A Syrian boy who risked his life to cross the sea.

News Stories, 17 April 2014

© UNHCR/S.Baldwin
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.

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 UNCHR 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

See Also:Tracks



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Mahmoud was one of more than 300,000 Syrian refugees who have sought safety in Egypt since the conflict in his homeland began three years ago. The nine-year-old was so desperate to attend school that he risked his life to get to Europe. He was stopped and sent back to Egypt but is now making a fresh start in Sweden.

Mahmoud's Journey: A Young Syrian Survives Being Shot At, Detained and Bullied to Find a New Life in Sweden

A photo essay by Shawn Baldwin and Johan Bävman

A photograph of Syrian refugee, Mahmoud, shows the nine-year-old looking wistfully out of the window of an apartment block in the Egyptian capital, Cairo. Perhaps he is thinking of happier days at school in his home town of Aleppo or maybe he is wondering what life will be like when he and his family are resettled in Sweden. When the image was taken late last year, Mahmoud had not been able to attend school for two years. His family had fled Syria in October 2012. Like 300,000 other Syrians, they sought shelter in Egypt, where life was tough - and became tougher in 2013, when public opinion began to turn against the Syrians as Egypt struggled with its own problems. Mahmoud became the target of bullies, even at one point being physically attacked. Afterwards, he refused to leave the rented family apartment in 6th of October City, a drab, sand-swept satellite suburb of Cairo.

Mahmoud's father tried to send him to Italy on a smuggler's boat, but the vessel was fired on and the traumatized boy ended up spending five days in a local detention centre. Once back home, he fell target to the bullying once more. But his case came to the attention of UNHCR and the refugee agency recommended Mahmoud and his family for resettlement. In January 2014, Mahmoud and his family flew to Sweden to begin a new life in the small town of Torsby, where he runs and plays outside without fear - he even had his first snowball fight. And now he is back at school.

Mahmoud's Journey: A Young Syrian Survives Being Shot At, Detained and Bullied to Find a New Life in Sweden

UNHCR country pages

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

UNHCR aims to help 25,000 refugee children go to school in Syria by providing financial assistance to families and donating school uniforms and supplies.

There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

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The UN refugee agency is increasingly alarmed over the continuing violence in Iraq and distressed about the lack of an international humanitarian response to deal with the massive numbers of people being displaced. After an assessment mission in November last year, UNHCR officials warned that the agency was facing an even larger humanitarian crisis than it had prepared for in 2002-03. But UNHCR and other organisations are sorely lacking in funds to cope with the growing numbers of displaced.

In an effort to fill the massive gap in funding, UNHCR in January 2007 launched a US$60 million appeal to cover its protection and assistance programmes for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey, as well as non Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people within strife torn Iraq.

The longer the Iraq conflict goes on, the more difficult it will become for the hundreds of thousands of displaced and the communities that are trying to help them – both inside and outside Iraq. Because the burden on host communities and governments in the region is enormous, it is essential that the international community support humanitarian efforts.

Posted on 5 February 2007

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