR/S. Baldwin
  • Mohamed, Mahmoud's father, in their home in a satellite city of Cairo. He used to travel the region selling leather goods, but in Egypt he sold bread to his neighbours to try and make ends meet.
    Mohamed, Mahmoud's father, in their home in a satellite city of Cairo. He used to travel the region selling leather goods, but in Egypt he sold bread to his neighbours to try and make ends meet.  © UNHCR/S. Baldwin
  • After hearing about Mahmoud's traumatic experience, the Swedish government accepted the boy and his family for resettlement. Here they are seen disembarking on a snowy January night from a passenger plane at their final destination, the small town of Torsby in south-west Sweden.
    After hearing about Mahmoud's traumatic experience, the Swedish government accepted the boy and his family for resettlement. Here they are seen disembarking on a snowy January night from a passenger plane at their final destination, the small town of Torsby in south-west Sweden. © UNHCR/J. Bävman
  • Mahmoud (right) and his siblings unpack their toys in the family's new apartment in Torsby. They face many new challenges as well as many opportunities. Torsby, a town of 12,000 people, has a history of helping vulnerable refugees, taking in 25 each year.
    Mahmoud (right) and his siblings unpack their toys in the family's new apartment in Torsby. They face many new challenges as well as many opportunities. Torsby, a town of 12,000 people, has a history of helping vulnerable refugees, taking in 25 each year.  © UNHCR/J. Bävman
  • Within days of arrival in Torsby, a routine takes hold with the morning family breakfast. The hostility of Cairo has gone and they are beginning to learn more about their new home and the people who live there.
    Within days of arrival in Torsby, a routine takes hold with the morning family breakfast. The hostility of Cairo has gone and they are beginning to learn more about their new home and the people who live there.  © UNHCR/J. Bävman
  • To prepare for life in Torsby, Mahmoud tries on winter clothes at the local thrift shop. It's all a far cry from the dust and noise of Egypt. His five days in detention becomes a distant memory for Mahmoud.
    To prepare for life in Torsby, Mahmoud tries on winter clothes at the local thrift shop. It's all a far cry from the dust and noise of Egypt. His five days in detention becomes a distant memory for Mahmoud.  © UNHCR/J. Bävman
  • After applying for Swedish citizenship in Karlstad, 100 kilometres from Torsby, the family navigates a food court for their first meal out in their new country, courtesy of their refugee coordinator Ronny Larsson. Settling in, including learning the language, will probably be easier for the children. On this day, an interpreter helps them order.
    After applying for Swedish citizenship in Karlstad, 100 kilometres from Torsby, the family navigates a food court for their first meal out in their new country, courtesy of their refugee coordinator Ronny Larsson. Settling in, including learning the language, will probably be easier for the children. On this day, an interpreter helps them order.  © UNHCR/J. Bävman
  • Mahmoud sits outside his new school, where he will start classes in a week. It's only a short walk from the family's new home and he's padded up against the cold.
    Mahmoud sits outside his new school, where he will start classes in a week. It's only a short walk from the family's new home and he's padded up against the cold.  © UNHCR/J. Bävman
  • It does snow in Syria, but Mahmoud and his younger brother and sister may not have tried riding on a toboggan before. Many snow sports, including cross-country skiing, originated in Norway and the children will get a chance to learn more.
    It does snow in Syria, but Mahmoud and his younger brother and sister may not have tried riding on a toboggan before. Many snow sports, including cross-country skiing, originated in Norway and the children will get a chance to learn more. © UNHCR/J. Bävman
  • Mahmoud and his brother, Mohamed, enjoy a snowball fight. They are clearly happy in this new and peaceful environment. It is a long way from the tragedy that continues to unfold in their country.
    Mahmoud and his brother, Mohamed, enjoy a snowball fight. They are clearly happy in this new and peaceful environment. It is a long way from the tragedy that continues to unfold in their country. © UNHCR/J. Bävman