‘We looked like animals’: The Egyptian scholar and Mediterranean survivor

An Al Jazeera series: Remon was abducted. A risky sea ride followed. Today, he has a new family, life and job in Sicily.

[Omar Houssien/Al Jazeera]
[Omar Houssien/Al Jazeera]

Remon Karam tells his story while sitting in the shade of one of the buildings at Kore University in Sicily.

The 24-year-old has come a long way since he fled Egypt for a new life with a new family in Italy.

“I was 14 when I decided to leave Egypt. It was a decision I made on my own. My parents knew nothing about it,” he says.

“Only my brother was aware and he gave me a small passport photo of him that I still carry with me, telling me that whenever I feel the need to talk to someone, look at that photo and I will feel close to him.”

Ten years after he left Alexandria, that photograph still bears the marks of the salt from the Mediterranean it picked up on his crossing.

Remon says there are many reasons he left his home and family behind.

Images of European luxury he saw on Egyptian TV had already created a picture of the life he believed was waiting for him overseas. However, it was the growing political and social tensions in the years following the Arab Spring, as well as a violent incident close to home, that provided the spur.

“I decided to leave everything after an attack on the Coptic community I belong to killed my cousin on New Year’s Eve. It was time to change my life and seek personal security,” he says.

After leaving his home city of Cairo in the dark of night in July 2013, Remon travelled by bus to the port city of Alexandria. Once there, he fell into the hands of smugglers who abducted him and a Muslim travelling companion and held them for five days.

“They blindfolded me, took me in a car to a small house with other travellers like me,” he recalls. “They threatened my family that they would throw me into the sea if [my parents] did not pay a sum of around four thousand euros [$4,370] at the time.”

Once the amount was raised, Remon was bundled with countless others onto a small fishing boat waiting for them.

“I did not imagine such a journey,” he says. “I remember an Egyptian film where the main character would leave Egypt to arrive in Europe and sail in a comfortable boat, with its own sleeping cabin. I was thrown into the hold with 10 other children from Egypt and Syria.

“I was frightened, and I recited the Lord’s Prayer,” he says. “Then I fell asleep because I was so tired and only woke up the next morning.”

In the early light, he was able to make out the 150 or so men, women and children with whom he was sharing the boat’s hold.

For the next 160 hours, they survived off rice prepared by the smugglers with seawater and served in aluminium bowls.

“We looked like a bunch of animals. The water we drank was mixed with petrol. With those few drops of water, we survived for days,” he said.

Not far off the coast of Sicily, they were eventually intercepted and taken to the immigration centre at Portopalo, Syracuse.

“In Portopalo, no one called me by my name. I was given an identification number: 90,” he recalls.

After around two months of being held at the detention centre, he was taken in by a local couple who had been trying to adopt a child for some time.

“They helped me to grow. They wanted to love me and feel like parents. I studied and achieved a lot and it is because of them,” he says of his new parents.

Today, after graduating with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, Remon enjoys the privileges of any Sicilian graduate – he earned a bachelor’s degree in modern languages and culture and a master’s degree in languages for international cooperation – acting as a university guarantor, that is an internal and external spokesperson for the student body. His human rights activism, which sees him travel around Italy telling his story, has brought him into contact with Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella.

“As you know, being a guarantor is the highest institutional position for a student. For me, it’s an honour and a sort of redemption,” he tells Al Jazeera.

“My Egyptian parents are happy for me,” he says. “They are almost incredulous and struggle to understand my real achievements.

“They don’t know what it means to be a human rights activist. Maybe they have little idea of what human rights are – they don’t know what it means to be a guarantor of the university or who Mattarella is.

“On one hand, I feel sorry about that, but I know they are happy with my life.”

Remon applied for his Italian citizenship one year ago but has yet to receive a reply.

This article is the second of a five-part series of portraits of refugees from different countries, with diverse backgrounds, bound by shared fears and hopes as they enter 2024. Read the first part here.  

Source: Al Jazeera