A Boy Called Mohi

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 1 May 2017

"I am a five-year-old boy from Damascus, Syria. My name is Mohi. When I was three my family ran away to Egypt because of a civil war. That's a war between different groups of people in the same country." A boy called Mohi, Make Foundation publication, 2016.

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Mohi Aldin Alakkad had a stroke as a baby. He walks with difficulty and needs regular physiotherapy. The day his mother took him to his treatment session at the hospital in Damascus, fighting broke out between government forces and rebels on the street in front of them. It was the start of the Syrian Civil War.

A man was shot and killed in front of the three-year-old Mohi. Traumatised, he asked his mother if the man was really dead. "No," she replied, "No, he's not really dead. It's just a game, it's all pretend." Jihan Alarayshi, Mohi's mother, laughs as she recalls and then begins to weep.

"He had a lot of questions. Why were people fighting? Why were people killing each other? I had no answers."

Jihan wipes away tears as she describes the hell that is Syria now. I think of the scene out of Life Is Beautiful where the Jewish father tells his young son that their brutal life in the concentration camp where they are imprisoned is just a game; all pretend. It’s what a parent will do to protect their children.

"I had to leave my grandma. I felt very sad. I was scared she might die and I knew I would miss her. I was also scared that I might get hurt on our journey." A boy called Mohi.

Mohi is one of the lucky former refugee children to make it out of Syria with his mother Jihan and father Kutaiba Alakkad. We are sitting in their new home in Wellington, a small apartment in Berhampore. Mohi and his younger sister Nebal play while baby brother Adam gurgles happily from his baby seat. Adam is six-months-old and was born here in New Zealand, a world away from Syria.

"Lots of people were leaving Syria for other countries. Some slept in tents on cold nights with no electricity." A boy called Mohi.

Mohi left Syria with his mother and baby sister in 2012 to join his father Kutaiba in Egypt. Kutaiba had left six months earlier after being arrested and detained on two occasions by government security forces.

Jihan tells me that the government forces would take men from their neighbourhood for no reason. Some would not come home, and some would come home dead.

Mohi Aldin Alakkad with his family at home in Wellington

Mohi Aldin Alakkad with his family at home in Wellington Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Kutaiba's first arrest was because a protestor had graffitied anti-government slogans near his kebab shop. He was dragged away in a van and thrown into a dark, damp cell with no light. He was terrified. His cousin had been arrested, tortured and murdered by the same police force. Kutaiba was held for three days before being released. A few weeks later he was arrested again.

This time on his release Kutaiba went straight home and booked a flight to Egypt. It meant leaving Jihan behind with their two toddlers but it had to be done. He spent six months finding accommodation for their family and as soon as he could he booked passage for Jihan and Mohi and Nebal, who was one-month-old at the time. A week later the Syrian government shut down the airport, effectively trapping their civilian population.

"Thank God we're back together again. We were just crying. Crying and crying."

The family lived in Cairo for almost two years before being granted refugee status in New Zealand.

Michel Alkhouri is Syrian and his own family also recently escaped their war-torn homeland. Along with co-founder Michelle Carlile-Alkhouri, he created the Make Foundation as a charity to support Syrian communities displaced by civil war. Proceeds of the charity go towards creative projects for refugee children whose families are struggling.

One of those projects is five children's books, each a refugee story, retold and illustrated by the students of Island Bay School. The children collaborated with the Make Foundation to retell the stories in a way that would speak to children everywhere, and they illustrated each book.

Today Michelle is reading from A Boy Called Mohi. The effect on the listening children is profound.

Clara Stupples reads from "A boy called Mohi" (Make Foundation publication)

Clara Stupples reads from "A boy called Mohi" (Make Foundation publication) Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

"You become a refugee [because] a civil war is happening and you have to leave your country or you could die” says one.

"Most importantly," Michelle tells them, "You have no choice."

Mohi tells me he is saving a dollar every day to buy a ticket, an airfare back to Syria. He is hoping that one day he can be with his Tita-Nebal (grandmother) again.

Listen to the five refugee stories read by students of Island Bay School on RNZ Children's Treasure Chest and RNZ Storytime will broadcast these readings during International Refugee Week on 19 to 25 June this year.