November 10, 2013
Refa’t Hazima is a 40-year-old Syrian man who lost two of his three children when their ship sank off the coast of Malta last month.
Hazima is from the village of Khan al-Sheikh in the Damascus suburbs. He previously worked in construction in Syria before fleeing to Egypt and then to Libya, where he worked selling bread before eventually leaving for Malta. Hazima spoke with Syria Direct’s Abdulrahman al-Masri from a refugee camp in the Halfar region of Malta.
Q: Tell me about your trip from Libya to Malta—why did you decide to leave?
A: Conditions in Libya are very bad right now. The whole country is militias and gunmen, even in cars you can find guns. Not to mention the insults that we [Syrians] are subjected to; my children go to school and get beaten up. I was forced to go to all of the European embassies to apply for asylum, and all of them rejected me, as did the United Nations. So I kept trying for seven months, but every door was closed.
So we resorted to traveling illegally, by sea, which is practically a suicide mission. The first time we travelled by sea there were 65 families with us. Militias were guarding the Libyan coast and fired at us before sending us back to Libya. We lost 3,000 dinar. The second time, we heard about someone named Khalid al-Mazwara, and we traveled by sea with some 300 people.
Q: How long ago did you leave Syria, and where did you go?
A: I left Syria on October 25, 2012—I went to Egypt, and then to Libya.
Q: How many children do you have?
A: I have three children, two of whom were lost at sea. Ahmed, 12, and Mohammed, 9. Anas is still with me, and he’s 15.
Ahmad, 12, and Mohammed, 9, Rifaat Hazemah’s lost children.
Q: How much were you charged by the people who transported you out of Libya?
A: They took $1200 per person. We were three adults—me, my wife, and Anas—so $3600, and then $1,000 total for my two younger children, so $4600.
Q: What happened after you left Libya, as you were approaching the coast of Malta?
A: An hour after we left Zuwarah, Libya, militias started to chase us. They fired on us for 6 hours, trying to destroy the boat. We tried to plead with them, to tell them there were children on board—two had been injured—and there was a pregnant woman who gave birth on board. But they kept chasing us, until we got to international waters and they stopped.
Later on we ran into a wave. The boat was broken from the militias firing on us, and it started to tip. We tried to balance it, and we tried to call for help from the Red Cross; they told us they were an hour away, and after 40 minutes we were still waiting. That was when the boat sank. We were left floating in the water. I tried to save my wife and Anas, but I couldn’t save Ahmed and Mohammed. They were lost in the water.
Another hour passed before an Italian plane came and threw down flotation devices. Eventually, a Maltese boat came and started shuttling people back to Malta. Another boat came from Italy and began picking up only children—we tried to board, but they threw everyone but the children back in the water, and we waited another half hour before the Maltese boat returned and picked us up.
Q: What happened after you arrived in Malta? How were you received?
A: The Maltese welcomed us well. The put us in a camp where we could come and go as we wished, and the Red Cross brought us shoes and clothes, and even the Maltese citizens brought us some clean clothing, and the Syrian community here helped us out with food. The camp itself only gives us one meal a day.
Q: Do you have any information about your children?
A: No, I don’t know anything. The Maltese authorities said that they had written to Italy to try and find my children, but the Italians didn’t respond. I want to flee from here, I want to search for my children; I have no more patience, I feel like I’m dying, day-by-day. I’ve heard that there are lost children in Italian churches and clinics.